Australian workplaces are struggling to implement effective diversity programs

Even when businesses try to drive positive change for diversity and inclusion, it often fails, according to new research.

Four years ago, Karen refugee Hsar Ju was having trouble finding a job after arriving in Australia, when he discovered Parks Victoria was offering an internship opportunity for those like him.

The program was designed specifically for people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the local community of Werribee, an area home to more than 100 different nationalities.

Hsar’s English wasn’t great, nor was his self-confidence. But he loved the outdoors and through the program quickly developed his green fingers. 

Hsar Ju is now a ranger with Parks Victoria.
Source: Claudia Farhart/SBS News

Today, Hsar, who grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand, is a fully-fledged ranger with Parks Victoria. He now helps other students complete their studies as a mentor, using the skills he acquired to give back to his community. 

“This is so exciting; it’s all your dreams come true,” he told SBS News.

But not all workplaces thrive when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Failed inclusion policies

A report released on Monday by the Diversity Council of Australia, in collaboration with Deloitte and Google, found even when businesses try to drive change for diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, it often fails.

The Change at Work report looked at diversity in terms of the mix of people in an organisation and how they identify in relation to both their social identity and professional identity. 

It found three out of four agents of change in an organisation report attempts at change are only sometimes, rarely, or never implemented effectively.

Source: Change at Work report

The council’s CEO Lisa Annese says despite the best of intentions, the research shows how difficult it can be for an organisation to achieve lasting change when managing a diverse workplace.

It isn't just about creating a sense of belonging, she says. 

“It’s about having opportunities for people, having respectful environments and ensuring what people do adds value to the organisations,” she told SBS News. 

"For an organisation to be inclusive it needs to be able to provide an environment that's respectful, where there's human connection, where what you do matters or adds value and where you have the opportunity to progress and so just having people who are different isn't enough."

Ms Annese says those responsible for workplace diversity in companies need to be doing more to create real change.

“You’ve got to go a bit bigger - look at what the evidence says and look at what you’re trying to achieve.”

The need for work-life balance

International construction firm Multiplex is headquartered in Sydney and employs 1,200 people across a range of ages and cultural backgrounds. It also celebrates the achievements of women in the industry. 

One of its executive directors, Caitriona Comerford, says the company is convinced of the importance of having a specific diversity and inclusion policy, and the basic principle of it is to help people find a better balance in their lives.

“The construction industry has been known for long hours, sites open on Saturdays, so six-day weeks etc, and what we've been trying to do is to make sure that people can still come to work here, have a challenging career, a rewarding career, but don't have to give up on the outside of work things, so family, sport, rest, socialising with friends.”

She says offering the workforce greater flexibility around who they are as individuals has brought impressive results.

“They design the flexibility that works for them while still getting their jobs done,” she said.

“If other employers can have that level of trust with the team, help them work it out and give them the right framework, I think they'd be pretty impressed with what teams can come up with.”

A 'win-win' situation

So far, more than a dozen interns have gained permanent jobs at Parks Victoria through its targeted diversity program.

Hsar Ju, left, with his Parks Victoria colleagues.

Acting team leader ranger Adam Smith says it has not only benefitted the students but also his workplace, which has gained new ideas and innovative ways of thinking about horticulture from Hsar's community.

For example, using ferrets to combat the parks’ rabbit pest problem, and a community garden now flourishing with new types of Asian vegetables.

“It’s a win-win program,” he said.

Hsar says such diversity programs are important for both sides.

“We can share the story, we can share our traditional culture,” he said. 

Migrant employment agency AMES Australia, which teamed up with Parks Victoria on the ranger internship program, says more employers should adopt such targeted workplace diversity programs.

“Having people from diverse backgrounds working here means it’s much more comfortable for people in the broader community who are diverse to come and visit the park,” media manager Laurie Nowell said.

“The refugees and other emerging community groups have brought with them new ideas about permaculture, different sort of plants that have been grown here now, so it’s been a real cross-pollination, so to speak, of ideas.”

Published 22 July 2019 at 6:40am, updated 22 July 2019 at 6:43am
By Rashida Yosufzai