Director of ABC people, Samantha Liston, talks about funding cuts, diversity, external stakeholders and that payroll information media leak.
As head of HR at the ABC overseeing around 5000 employees, Samantha Liston is answerable to a daunting set of internal and external stakeholders. And, after just 18 months in the job, she and her executive team are managing the outcomes of the federal government’s cost-cutting efficiency review of the national broadcaster.
A ‘down payment’ budget cut
May’s federal budget announced a 1 per cent base funding cut to the ABC – dubbed a ‘down payment’ towards further cuts to come, plus cancellation of the ABC’s contract to run Australia Network, which broadcasts to 46 Asia-Pacific countries, resulting in 80 jobs lost. Liston says it’s hard to maintain employee motivation during long periods of uncertainty, especially since no-one knows what’s coming as a result of the efficiency review.
“It’s a difficult time for our people, but we’re focusing on our content, our audiences and our role as an independent media organisation. I think it comes back to continuing to remain trusted and respected as a media organisation.”
Liston and her team are preparing for a worst case scenario, with the federal budget confirming that the government would save $43.5 million over four years from cuts to ABC and SBS base funding. But a possible $120 million cut to the ABC over four years, with potentially more to come, has also been foreshadowed.
“There is work that can be done, and is being done, to prepare for that so we are on the front foot and can manage that as effectively as possible,” says Liston.
Being on the front foot also involves liaising with unions. The ABC’s workforce is heavily unionised, and the key to success, she says, is to “communicate directly with your people and your managers so they are hearing straight from you, as well as from the unions”.
“Engaging honestly and constructively with unions is also important. Never keep them out of the process. They can be an important stakeholder in managing change.”
Employer of choice
Despite the funding cuts and job losses, the ABC continues to be a popular place to work. This year, on the basis of votes from 9500 potential jobseekers, and for the second year in a row, the national broadcaster won the Randstad Award as Australia’s most attractive employer.
Liston is not surprised by the result, as “most people don’t work at the ABC for the money, but for the passion”. Having a passionate HR team committed to integrity, respect, collegiality and innovation also creates a culture that people want to work in, she believes.
Reflecting its audience
The ABC’s regard for diversity is recognised in its formal Reconciliation Action Plan, including achieving 2 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment.
A Diversity Reference Group also reports back to management on strategies and targets and Liston notes that the system is working well. “Some areas of the business, like our technology division, have fantastic programs around promoting women into roles in traditionally male-dominated areas.”
So will the diversity initiatives fall victim to the impending funding cuts? At this stage it’s hard to say, but Liston says the Indigenous employment targets will remain a priority.
Front page nightmare
In November last year, confidential details of the salaries of the ABC’s top journalists and administration staff were leaked to The Australian newspaper, which splashed them across its front page. It was, says Liston, “every HR person’s worst nightmare”.
An internal ABC audit found the information had been inadvertently sent to the office of a South Australian member of parliament embedded in a spreadsheet that was supplied as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
It nevertheless raised concerns about privacy and process at the ABC.
“There was obviously a big fallout,” says Liston. “But once we realised how the error came about we went to our staff and were very transparent about how it happened. We also had obligations under the Privacy Act to notify the Privacy Commissioner.”
Liston’s team had the awkward task of conducting conversations with ABC employees who came armed with information about their colleagues’ salaries and were comparing them with their own.
“There were a lot of changes to our processes as a result of that incident, and a lot of consideration about the kind of checks that must be put in place to ensure that sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”
Read the full story in the September 2014 issue of HRMonthly, out on 1 September.