New Zealand is once again suffering from skills shortage. Good people are hard to find and even harder to lure and retain.
But there is an additional reality about the shortage of skilled people that goes beyond either the current low level of unemployment or the skimming effect of the so-called brain drain. It has to do with the now even more rapidly changing nature of the workplace and the residual effects of the harsh realities of almost 20 years of organisational change and restructuring.
The dichotomy of our e-driven world is that the importance of individuals to organisational success is growing in some direct proportion to the workplace invasion of technology. People are becoming more, not less, important.
Arming individuals with technologies that facilitate their ability to deliver on processes undoubtedly makes them more productive. The technologically inclined are often simply fascinated by the “capacity of the wherewithal” at their command. But it is the way in which people are led, valued, acknowledged, challenged, rewarded and cared for that matters most. People are not, or should not be, the labour commodity they once were – at least not in the world’s more developed economies.
Organisations which put people – all people and not just those at the top of the pay chain – first are attracting the pick of the crop and turning their enterprises into vintage performers. Some of them are identified in our coverage in this issue of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust Work and Life Awards announced in Auckland at the beginning of the month.
Our cover story, Putting People First, draws together two important elements of what constitutes the process of building better enterprise. They both impact the way in which organisations and the managers which lead them, understand and value the people they employ. The first of these elements is the appreciation and celebration of equality and diversity as expressed through the EEO Awards. The second is the placing of greater emphasis on the value of life and limb as manifest in our management of health and safety in the workplace.
The winners of the EEO “Walk the Talk” Awards profiled in this issue understand that it takes leadership and commitment from the top to effect real change so they lead by example.
As EEO chief executive Trudi McNaughton points out: “The talent pool is shrinking. People are juggling work and life responsibilities as never before. Recruiting and retaining motivated employees is becoming more and more important. Developing workplace culture that attracts and retains motivated people and maximises each person’s contribution makes sound economic sense.”
And as Dave Stewart, chief executive of Wellington-based recruiters Clayton Ford and EEO chairman, puts it: “There is real skill shortage now in many areas. And how will the best candidates judge the companies attractive to them? The reality is if companies have good staff and those individuals feel valued they will attract others. Information like that spreads,” he says.
According to Stewart there is shift in spending priority toward people that ranks it as high as expenditure on capital investment. There is also swing toward value-based employment contracts and the emergence of programmes that reward and acknowledge everyone on the payroll – not just the top few and the sales team.
If the combined impact of concern for the well-being of the individual and increasingly punitive government legislation is insufficient to promote better health and safety management at work, there is increasing evidence that economic and financial drivers will provide additional incentive. In Australia, for instance, corporate dedication to health and safety is becoming recognised by the share market. Companies that have been carefully screened to confirm their high health and safety status are promoted to investors – much like the “green rating” that is rapidly gaining ground in the global investment marketplace.
There are other equally important “people issues” which deserve management attention. Building organisations that put people first must become management priority if we are to reverse New Zealand’s economic and social decline and realise its enormous untapped potential.
“Walking the Talk” of equal opportunity
Business is branded by its own slogans – lean, mean,
uncompromisingly competitive. There’s no place here then for older values like acceptance, diversity or cooperation. Or is there?
One statistic shows that these qualities, the same ones which underpin the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust Work and Life Awards, play healthy role in that most unlikely place – the bottom line. The proof lies in study by the US Office of the Status of Women, which rated the performance of Standard and Poor’s 500 companies on equal employment opportunities factors.
These included the recruitment and promotion of women and minorities. The 1999 study found that companies rated in the bottom 100 for their equal opportunity policies on average returned only eight percent on their shareholders’ investment. By comparison, those in the top 100 returned on average 18 percent. The finding suggests that diverse, family-friendly workplaces add value for their stakeholders.
But pushing “equality” is not always easy. The EEO Awards are designed to acknowledge and applaud those who ‘walk the talk’ of equal opportunity. They don’t say organisations and individuals are perfect – just that they have come long way toward embracing the EEO Trust’s ideals.
They provide benchmark to encourage non-EEO Trust employers to think about the business benefits of building culture in which people come first and work and outside life are balanced. Creating that equilibrium is more than simply managing childcare responsibilities, according to the Trust, says Trust chief executive Trudi McNaughton.
“It encompasses eldercare and wider family responsibilities; study, travel and other life interests and commitments; acknowledging and celebrating cultural diversity; age, gender and sexual orientation equity and finding innovative ways of enabling employer and employee to benefit from flexible working practices,” she says. “The awards are designed to help organisations notice what they are doing well.”
McNaughton believes that the awards encourage healthy competition for the right goals. “We want to encourage workplaces to be more proactive in creating work and life initiatives and to link them to the strategic goals of the business.”
The changing face of the New Zealand workforce is the backdrop against which the awards have been developed. The average age of workers is increasing; the number of women in full-time paid employment is growing and people with disabilities are making an increasing contribution. Simultaneously, the workforce comprises greater variety of ethnic groups and people are working in increasingly non-traditional ways.
Prior to the awards the examples of good policies that existed were usually ad hoc and generally unavailable to all levels of staff and occupational groups. They weren’t used to attract new staff and the benefits they delivered weren’t measured. If times were tough innovative, flexible ways of working were considered “an expense – not benefit”.
McNaughton believes the evidence that more equitable employment policies pay off is compelling: “It shows that senior commitment to, and role modelling in work and life balance is necessary for real progress.
“That’s why we developed the ‘Walk the Talk’ award for chief executives and senior managers who model work and life balance themselves and champion the issue [within their organisations]. It’s category which has attracted international interest because it is so difficult to change senior management behaviour,” says McNaughton.
Organisations now report increased competitive pressure to perform in work and life as well as other EEO area