Attracting and retaining staff – Diversify your approach!

This year, a press release by the UK‘s Equal Opportunity Commission, the peak body for sex discrimination, noted that gender equality was still generations away. Women are still paid 17% less than men in full time employment, and 28% more women than men have carer responsibilities. The UK Commission also believes caring remains undervalued and still mainly falls to women. And most people believe that working and caring will be even harder in 10 years.

The Commission warned that the lack of flexible work practices and the changing nature of family responsibilities were both part of the problem.

In Australia, similar issues confront us. Women in Australia are paid 17% less than men in weekly earnings, like the UK, and 39% of Australian women work part time compared to 11% of Australian men (see Australian Bureau of Statistics, Working Life Arrangements, November 2006, and Employee Earnings and Hours – May 2004, March 2005). These statistics suggest that women are still underpaid and underutilised in the workforce, notwithstanding that women represent 51% of the population.

Meanwhile, many Australian industries are struggling with a skills shortage and an ageing workforce. SkillsInfo, the skills database provided by Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and the Department of Education, Science and Training, lists engineers, various trades, nurses, IT, and teachers as just some of the employees in high demand. Compounding the skills shortage is the current and expected impact of the increased ageing of our workforce.

For many Australian companies, when undertaking workplace planning even for the short term, the question is asked – where will our workers come from?

Given the current disparity in experiences for working women compared to men, and the demographic trends generally, how can employers improve their ability to attract and retain staff?


The Minimum Standard: Policies And Procedures Are A Good Start


Increasingly, employers are realising that the gendered practices of the past have limited their access to half the population, and taking a more inclusive approach. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency’s 2006 annual report identifies a significant rise in the number of organisations with over 100 employees that have written discrimination and equal opportunity policies. According to case law, equal opportunity training at regular intervals is vital in relation to reducing the company’s liability if a claim of discrimination is made. Organisations may be lulling themselves into a false sense of security, however, by relying only on a basic EO policy to become an employer of choice.

The mere existence of a mission/value statement by itself will not attract and retain a diverse employee base.


What else is needed to embrace a diversity approach in a workplace?


Whilst more employers state they are “an equal opportunity employer”, other business demands can prevent the decision-makers in the organisation from focusing on the worth of diversity, and a longer-term view of retention, when making decisions affecting staff employment, recruitment, transfers or conditions. For example, there is now a much greater awareness by organisations to employ women in senior positions and develop career paths for women and those with family and carer responsibilities.

A policy which states that flexible and part-time work is available on return from sick leave or maternity leave will have little impact, however, if an untrained line manager, who has no appreciation of the company’s goals for retention and equity, is the gatekeeper of working hours and start times.

In addition, as Generation Y employees demand more flexibility and responsive management, and with the need to retain the ageing workforce (whether they want golf days or grandparents’ leave), it’s not enough to pay lip service to equal opportunity. A “risk management” approach might assist your managers in the witness box if a complaint is made, but it won’t be enough to stop your employees moving to your competitors, interstate or overseas.


So, How Is Your Workplace Faring?


In relation to staff wellbeing and consultation, do you provide opportunities for staff consultation about what works best for them? What do your employees really want with respect to working arrangements? Do they have ideas for their rosters, responsibilities or communication methods that could make them more productive and more likely to stay with the company?

In relation to retaining staff, have you examined how many staff have resigned from your workforce over the past five years, and considered whether there are any patterns in their age, gender, and other attributes, which might be contributing to staff turnover? What proportion of departing employees had carer responsibilities? Did exit interviews raise trends or give you ideas about retaining staff at your workplace, and were these ideas fed back to relevant people? How confident are you that an employee would feel comfortable about seeking to resolve an allegation of bullying or discrimination internally?

Asking these sorts of questions about trends in your organisation spring from a “diversity model”. It’s more than simply having policies and procedures in place. Instead, the “diversity model” involves a proactive examination of what’s working, what is not working, and what needs improving.

By conducting a proactive review – or “diversity audit” – to determine the effectiveness of workplace policies, procedures and practices, you will gain a clearer picture about the health of your organisation. A diversity audit involves collecting and reviewing information about various workplace factors, which aim to understand diversity, equal opportunity, bullying and complaints-handling in your workplace. HR files often contain a goldmine of information which can give you ideas about how your organisation could improve. Focus on the key players in information-gathering, including Human Resource managers and line managers, who are in touch with the workforce and their differing needs. This will enable you to establish how systems, training and policies are working (or not working!) in practice, which in turn assists you to identify gaps and priorities for the business.

This review of the statistics and trends in your workplace can be done behind the scenes, or with active employee consultation through the use of an email survey or focus group discussions. Then, if a need for improvement has been identified, any changes that you implement will need to be supported by the top management, with business success as a key driver for its implementation and review. The diversity model needs to be made a fundamental value of the organisation, and be driven from the top. If equal opportunity initiatives are not given the internal support or priority they deserve, then their impact will be greatly diminished.

Workplace diversity audits are more common internationally than in Australia. America has statutory regimes in auditing affirmative action programmes. Domestically, workplace audits tend to focus on occupational health and safety or staff morale, without taking the perspective of equal opportunity.


Equal Opportunity: An Opportunity, Not A Burden


Equal opportunity initiatives were traditionally reactive (what must we do in order to manage risk?) rather than proactive (how can we make our workplace better?).

So, when you are next thinking about workforce planning, consider what can be done from a diversity approach, to improve employee retention and engagement, reduce the risk of complaints arising in future, and guard your organisation against the future challenges in skills, recruitment and retention.

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