Gender Equality in Recruitment and Avoiding the Merit Trap


It would be impossible, and pointless, to pick who’s smartest between the Australian Chief Executive Women - 400 of Australia’s most senior and distinguished women leaders - and the Male Champions of Change - a coalition of decent, powerful men stepping up beside women to create a more gender equal world.

Why, they’re equal in their smartness and their greatness, of course.

Between them, the members of these two initiatives hold the top CEO jobs in the country. Collaboratively, their latest dispatch firing the synapses of the business world is In the Eye of the Beholder – Avoiding The Merit Trap, a 15 page report packed full of ideas which are gaining traction everywhere – and rightly so.

When we talk about engagement in the workplace and building teams which gel and are productive, often what’s perceived to make things work well is similarity - in gender, ethnicity, taste. Such characteristics and qualities have a potential to cluster within organisations. When we recruit unconsciously, we replicate patterns over and over again.

While we might believe that we’re recruiting on merit, and not factors like gender, un-interrogated thinking limits the talent search. And our business suffers from that ‘bias of sameness’ we’ve talked about in our earlier posts.

This is the Merit Trap.

President of Chief Executive Women Diane Smith-Gander explains. ‘Too often, decision-makers think they're selecting the best person for the job on the basis of merit, but in fact they're favouring people who look like them or think like them and ignoring the organisation's future needs,’ she says. ‘When this happens, they've fallen into the merit trap.'

Elizabeth Broderick AO, former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner and founder of Male Champions of Change in 2010, says. ‘If women make up 50% of this population in Australia, indeed 60% of the most educated people, why are we not seeing them in equal proportions in organisations?  That tells me there is something other than merit operating in the environment.’

Put bluntly, as only we can, the upper echelons of our business world just might be continuing to recruit based on gender sameness. But they’re calling it merit.



Avoiding the Merit Trap means setting out deliberately to create a culture of diverse minds. Employees engage with each other not because they’re able to cluster together comfortably with people who think along the same lines as them, but because they see their business being stimulated and enhanced by others who think differently.

Hard-wiring this new thinking into our strategic planning is a big and brave step – but an essential one. It takes a collective acknowledgement at the uppermost level that future challenges might not be answered in the same way as past ones – relying on the same minds, and the same answers.



Jayne Hrdlicka, CEO of Jetstar Group is an early adopter of such thinking. ‘We make small changes to the system because no one believes it’s broken. But if we only tweak, we never get change. To move 180 degrees we have to have someone holding up the mirror at every stage of the process asking ‘why do we think that?’



The Merit Trap is usually a systemic problem, and it takes authentic and innovative leaders and innovative leaders to bring about real change. And here’s what happens. Once our business leaders are thinking about diversity as a means of keeping employees engaged, that thinking filters down through the organisation. Different viewpoints, life experiences and professional knowledge bring a bucketful of enhancement that creates – you guessed it - big impact.

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3 Simple Ways To Keep Your Employees Happy


A business should never be quiet.  Sure, there might be some moments when you hear only the clicking of keyboards or the gentle hum of a hard-drive. That’s when you know your team is head-down making the magic happen. Give yourself a pat on the back. But make it brief! At #HR we never recommend resting on your laurels – because things can change in a heartbeat.

When they’re not heads down over a keyboard, database or phone line, there should be a healthy balance of movement and banter about your people. And there’s always one or two who stand out, for all the reasons small business owners love and admire. They’re the ones who love your brand and put their own heart and soul into making it work. Others may have talent. These people bring something extra to the table – what Tim McClure, Professional Speaker and Brand and Leadership Consultant, describes as creativity, ideas and keenness in his article for Jonathan Mills.

The inspiration and aspiration of these highly motivated individuals can, if nurtured, bring an extraordinary exuberance and pep to your business and drive it forward just as vibrantly as you can.

So it’s a worst case scenario when your most passionate employee goes quiet. As a result, there’s a palpable unease and a lack of the usual energy rippling through the place. As McClure observes, ‘Passion is contagious, and so is not having it’.  

What should you do when you notice the effects? You should act straight away.

Doing nothing is all-too common a response, and it’s definitely not best practice, taking you down a bumpy and complex road of uncertainty and possibly expense – if this pivotal person leaves and you have to replace them.

Here are our top three tips for dealing with the situation:



Problems can manifest overnight, or in moments around the water cooler.  They become contagious, and even toxic. If you value your team, you’ll act on discontent the moment it manifests. And because you recognise the value of that special player within your ranks, you’ll be focussing on them.



This is one of the most mission critical people in your organisation. They help create the culture. If things have gone off-track, this individual will have something insightful to say about it and you need to know what that is. So stop, and listen. Respond but don’t interrupt. Create a comfortable space and time where they have the chance to talk without negative comeback. You’ll learn something, and you’ll have started equipping yourself with the knowledge you’ll need to fix it – with your employee alongside you.



In his article, McClure outlines the reasons why a passionate employee loses their mojo. Often it’s because of an issue with your leadership – a breach of trust, a lack of consistency, overlooking someone. It’s essential to get your leadership mojo back in good shape quick smart.  Resolve your employee’s problems decisively, and most importantly, get their buy-in. How you handle their grievance will determine whether they continue to love your brand - or move on to love another one. 

Dealing with passionate, smart people can take all the emotional intelligence skills you have. And showing them how valued they are is critical. If you’re facing a situation like the one above, think about getting help to address it. If that means bringing in a consultant who is across best practice and can mediate talks between you and a passionate employee, what better way to show that person what they mean to your business. 


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Not Right Now, Thanks! Embracing Workplace Flexibility


Is your workplace flexible enough to allow a senior member of staff to send this kind of message?

‘I work flexibly at Telstra. I’m sending this message now because it suits me. I don’t expect you to read, action or respond out of normal work hours.’

This is the email signature of Troy Roderick, Telstra’s Head of Diversity & Inclusion. Signs are that while it might still be a tad unexpected, it’s on the way to becoming the norm. And for good reason!

According to Australian research conducted jointly by Bain & Company and Australia’s powerful Chief Executive Women lobby group, juggling our career aspirations and family growth and needs is entirely possible - as long we think of workplace flexibility as a norm and not an exception to the rule.

In this 2015 report, The Power of Flexibility: A key enabler to boost gender parity and engagement, it’s emerges that Australian organisations have built good foundations for flexibility within their workforces. But key challenges still remain - especially if we want workable options for both genders.

As it turns out, workplace flexibility isn’t just a woman’s issue. Data shows that men are demanding work flexibility too. The primary reason is that they want to play more active roles as caregivers, and rightly so. If we really aspire to equality within our workforce at every level up to senior leader, it’s crucial both genders should be equally considered and enabled - with flexible work practices.

Gone are the days when employees worked 9 to 5, Monday to Friday and only within the same four office walls. The incredible transition of the digital age, and our new capacity to run operations and communicate 24/7 from anywhere with a wifi connection has changed everything in most of our working communities - and across the globe.



The 2015 report highlights Westpac Banking Corporation as a standout company. They offer a range of flexible work practices, as part of their longstanding commitment to flexibility.

Those of us in smaller businesses might debunk their efforts as 'big business with bigger budgets’. But there is no denying the teams at Westpac have done their research and are implementing change for reasons that resonate in small business too. There are many takeaways that smaller teams could easily adopt and weave into their own culture with tremendous benefit.

Brian Hartzer, Westpac Group CEO, nails it. ‘The way I see it, flexibility helps people achieve their full potential by removing barriers to success. If people have the flexibility to manage their personal commitments, they are more likely to bring their whole selves to work every day. And that means they’re more likely to do their best work and exceed customer expectations.’

Like the inside scoop? Here are five key practices Westpac leaders are required to implement, to facilitate flexibility:

  1. Make yes the default answer;
  2. Put flexibility on the agenda at team meetings;
  3. Understand the flex options and resources available;
  4. Raise flexibility as a key benefit; and
  5. Role-model flexibility.

The culmination of Westpac’s thinking is in their WorkSMART initiative. This permits employees to choose how, when and where they work. It’s a transformative program charged with overhauling Westpac’s corporate environment, technology, tools, systems and policies. They’re set on creating a culture where work is no longer a place you go, but something you do and achieve.



When you encourage employees to reach their full potential through flexible work practices, the capacity to generate a positive environment and boost employee advocacy and productivity is proven to follow.

It seems Westpac aren’t the only bank with the smarts on this. As Craig Meller, CEO of AMP points out, ‘normalising flexible work opens up new sources of talent and new ways of operating, and this is key to being an innovative and agile business.’

The small business sector has much to gain by following suit, and actively encouraging the uptake of flexible work practice arrangements. It’s well worth considering how we can make such practices work for our teams – and that includes the whole team, not just those with kids Others have family and other commitments of a different nature.

Be sure to underpin your new thinking with clear policies and practices.

If you lead a culture that’s supportive and respectful of flexibility, and make it the norm rather than the exception, only good things can come, both now, and later!


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Recent Comments
Carla Schesser
Couldn't agree more Anna!
Thursday, 02 November 2017 11:48
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Let Your Characters Speak of Character – Elegant Communication in a Digital World


In 1905 Mark Twain, American writer, humorist and entrepreneur, received a small package and handwritten letter from a gentleman claiming to be a medical doctor. The package contained a snake oil — a cure-all called ‘The Elixir of Life’ — which purported to ‘cure all ailments of the human, animal, and fowl.’ 

Twain was in ill health at the time. His wife had died suddenly the previous year. Moreover meningitis and diphtheria, which the elixir proudly claimed to cure, had taken the lives of both his daughter and 19-month-old son. With these memories still very fresh, Twain communicated his deep dissatisfaction to Mr. J.H Todd - the ‘doctor’ who sent him the package. 


Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain


In the eloquent and elegant language of his time, and with an initial lightness of touch followed by but a devastating directness that goes straight to the heart of the matter, Twain elucidates his feelings with precision and purpose. 

But how might he have expressed his same dissatisfaction in contemporary times? Would one of our modern, digital methods of appraisal have conveyed his disdain so ably? 

Perhaps he may have reviewed J.H Todd with a zero-star rating or possibly a 120-character tweet with a few choice acronyms thrown in. Would he have agonized over an emoji? Or chosen to go grammatically correct and emoji-free, rising above the hoy polloi in unadulterated prose? And would he have blocked, reported and unfriended Mr Todd, if they were ever ‘friends’ at all?

Joking aside, the strength of Twain’s letter isn’t his clever use of language but the absolute clarity with which he expresses himself. There’s no misunderstanding his message.  

In these progressive times when communicating with others, including your employees, is something to be ‘optimised’ and abbreviated, it’s vital to remain mindful that good communication practices are still at the heart of every successful business, and every business relationship – internal, external, with employees and suppliers, including snake oil vendors.

Communication has the ability to build, and destroy, a relationship very quickly. As a business owners, you can set yourself apart by developing the right communication style for your workplace.  

Thinking the small things through can be particularly helpful. How would you like social media comments to be handled? When to pick up the phone and have a real-time in-person discussion – rather than yet another email. How to hit the right note in email communication – not too formal, but not too personal either. When it’s okay to send a text message, and when a hand written thank-you card is called for – rather than virtual flowers.  

The communication methods you choose to implement now will set the tone for future business.  It’s free marketing, speaks of your own style and your business, and can leave a lasting impression. 

So choose your words carefully. Few of us will achieve the literary prowess of Mark Twain, but adopting a business style that’s meaningful, authentic and perhaps even a little elegant is generally best practice and will be remembered. Would Twain’s letter still be circulating a century later if he had replied with a ‘middle finger’ emoji?  We think not!


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So Here It Is, Merry Christmas, Everybody’s Having Fun. Or Are They?


With the year end-looming, the silly season is almost upon us. Soon the boundaries between work and play will start to blur with the prospect of festivity. There will be long client lunches where nobody’s quite certain who’s servicing whom, and that annual ritual, the Christmas party or ‘work do’.

Amongst all the merry making, there’s always the possibility of interesting and sometimes unexpected outcomes underneath the mistletoe. Because Christmas drinks can lead to Christmas high jinx. And without meaning to come across all Bah Humbug, we suggest it’s something you plan for.

Rewarding employees for another year of hard work is essential festive fun. As leaders, you don’t want to play Scrooge – you want to have fun alongside them. But let’s not forget that getting the balance right in all things, including festive merriment, and taking responsibility for keeping everyone safe is also your job. So before you don your party hat, wrap yourself in tinsel and get all teary over Auld Lang Syne – do some planning.


Here’s a Christmas list with a difference – and it’s one to take sober account of.

1 Employees being injured;
2 Sexual harassment and bullying; and
3 Inappropriate behaviour.

It’s not a list any of your employees deserve to be on. So do your part and look out for them, and your business, by being prepared. Get the music and Chrissie Kringles worked out in advance by all means, but also set the tone for everyone on behavioural expectations, accountabilities and obligations.



Here’s how to arrange a Christmas company party or event that’s memorable for all the right reasons – not the wrong ones.

1. Send an email at least one week prior, getting a few things straight:
  • The event is a ‘work function’ and conduct must be aligned with workplace policies.  If you have a drug and alcohol policy, or a sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying policy, then remind your employees to review them, be familiar with them, and take them seriously.  
  • Set clear rules and expectations around social media;
  • Make it clear that employees are individually accountable for drinking responsibly and, where appropriate, legally;
  • Direct employees to make travel arrangements for getting home safely and within the limits of the law. If the function is a significant distance away from the workplace, consider arranging a courtesy coach or cab charge vouchers.

Send invitations with all the specifics - including the start and finish times.

Thinking an ‘after-party’ might be fun? Be aware that this still constitutes a work event and your obligations as the employer continue up until such time that all events comes to a close.

Ensure that the quantity of alcohol available is proportionate to the food being served.

Limit the possibilities for employees to consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

If there’s an “open bar” take extra precautions to ensure the responsible service of alcohol. Make your expectations clear to the bar staff.  The Fair Work Commission found, “it is contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a function but at the same time allow the unlimited service of free alcohol.”

Nominate someone to ‘supervise’ the function and address any escalating behaviour.

If complaints are received, take them seriously and deal with them promptly and thoroughly. That’s best practice.

If you’ve got best practice down pat as a manager or business owner, then it should be less than a stretch for you to get it in place as a party planner too. That way, the only headache you wake up to the following day is from the grape juice, rather than nasty spillages and catastrophes.

Your tribe look to you to keep them safe - even when events take them out of the office. So don’t let them down!


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