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Why corporates should take leadership on social issues

One of the top international accounting firms hosts a networking event to facilitate a graduate mentoring program that supports aspiring LGBTI business professionals. The world’s strongest global law firm brand facilitates a panel discussion on how to progress marriage equality in Australia. A big four bank runs a major advertising campaign to address the gender salary gap and advocates equal pay for women. A major telco (along with another two major banks) introduces a hijab in company colours as part of their corporate uniform.

Why should the likes of EY, Baker & McKenzie, ANZ and Optus care about social issues? Plenty has been written about why a social conscience makes good business sense. You only have to look at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Diversity and Inclusion policies of any these leading organisations to see they’ve taken a strong proactive stance. EY, for example, says, “Our focus on diversity and inclusiveness is integral to how we serve our clients, develop our people and play a leadership role in our communities. When we act on our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, we maximise the power of our differences to achieve better business results, for ourselves and for our clients.”

It’s not just clever marketing. While there’s some risk for brands associating with politically sensitive subjects, the risk is far greater for organisations who shy away from taking the initiative on important issues. It is proven that organisations who show leadership on social issues:

  • Improve their public perception and increase their public profile
  • Attract, engage and retain the best employees
  • Appeal to a wider customer base and enjoy better relationships with customers

Professionals in private employment make up a significant proportion of the workforce. Our products and services have the potential to reach customers across the entire population. While arguably our views are represented at various levels of government by those representatives we’ve elected, I firmly believe there is an onus in the corporate sector to lead conversations that will shape the kind of world we’d like to work in, and live in.

What evidence have you seen of the commercial and social benefits of your organisation’s approach to corporate social responsibility? How has your organisation demonstrated leadership on a social issue or positively represented your Point of View?

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C’mon folks

When a Southern Belle interviewed for a Financial Planner’s role in Dallas, Texas, and addressed the interview panel with ‘Y’awl’, no one raised an eyebrow. But when one of our candidates in Sydney was on final interview with a new employer, and dropped the ‘Y bomb’ (Youse), she was shown the door within 10 minutes. We were forced to find a palatable excuse for why she wasn’t successful, when we knew that she was simply ‘not one of their tribe’.

Consequently it was with great interest that we were interviewed by Fiona Smith for an article in The Guardian about Blind Recruitment: Blind recruitment aims to stamp out bias, but can it prevent discrimination? This is a growing trend amongst sophisticated employers who want to bring in capable people based on merit – not by where they went to school, which university they attended, or by gender or whether their name is pronounceable by mono-linguists.

We wave the flag for anti-discrimination every day of the year. When we did pure phone screening interviews for one role, we were delighted to hear that the candidate who was successful was in a wheelchair – we had no idea and it made not an iota of difference to his ability to perform in the role. We were aghast when one of our own beautifully spoken consultants, an Indian by birth, was told by a client ‘don’t send me any Indians’. We continue to push back when briefed by certain employers (particularly for entry level to mid-career roles) that a particular birthright will mean a good culture fit.

On the other hand, we are completely onside with employers who want good written and spoken English as part of the selection criteria. So much in life comes down to good communications, but we don’t buy into accent free or the ‘tribal’ norms as our Financial Planner experienced. Instead, when faced with real or perceived discrimination, we encourage the delicate conversations: For example, someone could have generously told that high performing candidate ‘Our business has a slightly different client base than your previous company. Would you mind not saying ‘Youse’, as we don’t want our clients making the wrong assumptions about you, when we know you’re very good at your job?’

Too easy.

What’s your experience of ‘blind recruitment’ in your world @work?

Featured image: See Beyond Race was a VicHealth community-based social marketing campaign that tackled race-based discrimination by featuring local people from diverse cultural backgrounds and their real-life interests.

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Breaking good with RJ Mitte, Alan Joyce and Andrew Parker

RJ Mitte and I have a few things in common, but I think he’d say we’re both genetically blessed. While I’m certainly not bold enough to compare looks with someone who has modelled for Vivienne Westwood, like many otherwise ordinary people, we both fit into groups characterised by our diversity. The most obvious one is like RJ, I haven’t seen many episodes of Breaking Bad, the drama series he’s best known for as an actor.

When RJ Mitte shared his experience of Overcoming Adversity for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne late last year, he credited living with cerebral palsy as a catalyst for his successful career. Speaking confidently about yourself in front of an unknown audience, unscripted, for close to an hour is an achievement for anyone. For someone with mobility and language difficulties, it’s a major accomplishment.

Growing up, RJ had to learn to walk, endure years of physiotherapy, deal with bullying and discrimination, and fight to live independently. He channeled the energy required to do the things most of us take for granted, to do more. While a successful acting career is a pipe dream for many able bodied people, being pigeonholed amongst a minority group of disabled actors only made him more determined. RJ says, “A disability is knowledge and power. It’s an opportunity to see things through a different light.”

Now a powerful voice for equality and diversity in the workplace and broader community, RJ seeks to empower others through his involvement as a union advocate for actors with disabilities in Hollywood and as a celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy. RJ is also is passionate about raising awareness about bullying and victimisation in schools, a subject close to heart. “You never get out of high school,” he says, “people are always trying to push you in another direction.”

Locally it’s encouraging to see high profile organisations showing leadership on diversity and inclusion. Speaking at a CEO breakfast on marriage equality last year, QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce summed up The Spirit of Australia: “We see ourselves as representing the Australian community. We have over 250 different nationalities working for us, 50 languages spoken. We’ve got a huge, diverse workplace of 28,000 people and we have a huge gay community in our workforce. We want all of our people who come to work every day to feel equal, to feel like they can contribute equally in the organisation and in the country.”

In an article by Human Capital, MI5 head Andrew Parker recently agreed: “Diversity is vital… not just because it’s right that we represent the communities we serve, but because we rely on the skills of the most talented people whoever they are, and wherever they may be.” In the 2015 Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), published by Pride in Diversity, sponsor Goldman Sachs states: “Our greatest asset is what makes us different.” For those of us involved in making hiring decisions that will affect future wins for our businesses or recruiting for others, it should be a core value to strive for.

If you’re wondering what you can do to make your workplace a better place, here are 5 tips based on RJ Mitte’s talk that you can apply within a professional context.

  • Language matters – think about the words you use to describe people, especially those that you may perceive as different, and consider how you would like to be referred to by others
  • Listen to and share the experiences of others – sharing stories with colleagues, rather talking about them, helps break down communication barriers
  • Promote networking opportunities that support diversity – RJ laments few disabled actors have the opportunity to play disabled characters, but workplaces (particularly large organisations) have scope to support employee diversity though professional networks
  • People from diverse groups make up a significant part of the workforce – We did a team building exercise on diversity in our office and there wasn’t one person who didn’t identify with at least one diversity demographic
  • Challenge your perception – Instead of approaching diversity as something other, take the initiative to get involved and be inclusive by showing leadership
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