Disability diversity targets – diversity opportunity or red tape burden?
16 July 2013
Some of Australia's larger companies and education providers have introduced employment diversity targets and programs, showing that the cost and education requirements to do so are not necessarily prohibitive.
As reported by the Australian Financial Review, Westpac, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Telstra, Commonwealth Bank, IBM, McDonalds, the Australian National University, Compass Group, Australia Post, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Stockland and Woolworths are ranked as ''platinum'' or ''gold'' supporter members of the not-for-profit employers' organisation, Australian Network on Disability.
The network says one in five Australians has a disability and that this figure includes more than two million people of working age.
National Australia Bank, Origin Energy and AGL are silver members, while Macquarie Bank, the Diversity Council of Australia and the Human Rights Commission are bronze supporters.
Westpac, a foundation member of the employers' organisation, confirmed its 2012 diversity and flexibility survey showed more than 12 percent of the bank's employees identified themselves as having some form of disability.
"It's about bringing the best skill set to the table," Westpac Head of Diversity and Flexibility Jane Counsel said, noting that the costs involved in doing so were not prohibitive. "The whole reason we're so focused on diversity and inclusion is because we want to reflect the community that we serve," Ms Counsel said. "If you look at the incidence of disability and cultural diversity, having a diverse workplace means we can provide the best service to our customers."
Telstra Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Troy Roderick said it was not just those living with disability but also their carers who formed part of the company's workforce. Telstra has internal targets it is working towards but says it does not make those public. "I've spent 20 years in the diversity space. In that time, the focus has moved from a compliance-based approach to a more integrated, authentic approach to people just understanding more about each other," he said.
However, retailer Gerry Harvey and mining employers have criticised the use of targets to boost the number of disabled people in employment saying that targets and the related reporting requirements are unnecessary red tape. This follows the public spat between Myer and federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes.
Myer recently continued the debate about disability discrimination after it claimed the federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, had improperly targeted the company following public outcry over remarks made by Chief Executive Bernie Brookes two months ago.
Mr Innes had championed an online petition, saying, "I'd like to see Myer commit to an employment target of 10 percent of people with disability by the end of 2015".
This has prompted Myer to complain to both the Federal Attorney-General and the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Mr Harvey, Executive Chairman of Harvey Norman Holdings indicated he was supportive of employing people with disabilities where possible but "it's not a matter of setting a target ... it's just more paperwork and I'm not interested in paperwork". He gave examples of two of his best salesmen being either wheelchair-bound or on crutches, but argued it was often difficult employing people with disabilities in warehouses and on shop floors, so having the same targets across different companies was inappropriate.
"If you have a showroom floor and customers want service, you've got to have people who can handle it," he said. He added another problem with setting targets in his workplace was that it was difficult to define what a disability was, or who had one.
Steve Knott, Chief Executive of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, said reducing regulatory burdens was "the best way for our policy makers to support employment opportunities". He said initiatives where the government had worked with employers to boost workplace diversity such as Skills Connect "are much more effective in increasing workforce diversity than quotas and reporting obligations."
Both the Federal Government and the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) stop short of supporting targets, but are lobbying the ASX Corporate Governance Council to change the reporting guidelines for listed companies so that they are required to disclose the number and percentage of workers with disabilities in their workforces.
AHRI Chairperson Peter Wilson said "we aren't calling for targets or quotas. We think it's enough that employers are required to report something, in much the same way as the ASX guidelines on gender equity work. So they can report progress in whatever way they choose, or if no progress has been made, report that on an 'if not, why not' basis."
Mr Harvey and employer groups argue such reporting obligations would be unnecessary red tape, although unions are supporting the move.
ACTU President Ged Kearney observed that many major companies have "already taken steps to increase their employment of people with a disability, and 10 percent is not an unreasonable target." Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows Australian labour participation rates are only 54 percent for people with disabilities – nearly 30 percent lower than the general population.
iHR Australia counsels that treating employees with a disability sensitively and fairly is an important responsibility for an employer. State and Commonwealth laws are in place to prevent people with disabilities from being discriminated against in the workplace. It is important to ensure that all those with people management and recruitment responsibilities are fully aware of your organisation's policies on discrimination and fair recruitment processes, and undertake anti-discrimination training if necessary.
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