Cover story: Why diversity really matters

In August this year Catherine Taylor issued call for courage. She threw down challenge to human resource practitioners the length and breadth of the country to make real difference to their organisations. How? By being far more open-minded when defining and driving the people strategies that will improve their organisations.
Taylor, national president of the Human Resources Institute of NZ and Kiwibank GM HR, urged packed roomful of HR specialists gathered for the institute’s annual conference in Wellington to think about diversity in its broadest sense. She challenged them to think about which HR strategies they should adopt to ensure they have the best capabilities in place.
Her timing is spot on. New Zealand’s labour pool is shrinking. As nation, we know we must future-proof against skills shortages. As fellow HR practitioner Julia Stones reiterated at the same conference, “there’s an urban myth that we don’t have war for talent at the moment. But those of us who look for talented individuals know the war has just been masked by the GFC.”
NZ Inc, she says, clearly needs to harness the skills of talented individuals to safeguard NZ on global stage.
So as nation, are we getting any better at welcoming and tapping into the talents of every single possible person? Are Kiwi organisations really capable of looking beyond an individual’s gender, ethnicity or physical ability to see the talent within?
Much evidence suggests we still struggle to cast aside our narrow views on issues such as age, religious conviction or marital status. Not all employers truly ignore whether job candidate does, or doesn’t, have children now or maybe will sometime in the foreseeable future. Not everyone embraces the possibilities of people who think or look “different to us”.
Take the fate meted out to new migrants to Kiwiland, for instance. Just how easy is it to find work if you’re not from around here?
It’s not at all easy, if you listen to Anita Murdoch, director of Wellington-based agency Forté Recruitment.
Preparing her presentation for the HRINZ conference, Murdoch canvassed other people in the recruitment industry and HR practitioners embedded within organisations for their candid comments. The promise of anonymity prompted revelations that are “more along the lines of confessions”, she says.
“They avoid candidates whose names they can’t pronounce. If candidate doesn’t have NZ experience they’re put to the bottom of the short-listed pile. There’s an assumption that clients will not consider someone who is fresh off the boat.
“If candidate has obviously given themselves Western name they are considered to be dishonest. Any previous bad experience meant recruiters judged all applicants from particular ethnic background in the same way.”
Murdoch’s informants confessed that if initial phone contact begins with problems trying to communicate with foreign relative of candidate, they judge the applicant by the conversational skill of the relative. They leave no message, don’t ring back and reject the applicant by email instead.
“If candidate is immigrating to New Zealand, and has never been here before, they perceive the risk as too great to follow through with the recruitment process.
“And if they think it will be too hard to confirm the legitimacy of candidate’s background and qualifications, and if there isn’t enough time in the recruitment process to verify every part of candidate’s CV, the candidate is put to the bottom of the pile.”
Others ’fessed up to thinking the market is flooded with skilled unemployed New Zealanders. So why give the work to migrant? “Some recruiters considered this as loyalty to NZ.”
According to Murdoch’s research, the general attitude of many clients towards migrants was negative and they discourage recruiters from presenting migrants for roles.
“And there’s an assumption that New Zealanders have better skills than migrants and that some migrants use our country as an opportunity to get into Australia.”
Certainly, Ravi Kalpagé says it was “a struggle and challenge” to find job in New Zealand. Kalpagé has an MBA and BSc. His impressive CV documents how he had already worked for three large multinationals, including the global Reckitt Benckiser group and Unilever, before coming to NZ from Sri Lanka in May 2003.
Yet, when looking for suitable employment in New Zealand he was asked questions such as ‘do you know how to use computer?’ and even if his son had medical condition: with the underlying suggestion that’s why the family had come here.
It was two years before he secured job with Victoria University of Wellington where he is now HR manager, Victoria Business School.
“There were times when I wanted to leave New Zealand and give up,” he says. “There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to get job or put food on the table.”
Karen Justice, licensed immigration advisor with global corporate immigration law firm Fragomen, says she’s ashamed as New Zealander that many of our businesses just don’t get the benefits of employing migrants.
While some employers are “completely unfazed” by the idea, she says these tend to be multinational companies that are used to employees moving around the globe and they have truly global workforce.
“I spend lot of my time trying to explain to people that the immigration process is not as scary as they think it might be.”
In the past eight years running her immigration practice in NZ, Justice has seen lot of ignorance around processes.
She tells the story of an employer who had been trying for nine months to fill critical and highly specialised engineering role.
“A recruiter found the perfect person: I think they were Danish with Malaysian partner and children. Then the person in the HR section of the company said, incorrectly, they needed to have work visa before the company could make him an offer.
“The discussion went back and forward. In the end it was stalemate. They lost that person and the job remains open today.”
She suggests employers simply write line in contract saying, ‘this job offer is subject to you getting the necessary immigration clearance’. “For some employers, that seems to be just too hard.”
She’s often told company doesn’t want to sponsor anyone to come to NZ. “There is no sponsorship involved.” Or that the process of recruiting migrant is too complicated and time consuming. “But, done correctly, the process should be smooth and not take months and months.”
Even when in-house HR staff are up to speed with the process of recruiting migrants, Bev Cassidy-McKenzie says organisations need to ensure awareness of the benefits of diverse workforce permeates beyond an organisation’s HR department.
Cassidy-McKenzie is acting GM of the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust. She says the EEO, which works across ethnic, age, gender, ability and work-life balance issues, can help people build business case for greater diversity within their own organisations. It also supplies tailored tools, both local and international research, and runs breakfast seminars and wide range of other events to help build awareness of equal opportunities within business.
“Diversity for us is big topic and one that definitely requires buy-in from the top of each organisation,” she says.
The EEO also works with the Auckland Chamber of Commerce’s new Kiwis programme helping migrants transition into employment. According to Cassidy-McKenzie, when the Chamber recently surveyed over 1000 NZ businesses it found their top three concerns about migrants were English communication problems, difficulties interacting with customers and settlement issues.
Over at the Office of Ethnic Affairs, specialist intercultural advisors such as Berlinda Chin and Craig Nicholson are helping companies square up to the realities of what they call unconscious bias. These are the hidden assumptions that impact on decision-making and can make or break an individual’s chances of being hired, accepted

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