Democratizing diversity

Democratizing diversity

By Ruth Allen

The general manager of people and culture at Australia’s Origin Energy explains why it’s important to go beyond top-down objectives and targets.

Origin Energy, Australia’s leading electricity and gas supplier, boasts a range of operations covering exploration, power generation, and energy retailing. Two and a half years ago, the company embarked on a bold new mission to advance diversity and inclusion. Here, Ruth Allen, general manager of people and culture at Origin, shares the pain and gains of the journey so far.

Most businesses have top-down public objectives, or targets, on diversity. They are really important, and we’ve got three. They commit us to equal pay, to equitable job turnover between men and women, and to equal female representation at senior levels. We have made progress on all three and we continue to focus on them every day. However, we are still a long way from where we want to be.

In March 2015, one of my roles at Origin was general manager of HR for the Integrated Gas (IG) business unit. The CEO of IG was passionate about wanting to speed up progress on diversity and inclusion and came to me for advice. As I saw it at the time, we were clear at the top of the organization about what we thought we could do to promote greater gender diversity; what we didn’t have were the views of our people about what issues mattered to them and how they thought we could make our business unit more diverse and inclusive.

Using a crowdsourcing approach, we wrote an open invitation to the 2,000 people in IG, inviting them (regardless of rank or seniority) to use their voice and ideas to help us achieve real change.

We insisted that those who put up their hand apply in writing—that’s because we wanted to make sure they were really serious and we didn’t want anyone using the opportunity as a way to get access to senior people without actually doing any work. We ended up with an initial volunteer group of about 55 (of which 50 attended the first session and 45 worked for the full 12-month commitment). It included everyone from gas-plant operators from New Zealand to cost controllers, engineers, community liaisons from our regional communities, and indigenous cultural-heritage monitors.

We borrowed from organizational-development theory—notably some of the methods of Tavistock and the Grubb Institute in Britain aimed at minimizing structures, getting authority out of the way, and allowing human systems to take discussion in new and exciting directions. Members of this Diversity Collaborative, as we call it, chose five themes that mattered to them and that they believed we could make real progress on—gender diversity, regional diversity and inclusion (a lot of our sites in Queensland are outside the cities), indigenous relations, flexibility, and culture—and divided themselves into five subgroups. They met in quarterly workshops to explore the issues from their vantage points, particularly any impediments inhibiting them in their specific roles. One of the groups came to every monthly meeting of the IG leadership team to tell us what they had been discussing and how they thought we should address any problems. These groups assumed the leadership role on diversity, often challenging beliefs and practices they felt were limiting, and demonstrating how these were at the root of the problem.

Stretching the thinking

The power of the collaborative is that it has allowed us to look at our culture in a way that we could never have done otherwise. We created a mechanism by which people could raise the cultural-issues barriers to diversity and inclusion that were previously undiscussable, be heard, and then be authorized to make changes. So, for example, we heard for the first time about the needs of pregnant women at remote sites and were able to rejig roles and rosters accordingly. We heard about the struggles of young mothers and became the first mining or gas company in Australia to have breastfeeding facilities at all our regional sites. We became aware of the unintended biases that occurred in our recruitment practices.

So the collaborative stretched our thinking, unlocked issues that had remained hidden, and removed significant barriers to diversity. It’s also helped spawn two important company-wide initiatives: first, our All Roles Flex program (which offers some form of job flexibility to all employees, men and women, in every role at Origin), and second, the dismantlement of some of the residential camps we operate for our workers, a move that has had a positive reputational impact beyond diversity.

  • Job flexibility. All Roles Flex emerged from discussions in the flexibility subgroup, encouraged by Liz Broderick, Australia’s former Sex Discrimination Commissioner and a guest at one of the quarterly workshops. We were struggling with the practical challenge of how to make flexibility real, but Liz urged us to adopt a radical and inclusive solution that involves all employees. As a result, we have examined every role—from maintenance and safety managers to people flying helicopters to offshore platforms—and tried to find formal or informal ways to make jobs flexible in ways that work for the business as well as the individuals. All sorts of people are taking advantage, from women with young families to men who want the time to study for extra qualifications. A recent straw poll of 500 of our people established that 80 percent of them are either working flexibly or having conversations with their managers about flexibility. Feedback suggests this is becoming one of our key cultural strengths.
  • Location choice. The second important initiative came out of discussions in the regional-diversity group. These talks revealed that many employees who fly in and fly out to their gas-fields roles would, if given the choice, prefer to relocate and live in local communities with their families rather than stay for short periods on their own in one of the residential camps we run near operations. A key issue for these people was covering the cost of relocating. Previously, we only paid relocation expenses if the company initiated such a move; now we support individuals who ask to relocate, provided that makes sense for all sides. The benefits are already clear, not just in more contented employees who wanted to move. As a gas explorer and producer, our license to operate comes from the communities around our sites and the landowners and farmers on whose land we explore for new energy sources. Integrating Origin people into towns and villages, where they spend money and provide other support by, say, going to charity nights and other events, is much more welcome to communities than our housing, feeding, and entertaining our workers in their own separate residential units. The diversity and inclusion initiative was not the only factor, but it has helped us think about relocation more deeply. We are now in the process of closing two of our camps and moving people back into local towns.

A diversity playbook

I wouldn’t pretend for a minute that we’ve cracked the diversity challenge yet—women, for example, still represent only 24 percent of the workforce in the Integrated Gas division, and we’re committed long-term to our three public targets right across Origin. But we’ve learned some valuable lessons so far (exhibit).

  • Don’t ignore structure. Most importantly, I think, is having a mix of what I call art and science. For all the power of the bottom-up energy from the collaborative, we have struggled at times to implement the ideas. From the outset, each group was sponsored by a member of the Integrated Gas leadership team, and we provided a process coach to help with group dynamics. But ultimately you need more structure around an initiative like this. So we established the “nerve center,” a place where our volunteers could go to refine their ideas and acquire the skills and techniques to help implement them.
  • Look outside. Bringing in experts like Liz Broderick and other speakers has been a critical part of driving inspiration. It stops you from being too insular and provides case studies and other examples of what good diversity looks like in other organizations.
  • Reap the wider benefits. The benefits of the initiative can go beyond diversity and influence group culture. The emphasis on flexibility, for instance, has made us more performance-oriented with the focus now on quality of output regardless of the way people work, not the number of hours they put in.
  • Manage the frustrations. The relationship between managers and the workforce has changed for the better. But flexible working potentially poses a threat to leaders who instinctively want to tell employees what to work on and who worry that they are losing their power if people are not physically present. You have to keep pushing to make sure that the collaborative has space to develop its views and for its voice to be heard. More junior people can need a lot of support.
  • It’s gender first. The focus on gender diversity has to be relentless, and I know from speaking to others that if we don’t crack that we won’t crack the rest. At the end of the day, you can force the numbers and increase female recruits, but you have got to have a culture that is ready for them, a climate in which people can speak up and be heard.
Diversity lessons from the playlist of Australia’s Origin Energy

About the author(s)

Ruth Allen is the general manager of people and culture at Origin Energy.
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