Great stories formed the backbone of AHRI’s Inclusion and Diversity Conference in Sydney on May 18. Personal accounts of achievement and overcoming disadvantage, often humorous and frequently moving, showed how widening the gene pool in the workplace doesn’t just tick the feel-good box, it brings prosperity. As one speaker put it: If your business isn’t reflective of the world around you, do you really know what you’re missing out on?
An audience of more than 200 (around half of whom were attending their first AHRI Inclusion and Diversity conference), warmed to the humour and wisdom of opening keynote speaker Graeme Innes, Chair of the Attitude Foundation and formerly Australia’s disability discrimination commissioner. Innes, who is blind, related how he became the most highly qualified clerical worker in the public service after applying for 30 jobs without success following his qualification as a lawyer. He was eventually given an opportunity by a man called ‘Dave’. “It was Dave’s attitude that changed my life.”
Without a Dave to open the door, prospects for people with disadvantage, be it disability, Indigenous people and other racial minorities, working mothers, openly gay or lesbian employees and many others, is not straightforward. The statistics behind the stories at the AHRI conference are stark. “Most people have a reasonable expectation that they will get a job, but for 20 per cent of the population, that is people with disability, that expectation is rarely met,” said Innes, who talked of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” which means 45 per cent of people with disability live in poverty.
Aboriginal people are even more disadvantaged with a mere 0.3 per cent working in middle management compared to 14 per cent in New Zealand.
Jeremey Donovan is an Aboriginal man and CEO of GenerationOne, an organisation that aims to close the Indigenous employment gap. He described the work of Vocational Training and Employment Centres (VTECs) in supporting Indigenous people into meaningful and sustainable jobs. Like other speakers, Donovan offered advice to HR professionals on attracting Indigenous workers and keeping them engaged. Nicole Jenkins, manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce engagement at the Australian Red Cross, echoed Donovan’s point that employing more than one Indigenous person relieves the pressure of being the “cultural representative” in an organisation.
Several speakers talked about the importance of targets. “What you don’t count, doesn’t count,” said Innes, who cited the examples of Wespac, ANZ and Telstra as evidence of where there’s a will, there’s a way in meeting targets. Urging HR professionals to get on top of the data around inclusion and diversity in their workplace, Innes advised them to unpack what is going on and measure it against benchmarks. “It’s not just about bringing people in but exploring the quality of the experience once they are there,” he said.
One of the themes that speakers kept returning to was the importance of leadership in modelling inclusion and diversity strategy. “You can’t be what you can’t see” was a common refrain. Lance Hockridge, CEO of Aurizon, was forthright about how intervention and leadership visibility were fundamental to disrupting the status quo of a large blue-collar, blokey culture at Australia’s largest rail company.
Kate McCormack, executive director of people, learning and culture at Mercy Health put it more bluntly. “If your CEO isn’t on board, forget it, move to another company.”
Laura Douglas with Justitia Lawyers agreed, drawing on her own experience as a young, high-flying lawyer who, for personal reasons, suddenly had to reduce her workload and found cultural intransigence towards part-time working. Workplace flexibility, she argued, is an enabler towards gender equity in the workplace.
“If you haven’t got leaders who can think adaptably, if they don’t have that connection with their staff, then they have no idea why flexibility would benefit them or their organisation,” she said.
Keynote speaker Dr Tim Soutphommasane, race discrimination commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, rounded out the day by reflecting on cultural diversity in Australia.
Efforts need to go beyond festivals and events which he feels are designed to mollify feelings rather than solve real problems. He challenged HR professionals and employers to focus on three key questions: How can I empathise with diverse employees? How can I challenge discrimination at the leadership level? And how can I create an environment where we can be honest about personal privilege?
Soutphommasane ended his speech with a call for HR professionals to be aware of the “invisible discriminator” – the unconscious biases that stem from fear, ignorance or arrogance. The first step toward progress is acknowledging the problem and not being afraid to upset the status quo, he said. It’s when an organisation creates a culture of inclusion focused around bringing diverse employees into the fold that retention rates rise, staff turnover decreases and lasting change persists.
A panel of experts are speaking on the topic ‘Inclusion and diversity: what is next?’ at the AHRI National Convention in August. Registration closes 13 August. Find out more.