The Fair Work Ombudsman’s HR guru and winner of AHRI’s 2011 HR Leader of the Year award, Su Kearns, tells Peter Wilson what makes her career tick.
Peter Wilson: Gender equity is central to ensuring a fair workplace. Have you had challenges in this area in advancing your own career?
Su Kearns: I haven’t felt in any way constrained or restricted because of my gender. I have some funny stories of decisions that were made based on my gender though.
One was when I was working for an organisation that had rules on which levels flew business or economy. I was on the level that flew economy but my boss was on the level that flew business and he could upgrade the people who worked for him if they were travelling with him. He regularly upgraded my male colleagues but he never upgraded me. I talked to one of my male colleagues who said he never noticed this until I pointed it out. I really doubt if I mentioned it to my boss he would have said it was because of my gender.
The FWO has done a lot of work over the past 18 months on gender equity in the organisation and a lot of what we’ve found has come down to perception rather than reality. This was highlighted to me by some women reporting to me a lack of opportunity but the numbers didn’t necessarily bear that out. Perception is real though and HR can play an important role in the continuing conversation between men and women at work and what role gender plays.
We’ve set up a diversity council and we have a representative of our women’s forum on that council, which is chaired by the chief executive. It’s absolutely crucial that the organisation is comfortable to have the discussion. When awareness is embedded, behaviours will change.
PW: In your career you will have spent a lot of time on talent management and organisational development. With today’s talent shortage in our two-speed economy, what are the essential issues that HR practitioners need to be on top of in order to win this battle?
SK: I believe one of the things that HR professionals can do is expand the practice of leadership. This is a difficult area; it’s not cut and dried and it works differently in different areas, but it’s well known that if a leader is admired people will follow them. They will also leave if they have a bad leader. So if you are in a tight area of talent, having the right leadership model means you are likely to if not attract people then certainly retain them.
PW: Are there major differences in being an HR practitioner within a public regulator that oversees fair work practices under the FWA laws?
SK: As a practitioner there’s not a lot of difference in that you are working with talented people across the range of specialisations. But as the FWO we have to advise organisations and regulate them. That means we have to exemplify best practice and be a fair workplace.
It’s not a different set of skills or focus, but we have to be really mindful that what we are doing internally matches what we are advising on externally. ‘Fair’ is a really subjective word. What’s fair to me may not necessarily be fair to you.
PW: The business world is seeing a move from ‘command and control’ leadership approaches to those based on ‘authentic or servant leadership’, where engagement of all people at work as ‘peers’ is key. There are still some signs that command and control styles are relatively prevalent in the public sector. Can you assess this shift?
SK: I’ve been in the central public service since mid-2003 and I’ve not worked broadly, but always within the portfolio areas of education and workplace relations.
The overlay of parliament, public servants and public transparency puts a certain set of demands on public sector organisations. Sometimes this can seem like bureaucracy but it’s like this because all decisions need to be available to be explained to the taxpayer at any time through parliament.