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One on One with Sarah Martignier, HR Leader, on Diversity and Inclusion

Meet Sarah Martignier, a successful HR Leader with over a decade experience in HR working across a broad range of HR functions. Sarah shares her HR experience, her challenges and her top tips on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

What is your experience as an HR Leader?

I have 15 years experience working in HR in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, working across a broad range of roles but most significantly in business partnering, talent and change. My core values have had, and do have, a big influence in the way I practise HR; they centre around social justice and sustainability and it’s hugely important to me to act with integrity and authenticity in my work. Most of what I do is about engaging people around a meaningful purpose; I have partnered with multiple organisations to create a performance culture through their people, and in turn an engaging employee experience that creates a rewarding and inspiring environment for people to come to work. I have worked across retail, property and technology landscapes, and have led and managed teams for the past five years. Leading a team has empowered me to think big and be humble, it has taught me how to be my best self and be human at work. I am grateful to all of my teams for everything they have taught me about leadership.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in your role as an HR Business Partner?

The biggest challenge I have faced in most of my roles is in relation to talent. The structure of the workforce and workplace as it currently stands, is not optimized for the dynamic nature of markets and/or communities. Organisations have been working towards building the talent they need, however this has inherent limitations when we could be thinking bigger. A solution to those limitations could be ecosystems of talent that exist outside of the organisation, so organisations can access the right talent at the right time. With an economic system heavily based on capitalism and competition, the kind of collaboration needed is unlikely without change. However as B Corp organisations start to consider alternative ways of measuring success, then more is possible. Small examples of ideas that could fix this problem exist in pockets, like collective leadership, holacracy and flexible roles. Open source jobs like Uber and have organically capitalised on this idea however more work has to be done to consider the employee experience of this set up.

How did you overcome some of the challenges regarding getting leadership buy-in on diversity and inclusion?

It is really important to share that my experience both in retail and property has been focused on tackling gender diversity as that was the objective at the time, though on reflection, I feel this was far too narrow. I can share my observations and what I learnt during this time, however I do not consider myself an expert on diversity and inclusion, as I am still educating myself. I am also conscious that I have privileges that I don’t fully understand. Like others, the events of the last few months have had a huge impact on my understanding of race diversity issues, which has made me more passionate about my impact being broad, to cover all diversity. It has become very clear to me that the complexity, history and depth of race discrimination needs to be much better understood at a community, organisational and personal level, including me. My intention is to educate myself and to listen, which I am committed to doing. The obvious answer when talking about leadership buy-in, is putting together a strong commercial business case to validate why having a diverse workforce would be beneficial to the organisation. There are many great resources out there to use if this is something you need to do.

In the most recent example for me which focused on gender diversity in property, this covered some really interesting insight into our financial and customer metrics. From our own insight we could see that 43% of our customer decision-makers are female and we needed a workforce to reflect this. Diverse sales teams are able to better understand and anticipate the range of customer needs as they possess a broader set of skills, experience and cultural backgrounds.

We also found that on average our female sales employees achieved a higher average commission, yet less than 20% of our sales team were female.

We found that if we were to open up the talent pool for recruitment by changing the job brief away from direct experience (which privilege and social cues had influenced to mean candidates were predominantly male), instead focusing on the behaviours we wanted to better anticipate customer needs, then we would be able to have access to more talent with skills more suited to our needs. Lastly, our millennial customers were telling us they would only continue their engagement with organisations who could, and were, showing their commitment to diversity and inclusion. And to this point, we have all seen recently businesses facing reputational (and therefore commercial) risks if they aren't proactively pursuing diversity in their organisation.

The biggest challenge I felt however was the balance of why the organisation had a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Was this because it made the most commercial sense - which it did when you considered the long term business case - or was it because it was the right thing to do?

I feel that if organisations are only using commercial factors to determine their overall success, then the diversity and inclusion strategy is vulnerable to being pushed to the side. An example of this is that in the short term, putting diversity and inclusion initiatives in place requires effort, investment and potentially the passing up of opportunities that miss short term financial gains. On top of this, if the landscape changes and some of the commercial rationales change in any way, then the commercial business case needs to be reconsidered.

I am of the belief that by broadening the rationale for the organisation to have a robust diversity and inclusion strategy to reflect the values of the business, their contribution to the community and their commitment to social justice makes for a more impactful, sustainable and inspiring rationale.

When you worked for companies, what was the workforce diversity index like?

In my experience, the gender diversity index in retail is near 1 (so a balanced mix of genders) across the total population however, this drops significantly when you look at manager, leadership and Board roles. I have observed a glass ceiling for women that is most significant between team contributor roles, and first line management roles.

In my experience in technology, the gender diversity index is low across the whole population.

As was the case in property sales. The gender diversity index scores I was working with in property were 0.57 across the population, and at leadership level this dropped to 0.26. Another key metric we considered was the gender pay gap which was variable due to commission but on average was 20% versus a national average of 22% at that time. Lastly, we closely tracked recruitment ratios, promotion ratios and turnover ratios, as well as headcount ratios in each role. The lack of gender diversity in the workforce meant that we had customer challenges, talent challenges, engagement challenges and leadership challenges - so right across the business. These challenges were evident on the frontline with customers and our people, and all linked back to needing a culture of inclusion. So this is where we started with our strategy, we looked upstream and took the strategic decision to focus our energy on inclusion, with the confidence that the changes we made would make a positive impact downstream on the metrics and examples we were seeing on the front line.

What are the top tips you’d like to share with HR Professionals looking to improve their diversity and inclusion programmes?

The most meaningful tips that I can share are those concepts that fundamentally changed the way I considered diversity topics. I learnt that if your mindset and intent is broad and considered then the actions will easily follow.

Find the hidden cues

There are so many social cues that exist in the content we consume everyday and for some of us the content we create. Seeing the assumptions that fall out of different stories, pictures and words and positively repositioning these can be so powerful and effective. There are two great examples here;

In 2008 a review was conducted of the best selling children’s books in Australia. It showed that of the books that did have a lead character, more than two-thirds (69 per cent) were male. Kids books were more likely to have no lead, than a female lead. It also showed that non-human female characters were more likely to be chickens or possums, than lions or bears. There was one female bear on the list, compared to six male bears.

The impact of something like children's books can be so significant to resolving the challenges with diversity. If organisations are opening up opportunities to previously discriminated against demographics like women, that is likely to be only half the problem solved. Women have to feel empowered to take these opportunities yet without strong role models and social cues throughout their formative years that show they can do this, then we will not fix the problem. You can take the research from this review through to a real life example that happened earlier this year in the UK; Thames Water, were struggling to attract female candidates in their job advertisements which used a combination of the words “confident”, “competition” and “champion” in a job posting. After a review they changed the wording to include phrases such as “we welcome people who want to learn and be team players” in a new advert for a process technician role. The female applications have risen to 46%.

Culture-add versus culture-fit

There is a large body of research that tells us that we are attracted to people who we perceive are similar to us for various reasons like consensual validation and cognitive evaluation. However this is not relevant in the modern context and in the workplace where it causes a lack of diversity within organisations and teams. The best example of when this shows itself is in the recruitment process; managers who give the feedback that a candidate doesn't have the right cultural fit for the organisation, may actually be saying that they are different to the rest of the team. When you consider that most organisations set out in their people strategy that they want to build more diverse teams, a lack of cultural fit could actually be the very reason to hire the candidate.

The term that is being used now by organisations like Facebook and Pandora is “culture add”. Culture add asks, what can a candidate bring to the organisation that will add to your culture and help you deliver your cultural and commercial goals? This creates opportunities for candidates from different demographics. The most widely acknowledged thinking about diversity, is that it creates different perspectives and innovation. Without diversity, you can experience the storm trooper problem, and one way of tackling this is culture add.

It’s not where you have got to, it’s the distance you have travelled. This is an answer to a question that came up time and time again with managers who wanted to support the diversity agenda by hiring across demographics but who also wanted to hire the best person for the job. And therein lies the problem, how did we define the best person for the job. We set out a list of qualifications and professional experience and then said, this is the best person for the job. The widely shared ‘privilege walk’ analogy is a good way to consider this differently. For example candidate A starts from a place of privilege and ends up with the relevant qualifications and professional experience, whereas candidate B does not start from the same place and may or may not end up with the exact relevant qualifications and experience, however, they may have travelled further from their start point to where they are at, at the point of application. Taking a step back to consider the journey that a candidate has taken and the distance they have travelled can often help managers see that they can support the diversity agenda by hiring across all demographics and selecting the best person for the job.

My personal journey

The most meaningful part of my personal journey was to get comfortable with admitting that compared to some, I didn't deserve all the opportunities I received and to admit that some things had come to me more easily than others, perhaps when they should have gone to someone else. This is hard to admit but once you can, then you can start to have real conversations. Once that is on the table you stop debating whether discrimination is happening and you can start talking about how to effect change. It is human nature to feel defensive and offended when someone tells you that you are unfair; the popular book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge discusses this point. Her experience is that the group in power needs to be made to feel comfortable about the conversation in order for it to be had. I have a wonderful friend who witnessed a lack of engagement from her leaders in their diversity issues in her organisation. As someone who considers silence to be complicit, she politely challenged this. She was told that her approach was making it hard for her leaders to get on board with the topic. What they meant, was that her approach was making it hard for them to hide from the issue, and that was what made them uncomfortable.

What are the biggest lessons you have learnt in your career as an HR Professional?

I have learnt some really interesting lessons during my career in HR so far, two in particular I would like to share. The external landscape is changing so quickly that expertise and knowledge can become obsolete quickly. Organisations would benefit from moving away from focusing on these two factors when putting together recruitment briefs and instead looking for and employing people with the ability to learn quickly and grasp new concepts and ideas. This is a consistent competency of all top talent and high potential people across all organisations. I also believe that this is a skill that can be built and developed, along with equally focusing on building this skill across organisations current talent population which would make for powerful organisational capability.

The other lesson is something I am really passionate about, and that is understanding the why. I believe that great HR professionals have both a deep understanding of how their business operates internally and externally and the purpose, mechanics and results of HR strategies and interventions they propose. For me, best practise is not a good enough reason to propose a solution to a strategic or operational people topic. Many people will be familiar with the 5 whys technique, which is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. I believe the same approach can be used to understand the why of a particular strategy or intervention in the people space.

Why do you think that diversity and inclusion are so important to the success of HR Professionals in the current climate?

I believe that it's HR's role to contribute to the diversity and inclusion strategy for a business, and to be champions and role models, however I do not believe that diversity and inclusion is an HR only topic. I think it is a Board topic, an Executive topic, a leadership topic, a community topic and an organisational topic, and probably many more.

Given the current media attention around diversity and inclusion, the risk is that organisations want to rush something into place that is not genuine and not going to make any real impact. I think it is HR’s role to facilitate the strategy to ensure it is genuine and has real impact, through their leadership population.

HR Professionals have the same journey to work through as all other stakeholders and members of the community. They should be doing what they can to educate themselves, listen and understand the current diversity and inclusion challenges in their organisations.

The other skill that HR Professionals will have to flex is their business partnering, coaching and influence to support businesses to create genuinely diverse and inclusive places to work.

Follow Sarah on Linkedin for more insights on HR, diversity and inclusion and more tips.

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