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Workplace diversity: don't just tick the box

A conversation with David Morrison AO, chairman of the Diversity Council Australia, a not-for-profit workplace diversity adviser to business in Australia. Prior to this he was Lieutenant General, Chief of the Army, and was appointed Australian of the Year in 2016.

We talked to David about workplace diversity, and asked him key questions about his experience in the field. These diversity in the workplace interview questions and answers may help you learn more about managing your own workplace. 

In David’s speech at the 2017 Australian of the Year Awards Finalists Luncheon, he said:

“We are not living in Camelot and we never will…we still have a gender pay gap across all areas of our workforce that is surely unacceptable to any person of conscience. We have, still, intangible barriers that deny many people the chance to reach their potential based on the most questionable of criteria – their gender, their age, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation or whether they are judged able bodied or right minded.” 

Where are we at with genuine diversity and inclusion? 

There’s so much to be proud of as Australians. We live in a modern, diverse and naturally beautiful country. Australia is, at so many levels, a great nation, but surely a hallmark of that greatness is we know that we can always be better.

I feel it’s that sentiment that has been intrinsic to our development. We’re more diverse, better educated, and more aware of our environment than we were when I was growing up in the Australia of the 1960s and '70s. For the first 10 years of my life I lived in a nation that didn’t recognise our First Peoples, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, as citizens. 

We have much to do, but progress – albeit sometimes very slow progress – is being made. 

We just need to stay focused, stare down the naysayers and keep the faith. It is so much in our shared interests to build respect for diversity and inclusivity. Let’s be frank: diversity for diversity’s sake is really just box-ticking. It might increase the number of women, or men and women of a non-Anglo Saxon heritage, but that can’t be an end in itself. 

What is really needed is to be more inclusive, less judgmental. When diversity is married to inclusivity, people get the opportunity to reach their potential. When that happens, we all benefit.

When diversity is married to inclusivity, people get the opportunity to reach their potential. When that happens, we all benefit.

What concerns you most and what can be done about it?

There are those in our community who do not see this as I do. Mankind faces some truly epic challenges, be they societal, environmental or ethical, and we hear too loudly the voices of unreasoned invective and scorn, channelled through many mediums. 

In my view, the journey to complex solutions will only be arrived at by the coming together of communities and nations. Given human nature, that will likely only happen if one of two outcomes eventuates. The first, and by far the best, when great leaders put aside purely factional, small town political concerns and look beyond the borders and shores of their electorates, states and nations.  

The second, which I fear will come too late, is if our planet and our species are threatened in a truly existential sense.

What insights can you share and advice can you give to business employers and leaders who face difficult issues in the workplace?  

My experiences have shown me the enormous value of true diversity of thought, founded on education and respect for the views of others. That’s why I champion diversity amongst team members and building inclusive workplaces. When someone is denied the opportunity to contribute or move forward in their career paths as a result of deeply questionable criteria based on racial heritage, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation or disability, it limits us all.

As the leader of one of Australia's great national institutions I became convinced, through a series of meetings, and as a result of a growing number of periods of reflection, that the Army needed to address matters of diversity, especially gender imbalance, in a more ‘hands on’ way.

As a result of those meetings, with serving soldiers who had been adversely affected by their service and who had been denied the chance to reach their potential, I began to see issues that I hadn’t seen at that point in my life and to hear voices, especially of women, that I hadn't heard as clearly before. You can, of course, be critical that it took me five decades to get to that point, but nonetheless it changed me – as a senior officer, but particularly as a man. 

With the guidance of key people, like the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, the leadership team of the Army devised what I feel were essential changes to the way we had done business in the past.

Key interventions 

  • Making a commitment to diversity by setting targets for increasing the number of women in the Army and naming those targets publicly.

  • Conducting a first principles review of how we judged merit and why the existing paradigm failed to recognise the value of different non-military life experiences.

  • Engaging in one-on-one meetings with those affected by discrimination, harassment and bullying. That program began with me, but to date hundreds of senior officers have now met with victims to better understand the dreadful impact on an individual’s self-esteem and dignity.

  • Introducing into our selection panels for higher rank people (in almost every case women) who have great life and professional experience, but no military background. They have ensured a much more complete appreciation of a candidate’s merit.

  • Conducting one-on-one coaching of senior officers and commanding officers with experts such as Avril Henry to open eyes and ears to the benefits of diversity.

  • Putting in place more attuned recruiting campaigns that focus on the real benefits of diversity and inclusivity – diversity of thinking and more capable workforces.

  • Guaranteeing no loss of seniority for men and women returning to the Army after a leave of absence provided they could demonstrate their value to the long-term health of the institution.

  • Taking active steps to ‘celebrate’ women’s successes in the same way we had always celebrated those of men.

  • Holding, publicly, to account those who did not live up to our values of courage, initiative, teamwork, and respect.

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