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Dealing with a hostile work environment

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hostile work environment

In line with community expectations, Australian courts are taking a much harsher approach to employer’s as well as contractor’s duties to prevent workplace sexual harassment. Ex-employee of Sydney Water, Reem Yalda has had a large award of $200,000 upheld by an Appeals Court. Her photo was featured without her consent in a safety poster with the words : “Feel great – lubricate”. An outside contractor, Vitality works which had produced the poster was held liable. The Court said: “Innuendo, insinuation, implication overtone, horseplay, a hint, a wink or a nod; these are all devices capable of being deployed to sexualise conduct in ways that may be unwelcome“. Ms Yalda’s much larger claim against Sydney Water is still pending. Employers have now been given a stern warning, says Symmetra, that they need to review policies on sexual harassment particularly with reference to hostile working environments and harassment via social media, email, Zoom and the like.

‘Debiasing Decisions’ at the Lex Mundi Asia/Pacific Regional Conference, Sydney, 6 October 2017

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Heather will be presenting “Debiasing decisions” at the Lex Mundi Asia/Pacific Regional Conference, Sydney, 6 October 2017, which will bring together approximately 110 senior lawyers from every continent for learning and networking opportunities.

Debiasing Decisions

We know we can’t remove unconscious bias, but we can change the environment in which our decisions are made. Explore how some companies are using novel strategies to remove bias from key decision points, and learn some techniques you can use too.


The link between psychological safety and innovation: A cue for business leaders?

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How will Australian business leaders respond to the Federal Government’s drive for innovation?  How will they help to adapt the economy from one based on resources to one that generates and exploits new ideas, processes and technologies?

Innovation in the modern economy is viewed as a business imperative by almost all. The extent and continuity of idea generation and implementation has become both a source and a measure of competitive advantage. Almost half the executives in a survey by PWC (2014) regarded innovation as a ‘competitive necessity’ and according to Bain’s research, amongst 450 company executives worldwide in 2013 companies in the top quartile for innovation achieved a significantly higher growth rate than other companies.

Much innovation in the modern world is the result of team effort rather than individual inspiration, hence not surprisingly the key to sustained innovation is the creation of a framework for effective collaboration. This collaborative framework requires focus on two streams; firstly, on the systems which are designed to cultivate innovation and secondly on the mental readiness of employees within the organisation to undertake innovation.

With regard to the systemic element, a recent article in Harvard Business Review (‘You need an Innovation Strategy’, June 2015) points out that many corporate attempts to mobilise their organisation to be sustainably innovative have failed. This is because more often than not, measures to advance innovation are designed or implemented haphazardly. What is required, is “a commitment to a set of coherent and reinforcing policies and behaviours aimed at achieving a specific competitive goal”.

With regard to the second prerequisite for sustained innovation, this refers to the appropriate mental readiness of an employee to venture into unchartered innovative territory. The fact of the matter is that when an individual employee is mentally primed for innovation this can actually be scientifically observed. Work in the field by neuroscientist, Janet Crawford et al shows that the prefrontal cortex area of the brain is where innovative thought has its genesis. Neuroscientists can observe electrical changes in the brain reflecting feelings of being either secure or being threatened. Where an individual feels threatened the tendency is to retreat into habitual responses and avoid any element of risk, but where he or she feels secure then the individual will be prepared to venture into new experimental territory.

Symmetra’ whilst delivering workshops on Leveraging Diversity of Thought for Innovation with large numbers of leaders across the Asia-Pacific region has researched  whether individuals are mentally primed for innovation. Our research reveals three critical cultural factors that contribute to that readiness- these are the existence of an entrepreneurial frame, psychological safety and inclusion in the culture of the organisation.

Our focus in this article is on embedding sufficient psychological safety- what are the necessary cognitive or behavioural elements? Creative and innovative outcomes in the workplace arise from a complex interaction between the individual and others at various levels of the organisation. If these interactions lead to feelings of well-being, high self-esteem and motivation, the individual will become more inclined to stretch him-or herself, to expend  discretionary effort and to become creative or innovative.

Extensive research has established that when employees perceive that they are psychologically safe they become more engaged with their actual role and inspired to extend their imagination to activities outside their prescribed role.

Amy Edmonson, probably the best known researcher on psychological safety has written: “Psychological safety describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context. It facilitates the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared enterprise”.

Ultimately it is the direct manager or supervisor of an employee whose actions will have a major impact on creating or undermining feelings of psychological safety. Amy lists eight leadership behaviours which, if present, will create a climate of psychological safety; namely; being accessible and approachable, acknowledging the limits of your current knowledge, being willing to display fallibility, inviting participation, highlighting failures as learning opportunities, using direct language, setting boundaries, and  holding people accountable for transgressions.

Symmetra has gauged the existing level of psychological safety in a range of Australian and Asia Pacific organisations over the course of 2015 by auditing the experiences of 1,264   middle and senior managers who were participating in the Leveraging Diversity of Thought for Innovation  workshops. These leaders are working in the professional service, financial, property, legal, research and resources sectors.

The graph below shows the current reality : namely that as few as just over a third (37%) of these leaders consider there to be sufficient levels  of psychological safety in their teams to encourage challenging each other and the status quo. In many of these organisations there is an actual overt commitment to establishing a speak up culture , but the data indicates they have not been successful in embedding such a culture. What this reflects is a huge opportunity cost for such organisations who have worked so  hard to attract and retain the best intellectual capital but are not creating sufficient psychological safety to allow that  diversity of thought  expression.

To lay the appropriate foundations for sustained innovation, there is a clear need for leaders to build their skills to embed psychological safety, to cultivate a culture where everyone feels safe to question, challenge, take reasonable risks and not be punished for failure. This is a fundamental prerequisite for maximising innovation and achieving the outcomes needed for Australia to meet the Federal Government’s call for innovation.



2015 Pride in Practice Conference

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IMG_3223hThe only Australian conference dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) workplace inclusion. Produced by Australia’s National Employer Support Program for LGBTI Inclusion and the Developers of the Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI) – Pride in Diversity.

Heather presented on the topic;

Unconscious bias and sexual orientation: What does it look like? How does it impact on decisions that are made about members of the LGBT community? And what can we do about it?



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How does an organization know if it’s D&I program will provide a good return on investment? And how best to determine the right point of entry?

A panel of 97 D & I experts from across the globe (of which Heather Price, CEO of Symmetra is one) have reached agreement on what makes for success in Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World (GDIB)

The 2016 edition, released globally today, provides updated standards, keeping pace with present-day, real world matters. Driven by the two ultimate goals of diversity and inclusion — improving organizational performance while also creating a better world — GDIB is research-based and practical.

The GDIB describes what is necessary to do D&I work well. Effective D&I work is achievable when it is strategic, tied to the mission and goals of the organization, led with competence and care, and implemented in a sustainable manner. The GDIB’s 266 benchmarks encompass fourteen categories with five progression levels: from Inactive to Best Practice.

“This is a tool we have offered to many of our clients as added value as it is excellent in providing a systemic framework for D & I work. Rather than getting caught up in multiple initiatives which are fashionable in time, a client can use this to benchmark their strengths and weaknesses, inform their priorities and track their progress. Having participated as an expert panelist since 2006 in  producing  many editions , collaborating with D & I experts across the globe to  reach consensus on what these benchmarks should measure, and tracking how these have needed to  change over the last decade, has been  an inspiring journey” says Heather Price.


“With the support of the Japanese government and recent legislation on requiring companies to disclose gender targets and female advancement plans, this action for transparency is a great time for the 2016 GDIB Launch,” remarks Expert Panelist Janelle Sasaki, executive director of diversity & inclusion services, Ernst & Young Advisory Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan. “We customized the GDIB for cultural, localized meanings.  When diversity and inclusion was first introduced in Japan several years ago, it was seen as a western concept. In fact, there is not a Japanese character for the word ‘inclusion.’ The benchmarks accurately guided us when we broke ‘inclusion’ down into traits and other descriptive statements,”

Nene Molefi, managing director of Mandate Molefi, Johannesburg, South Africa, emphasizes the GDIB’s applicability to her varying clientele sectors in oil, mining, manufacturing, construction, financial services, and academic institutions. “The GDIB offers a unique opportunity to leverage diversity and promote inclusion at multiple levels and multiple arenas. The practical steps and incremental nature of the GDIB provides a clear sense of where you are and where you want to be,” Molefi, also an Expert Panelist, states.

Please contact Symmetra if you wish to find out more about the GDIB and get access to this tool which is provided free of charge

Developing a brand strategy in Asia through inclusion and leveraging Diversity of Thought

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Recently Symmetra had the pleasure of partnering with the Seoul Sales and Marketing team in a manufacturing and distribution company of consumer goods.  The international company has made some early progress with their broad diversity and inclusion agenda.  They wanted to use the brand strategy workshop in Seoul as a strong, compelling and visible symbol for embedding diversity and inclusion in their business.  Let us tell you how this was achieved.

The Seoul Sales and Marketing team scheduled a 3 day brand strategy workshop with a diverse group of participants from Sales, Marketing, HR, and Finance as well as General Managers.  The first day focused on Symmetra building participants’ capability and confidence to create the right environment and leverage diversity of thought for creating an innovative brand strategy.  More specifically one of our Executive Facilitators, Rod Smart, facilitated a highly interactive and compelling workshop to:

  • Build the business case for diversity and inclusion to achieve innovation and high performance
  • Introduced the concept of and cultural conditions required to leverage diversity of thought
  • Highlighted common unconscious biases that hinder innovation
  • Shared and practiced strategies for counteracting bias as well as creating psychological safety and inclusion.

The rest of the workshop focused on building the brand strategy whilst applying some of the newly learned techniques.  Rod played a ‘real time coaching’ role during these 2 days.  He provided both informal and structured feedback to individuals and the group as a whole to help them maintain psychological safety, foster inclusion and leverage the diversity of thought in the room.

Feedback from participants highlight the value Rod and Symmetra made to the workshop experience as well as the quality of the brand strategy produced:

Rod says “An exciting and most productive new application of Symmetra’s ground breaking ideas to the process of strategy building”.

Symmetra’s experience shows that blending the capability building with application and coaching can help build real, solid engagement and commitment for diversity and inclusion.

Yes you can thwart your bias!

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Biases are Innate

That unconscious bias is a real feature of human cognition is no longer a matter of dispute or doubt. A mountain of evidence has been accumulated on the existence and impact of subliminal processes below our active consciousness influencing our behaviour continuously. The evidence derives from improved psychological insights generated by the field of behavioural economics as well as increasingly sophisticated scientific data as to how electrical impulses flow through the brain (neuroscience). Moreover, the use and application of specialised and dedicated software tools designed to reveal unconscious biases has confirmed not merely that they exist but are also able to show where the biases of any individual and leadership team actually lie.

Biases lead to poor decisions

The practical implication of failing to acknowledge or address unconscious bias means that a high proportion of decisions will be made on the basis of incomplete, inaccurate or outright false data. And the consequences of biased decision-making can range from the inconvenient to the catastrophic, costing organisations billions of dollars. Working across the globe with leaders in order to identify examples of bias impacting on the quality of their decisions, Symmetra has collected dozens of examples. These include “pet projects”  which should have been called off because they were not working ( new technology systems, new products etc.)-but were not  due to the interest bias of the project leader, or “seasonal patterns” identified to explain a dramatic drop in revenue in a business by a leader  where an objective assessment of the evidence would have indicated that the problem lay elsewhere.

Biases can be neutralised

Because unconscious biases are universal, two fallacies have arisen as to whether there is any point in trying to counteract them: The first fallacy is that because these biases operate below the level of our minute-to-minute awareness there is no way of impeding them. The second fallacy is that telling people that everyone is biased will lead to the conclusion that it is just a basic human frailty and therefore not objectionable. The fact of the matter is that we can indeed take steps to counteract mental processes that lead to less than ideal results, in just the same way that we can take protective measures against harmful physical responses to outside stimuli. The understanding and recognition that everyone harbours some unconscious bias is simply a first step to trying to moderate the harmful effects of the biases. It is not a tacit signal that biases are okay because we all have them.

Positive strategies for counteracting bias

Strategies for counteracting unconscious bias in organisations can follow two parallel streams. The first is by helping individual employees to recognise that they have biases and then introducing them to techniques which can inhibit the biases from controlling their decisions.

The second is at the organisational level, where systems or processes are created through recommended or mandatory procedures and structures so as to diffuse decision-making powers. The effect of this will be that the biases of a single person are less likely to be decisive. Research by Sunstein and Jolls (2006) demonstrates that unconscious bias is very hard to detect in one’s own thinking but easy to detect in another’s. Thus groups, and even more so diverse groups, are better at self- checking, identifying biases within themselves.

Leaders who labour under the impression that an education session alone on the topic of unconscious bias will address the issue effectively are unlikely to experience any transformational change in organisational culture. What is required is a well-tailored strategy which is comprehensive and sustained to instil proven techniques for counteracting unconscious bias.

Attend Symmetra’s breakfast session on Debiasing your Decisions


Symmetra delivering FlexAgility Workshop in Hong Kong 2016

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Heather Price in Hong Kong delivering a session on FlexAgility for the Diversity and Inclusion Asian Network (DIAN), sponsored by Community Business 

“This was attended by Executives, HRDs and Diversity and OD leads from a range of blue chip multinationals in IT, Law, Financial services, Media and Professional services who operate across Asia.

Whilst all have cutting edge policies most are grappling to get traction in their flexibility agenda says Heather.”

“The FlexAgility Workshop is designed to change the way leaders think about flexible working. It is not just about setting up flexible working arrangements for success – but about providing leaders with the insight that leading effectively in the modern day economy requires agility – the skill to exercise individual judgment and wisdom in response to the increasingly diverse needs and expectations of the workforce and to the ambiguity and uncertainty of the workplace where change has become the new normal”.

“This shift in the mindset of leaders about FlexAgility, from an inconvenient employee perk to a strategic business imperative, is what will close the gap between policy and  practice on flexibility in organisations”.

Quotes from attendee’s

“I learned a great deal from the session and am eager to share key realizations with my team”.

Thomson Reuters

Thank you for delivering such an excellent workshop this morning! Participants are all leaving with some practical takeaways and are eager to bring back their insights to their leaders and drive change!”

Matthew YU, Program Manager, D & I, Community Business


How Big Data Analytics will boost Diversity and Inclusion

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Businesswoman standing looking at data flowchart in cloudy landscape


Big data analytics is a relatively new methodology for collecting and analysing vast amounts of data – much of it from sources previously untapped. It creates a new capacity for organisations to discover hidden patterns of important information and thus improve their ability to make predictions and decisions.

Collecting and analysing data has always been important for business. What has now changed is that through technological advances linked to immensely more powerful computing systems, data can be collected rapidly, from a vast number of sources sorted and then analysed. Big data may come from emails, location data, spoken interactions, postings on social media questionaries and interviews.

Companies and organisations now recognise that applying the metadata lens to data relating to employees or prospective employees, derived from a multiplicity of sources, can offer significantly amplified signals of workplace problems and at the same time, it can reveal new potential and opportunities for the business. This is known as People Analytics or Talent Analytics.


For HR, gaining new insights through a comprehensive analytics system can undoubtedly improve performance, help to make the work experience more satisfying for employees and identify trends on engagement and culture and offer companies a competitive advantage. This intelligence can offer new strategies to help direct how, when and where interventions should occur.

Thus, Pfizer, AOL and Facebook use People Analytics to identify factors that correlate with high performance and retention; BP uses it to evaluate its training programs, Google uses it to dissect interviews in order to extract maximum insight as to the possible suitability of prospective hires.

Xerox which employs 45,000 workers in its customer care centres previously filled positions through interviews and basic assessments of technical efficiency. Some 5 years ago after switching its recruitment to big data analytics, XEROX discovered that previous experience was not a useful predictor of employee performance but rather the distance between home and work was strongly associated with employee engagement and retention. Insights like this could, in addition, have implications for the business case for flexible and remote working.

In Australia, Commonwealth Bank has been using a predictive analysis tool for the past three years to answer such questions as which employees are most likely to resign and which employees will be the best performers. The analytics tool affords the Bank a predictive capability so that future problems can be avoided.


In the USA the most progressive companies in the diversity arena have already implemented big data analytics to accelerate the progress of women and other diverse groups in their organisations. The vast majority of companies ranked in the top 50 for Diversity in 2016 have achieved this status through exploiting the abundance of available data. Many of the top diversity companies employ  data scientists and have installed dedicated software to help discover new pools of talent as well as to produce metrics showing that diversity and inclusion gives businesses a competitive advantage.

The advent of people analytics supported by big data has created a new paradigm for the sourcing, hiring and retaining of diverse talent. No one has put this more pertinently than Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel who has written in a recent article (May 2016) “When it comes to ‘doing’ diversity and inclusion we need to measure what matters: hiring rates, exits and turnovers, progression and promotion rates and pay parity. Let’s go get the data, make it public and do something about it. Use data to debunk the myth that there are just not enough good candidates to hire diversity in great numbers. Let the data tell the truth.”

On the inclusion front, digital HR now has the capability to draw upon data extracted from social, mobile and cloud technology. Work can be made easier, more productive, more rewarding giving employees access to real time information and massively advanced communications systems.


The Container Store, a retail chain in the U.S.A., supplies its 5000 employees with a wearable voice activated device principally to advance communication across the group. However, it is used also to accumulate data on staff interactions, conversations with customers and is able to monitor exactly where and for how long an employee is in a given location. It provides unheralded data on employee performance. Using the data, Container store was able to identify gaps in store reporting as the area where improvement was required. As a consequence all members of the leadership team were provided with an app which dramatically enhanced the reporting functionality. Rather than being regarded as an intrusion this monitoring device has been welcomed by staff as a huge boon to their mode of working. Thus in 2015, The Container Store was ranked 14th in Fortune’s best companies to work for. It was voted the best company for women, for diversity in retail and for camaraderie.

As with many other factors which contribute to better performance, motivation and innovation in organisations,  the drive for diversity and inclusion stands on the threshold of revolutionary changes because of the advent of big data analytics. Whether a company is just embarking on its diversity journey or is already well down the track it has now available to it a solid platform of metrics upon which to base its decisions.

To learn more register for the next Symmetra Connect Event : Silicon Diversity 23 June

Heather Price: CEO of Symmetra on the paradox of delivering Unconscious bias training in corporate USA amidst the gaining popularity of Trump

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Symmetra has been delivering unconscious bias training to leaders across the globe over the past 6 years which has included working with many large corporations in the USA, some of whom have become outstanding exemplars of workplace diversity and inclusion.

On my most recent working journey this month in the USA I have found it  challenging and disappointing, to say the least, to find myself operating in an environment where the political debate around matters of race, gender and sexual orientation have become increasingly shrill and fraught with enmity. Expressions of racial, ethnic and religious bias and stereotyping are being openly expressed in the public arena raising an issue of stark dissonance between those corporations striving for fairer and more progressive workplaces on the one hand, and the background of harsh racially-charged discourse in the public domain on the other.

Where America has for the last 50 years been upheld as the benchmark on embedding democratic values into the society at large and its institutions, it has now paradoxically become acceptable in some quarters to give explicit voice to attitudes of bigotry and prejudice, often done in the name of casting aside unnecessary and burdensome political correctness. The repeated appeals to racial and ethnic solidarity which have become a hallmark of the current election campaign in the USA are a stark reminder that the task of reducing and overcoming biases and prejudice is a continuing battle.

Working with a progressive financial services company in several locations in the USA over the month of June I became involved in deep conversation on many occasions with outstanding corporate leaders who are truly intent on attracting and retaining diverse talent, “to fish from the full pond, so to speak”, so as to optimise their business performance. In a society where it is predicted that in less than 10 years, 75% of the workforce will be Millennials, of whom 44% currently belong to  a racial and ethnic minority (hence there will be no racial majority group in the USA by 2050) and where women  between the ages of 25 and 34 are currently 20% more likely than men to be college educated, this is surely a business imperative.

However all forward thinking business leaders are  now paradoxically faced with a potential President and his supporters who do not disguise their hostility towards women, Mexicans and persons with disability. Fortunately this overt bias, rather than undermining the efforts of those who are assiduously striving for diverse and inclusive workplaces,  is admirably underlining for them how fundamental it is that they remain on course and even redouble their efforts

America is now presented with a populist leader willing to exploit racial and other fears in an explicit and unapologetic way which is certainly something which the country has not experienced for many decades.

As an ex-South African who has witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of deep seated racial  bias on millions and on the economy at large, I can only hope that the American dream that all men (and women) are created equal will ultimately prevail. Surely the thousands of leaders in big business, who subscribe to responsible and ethical business values will leverage their power to ensure that the years of constructive and painstaking building of a more inclusive society and more equitable workplace will not be lost.

This current paradox is disturbingly too reminiscent for me of  what it was like when I worked with big corporations in South Africa in the early 1990s, who were subscribers to the Sullivan principles (which happened to be American!) intent on responsible business and upholding democratic values whilst operating in an Apartheid society which stood for the very opposite. Whilst I can understand and appreciate that some Americans perceive  that their livelihoods and culture may be at risk, I do hope a progressive mindset will prevail which upholds that collaboration, in spite of our differences, will always be of greater benefit than isolationism and antagonism.

Reflections on a tumultuous period for race and gender diversity

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Working  across two continents in the US and UK over the last six weeks with a focus on  positioning a multinational to leverage the full value  diversity has to add in the workplace,  I have ironically been exposed to disturbingly public displays of intolerance  and inter-racial animosity . These incidents have brought attitudes towards diverse groups, such as racial minorities, religious groups, women and the LGBTI community, on to the front pages of newspapers and created contentious material for prime-time television debates.


I was fortuitously present in London on the fateful day when the Brexit result was announced. Whatever the respective claims from each side on the economic issues, it was certainly disconcerting to note the unmistakeable expressions of xenophobia and bigotry from some of the leave campaigners and members of the public. Not only was the spectre of a large-scale Muslim invasion raised but there was also overt hostility expressed against foreign workers from Eastern Europe who have actually been living and working peacefully in Britain for years. And unfortunately this seemingly casual observation on my part proved to be entirely consistent with the statistical monitoring  by websites and institutions of hate-crimes who reported a marked and unmistakeable upswing of race-based incidents post-Brexit.


These incidents, nevertheless pale when compared to the current brutal racially-motivated killings on both sides of the colour line in the USA. Many people argue that the USA is more racially polarised than it has been for the past two or three decades. While it is clear that there are no simple or quick solutions it is equally clear that political and other leaders have a duty not to stoke fears and prejudices, as some have been doing, but to help find areas of common interest amongst different communities.


 Paradoxically, however, while race issues appear to be escalating, there is decidedly cause for optimism on the gender front. This conclusion has been brought home forcibly by a number of remarkable and unanticipated events arising in the political arena from the Brexit exercise.

Many of the leading male protagonists on both sides of the argument  have now effectively departed the scene: David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove. In their place, a number of women have suddenly risen to prominence and it will fall to them to extricate their countries from the present malaise. The next British Prime Minister will be Theresa May. The leading politicians in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Nicola Sturgeon and Arlene Foster, make up the rest of the group of UK female political leaders. And, of course, there is Angela Merkel leading Germany, the most powerful nation in Europe as well as Erna Solberg in Norway.

When one adds to this that a leading nation in Asia, South Korea, is headed by a woman, Park Geun-hye, and the very real possibility that the United States could have a female President, one can picture a world next year where women  will lead some of the most powerful nations  across the globe. This is bound to have a positive effect on gender advancement in all areas where discrimination and unconscious bias has created barriers to female advancement.

Research has consistently shown that having a single or even two female leaders elevated to boards or other decision-making entities often leaves them isolated. It is usually only when they achieve a significant proportional representation that their voices are heard and they are able to wield influence. Having so many female political leaders in number of powerful nations will surely serve to embed this as the new normal.


It may be too soon to form a clear understanding of how Brexit and related events will turn out for the UK, Europe and Australia  However, it is clear that we cannot afford to be complacent in believing that racial and ethnic tensions could never come to the surface in Australia as they have elsewhere. The racial confrontations that occurred in Cronulla a decade ago are a stark reminder that we cannot take inter-group harmony in Australia for granted.

Nevertheless, we are fortunate in Australia that we have been spared some of the worst excesses of violence towards minority groups. We must all redouble our efforts to create workplaces and arenas of social interaction that are seen to be places where diversity and inclusion become the norm. This is undoubtedly the best recipe for social and economic advancement in this country of ours.

In Defence of Diversity Training

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The most recent edition of Harvard Business Review is devoted mainly to diversity issues. The main article entitled “Why Diversity Programs Fail” might lead some to mistakenly conclude that diversity programs, especially diversity training, simply do not work. But in fact, the thesis of the authors is simply that some diversity programs – and some types of training – achieve their objectives more effectively than others; hardly a notion that anyone who has worked in the diversity area would contest.


To be clear, the authors do not quarrel with the two basic propositions that underpin most diversity initiatives. These are: diverse and inclusive workplaces are better than those which lack these qualities; and having a truly diverse workplace usually does not happen fortuitously. Achieving diversity and inclusion requires a planned, concerted and sustained effort.

Against this backdrop, it is of course, desirable, if not essential, that the efficacies of various types of diversity programs are measured. We at Symmetra accept that progress and change must be monitored and measured with respect to diverse representation at various levels of the organisation as well as with respect to whether a culture of inclusion has been embedded.

Successful diversity programs usually involve a complex interface of initiatives and not merely discrete and unconnected educational efforts which are limited to particular employee levels or which have no follow-up. In fact this is true of any change initiative.

Prerequisites for the strategic success of any diversity program (training or otherwise) are that it must be supported from the top – preferably by the CEO – and diversity strategies must be embedded and fully aligned with other business strategies of the organisation. It must be comprehensive and filter through the entire organisation.


The HBR article starts from the proposition that diversity programs in the U.S.A. were a response to a number of high-profile discrimination and harassment suits – some of them going back to the 1990’s. In fact, modern diversity programs have long-since evolved from the tick-the-box, risk-minimisation forays. We at Symmetra have distinguished between negatively focused “anti-discrimination compliance” and positively focused “diversity and inclusion” training for at least a decade. We’d agree with the authors that most people hate attending compliance training (and being told what to do) and in fact most experienced L&D professionals hate delivering it.

But it is important not to confuse risk-management techniques – such as hiring tests, performance ratings and grievance procedures which are instituted as a shield against potential discrimination claims – and true inclusion programs which are conceived and implemented as wide-ranging strategies to leverage diversity in order to benefit teams and  optimise business performance. Our programs are designed to confer skills and capability benefits to participants, enabling them to confidently and effectively lead diverse teams and make better decisions – not browbeat them into compliance.

So, to identify methods such as mentoring and institution of diversity councils as being highly effective (as the HBR article does) and stating that in comparison training and anti-biasing modalities are ineffective is almost certainly overly-simplistic. The benefits of mentoring and diversity councils are likely to be much better achieved when the scope and purpose of the entire diversity initiative has been explained and absorbed through an initial educational program that delivers a consistent message across the business. Another paper from the same authors found that whole-of-organisation, culturally-focused, voluntary diversity training does improve diversity. Even the compliance focused training so negatively reviewed will still deliver modest positive results when paired with proper accountability structures.


Companies which have consistently made the top 50 list for diversity in the U.S.A., such as Novartis, EY, Sodexo, Johnson and Johnson, and Accenture, to name a few, have all implemented long-term diversity awareness and skills training programs on their journey to being and remaining the best diversity companies. When executed correctly as part of a broader strategy, diversity training can be shown to deliver excellent results.

At Symmetra, we are continually learning, adapting and modifying our programs to help embed an inclusive workplace culture for our clients and to achieve measurable changes in their diversity profile. We applaud research which examines what works, and the underlying message that companies who think a series of quick training sessions are some kind of silver bullet need to think again. But we hope that readers of the HBR use this research to help guide the design of effective training programs and diversity strategies, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Unconscious Bias : A killer when pursuing innovation

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by Deb Assheton

While working with the future leaders of one of Symmetra’s major clients in Hong Kong recently I was provided with vivid insight into the importance of counter-acting unconscious bias for those organisations wishing to adopt Lean innovation principles in their future service and product developments.

Lean thinking requires that leaders enable an environment that consistently seeks diversity of thought; one that continually generates opportunities to explore new ideas. The better leaders then consider these opportunities with an attitude of not knowing, that is ‘I don’t know…let’s test and see’ and then iterate through experimentation. This framework and approach is a vast departure from a traditional organisational leadership role where a leader is often the ‘expert’, and the decision maker.

The ability to suspend judgement and allow the experimentation and testing process to unfold requires that leaders acknowledge their biases. In the world of Symmetra’s client some examples of the strong biases which surfaced during Lean workshops were:

Interest bias – where leaders were reluctant to ‘throw away’ their own ideas, even after testing demonstrated they weren’t viable

Social bias – subjecting one idea to less than rigour than others because the idea had the support of several leaders

Diagnosis bias – during customer discovery this emerged as asking leading questions of customers. That is, leaders were subtly asking questions that ‘herded customer responses’ to a pre-determined outcome – the outcome the leader thought would be best.

Action bias – there was a very strong tendency amongst this group, as we see in many organisations, to rush into action before all the questions were answered, and all the risks were understood.

Company ‘think and speak’ was the major enemy when discussing ideas with customers during real interviews. Company speak meant executives talked about features, when customers wanted to understand benefits. Company think meant time and money were being spent on non-value add activities out of ‘institutional’ habit rather than productive ones.

Perhaps the biggest call out was learning to sit side by side with ‘failure’ everyday, and to embrace it as a necessary step in the innovation process. Just about every founder knows that 90% of start-up’s fail, yet they start-up anyway – why? Because they believe they can find a way.

They seek success, but the search frequently runs into dead ends, encounters false starts and missed opportunities, and perhaps ends in the failure of the whole venture. Sometimes the search may yield a new and initially unimagined business opportunity that is scalable and ultimately successful. Either way, re-framing the ability to fail and learning from failure as a necessary, valuable and competitively advantageous skill -set is a major challenge for most leaders and organisations. This particular group demonstrated a deep willingness to learn, using activities which provoked their thinking, created awareness and challenged their assumptions. They adapted quickly. They re-framed failure as practice, and got better at asking questions to leverage diversity of thought. They owned their biases and mentally parked them; demonstrating that they too could create a culture that finds a way.


The game-changing world of Customer Inclusion and Competitor Diversity

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Traditional business is changing fast. There are 5 key consumer shifts taking place that is driving the need for organisations to become Customer Inclusive and Customer led. Being customer centric is no longer enough. The level of interdependence between customers and organisations is increasing. This interdependence is not new, companies and customers have always been dependent on each other to some degree. For many organisations though inclusion of customers is new. Customers have not traditionally been viewed as part of the business model or as part of the organisations ‘team’.

At this Symmetra Connect breakfast session on 26 August we will be discussing this as well as the emergence of competitor diversity. Competitor Diversity is very challenging; and will change the way organisations operate and the markets they operate in.

The prevailing organisational view tends to be that companies are being disrupted by technology, and there are certainly many examples of that. However, equal or perhaps more disruption is occurring due to consumer choice and behaviour which, whilst enabled by technology, is actually driven by consumer dissatisfaction. Consumers want an alternative and if your organisation cannot provide it then it risks being left behind. If you’re not including your customers someone else is.

The trend toward customer inclusion represents both another revolution in the evolution of Diversity and Inclusion, but also a revolution that has its greatest impacts outside of HR and OD.

Marketing, sales, product research and development are all now being transformed by customer inclusion. Customer Inclusion isn’t just a new way to market or sell, it’s a new way to operate; to meet the needs and solve problems in a way that aims to generate lifelong partnership with your customer. A partnership that research demonstrates will be largely based on experience and intangibles such as trust and authenticity as much as product and service.

At our upcoming Symmetra Connect Breakfast we delve into the world of Customer Inclusion, looking at why we must move toward inclusion. We examine the compelling business case for change and the benefits of customer inclusion on organisational culture, customer engagement and loyalty, and co-creation of products, offers and services all of which have been linked to stronger business performance.

D&I, HR and OD teams are very well placed to champion customer inclusion as an organisation wide challenge that can unite silo’s and offers enormous performance and engagement opportunities. We encourage you to invite key stakeholders from your marketing, sales and product teams to this Symmetra Connect.

To join us please register at:


Inclusive Leadership – The Antidote to Intersectional Discrimination

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Some Diversity Programs do not succeed

Why is it that many diversity programs have fallen short of the goals or expectations of those who designed them and why are women and members of a range of diverse minority groups still so under-represented in leadership?  Traditionally, strategies to achieve equity in the workplace or to combat discrimination or exclusion of diverse persons have been premised on the idea of isolating the characteristics or attribute that is the reason for the discrimination.

This perspective has inherent and fundamental limitations. Every individual has an identity which is a composite of multiple dimensions. No one is simply a woman or gay or disabled or Asian. Two people who could be placed in the nominal category of Asian may experience exclusion or discrimination very differently, even if the fact of being Asian plays some part in the adverse treatment. By the same token, even the proverbial straight white male has multiple identities.

Exclusion on the basis of intersecting attributes

Insight as to the complex nature of personal identity led to the pioneering writings of the American discrimination lawyer, Kimberle Crenshaw, who contended that isolating a single ground of discrimination meant that those disadvantaged because of the convergence of two or more attributes would simply become invisible( intersectional discrimination ). They would not be able to claim discrimination because they could not position themselves neatly into any of the categories of persons discriminated against.

On the other hand, as Crenshaw suggests, once the complexity of personal identity is acknowledged and understood the disadvantages experienced by women and other diverse minorities in the workplace can be explained as a manifestation of the playing out of power relationships between those who have power and those who don’t because of the intersectional nature of their identity. Eliminating disadvantage requires focussing on the structural or institutional factors that reinforce those power structures and inhibit the possibility that everyone realises their full potential

Bystanders in the workplace are able to recognise either that some-one has been disadvantaged on separate occasions on completely different grounds or that a person has two attributes each independently causing negative stereotyping or exclusion (discrimination occurring consecutively or additively).

Crenshaw’s analysis by contrast, identifies that bystanders are often oblivious to the fact that  individuals can languish in a state of invisibility when they are affected simultaneously by two or more negatively-perceived attributes   Only the victim of intersectional discrimination  can, him or herself bring the adverse treatment to the spotlight and understand the complex matrix which is the cause of it.

So, for example an Asian woman may suffer exclusion in a particular context because of the combination of being both Asian and a woman. Neither being Asian nor being female is sufficient to explain the exclusion in and of itself and a male Asian or Anglo-Celtic woman would probably not have encountered the same exclusion. It is the victim who instinctively and implicitly understands that being an Asian woman in the particular context renders her unequal and disempowered.

Laws against discrimination in the workplace in Australia, as presently framed, cannot deal with multiple intersecting grounds of discrimination as they focus only on discrete grounds. Organisational policies often do not adequately address issues of intersectionality either.

Inclusive Leadership and Intersecting Discrimination

This is where inclusive leadership comes in.

Truly inclusive leaders are by definition not constrained by the need to impose unipolar identities on any person.  They understand implicitly that where employees, however they may be described, are included and engaged these employees will bring their whole-selves to work and can optimise organisational performance.

While many diversity programs proceed on the basis that a diverse workplace should be built first and then the question asked as to whether leaders are sufficiently inclusive, in fact the reverse is true. Inclusive leadership is the foundation from which many benefits including greater diversity will flow.

To this end Symmetra has been a firm advocate of the idea that the inclusivity of leadership is measurable and should be measured. As a consequence Symmetra has developed  the ‘Inclusive Leadership Index’ (ILI)  – a sophisticated diagnostic tool which measures the degree of inclusiveness displayed by a leader across 7 constructs- encompassing many observable behaviours.

Two of these constructs, in particular authenticity and self-awareness are most important in enabling a leader to  identify and overcome intersectional discrimination. When manifest in the leader, these constructs position the leader to be fully responsive to every person’s innate complex identity, including their own.

By emphasising and measuring the level of inclusivity displayed by leaders, organisations will, Symmetra believes, be better able to address discrimination, exclusion and unequal treatment in whatever guise. It is those organisations with substantive inclusion skills in their leadership cadre who are best placed to address intersectionality   and other types of exclusion. This all embracing paradigm of inclusion is more likely   to achieve the ideal of diverse representation in leadership

Heather Price in Lawyers Weekly!

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(photo courtesy AALA NSW)


Heather Price, CEO of Symmetra, presented at the Women’s Lawyer Association of NSW in conjunction with the Asian Australian Lawyers Alliance (AALA) seminar titled “Where the Glass and Bamboo Ceilings meet in the Australian Legal Profession.” The session focused on the challenges presented by intersectional diversity to the legal profession. The recent edition of Lawyers Weekly reports in detail about Heather’s presentation.


Symmetra appointed national provider of UB training for lawyers

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In what is an Australian first, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) supported by its constituent bodies, the Law Societies and Bar Associations in the States and Territories, have appointed Symmetra the exclusive provider of a national roll-out of unconscious bias education for all practising lawyers.

It has become apparent that there is a pressing need to institute this type of education to address the persistent structural and attitudinal barriers embedded within the culture of Australia’s legal profession. These severely limit opportunities for female lawyers as well as other diverse legal practitioners. The National Attrition and Re-engagement Survey (NARS) report, 2014 highlighted significant aspects of the legal profession that slow or arrest the advancement of women to senior positions to the point where many are so frustrated that they leave for good.

In addition to this, by adopting a more conscious approach to decision making, legal practitioners of every description can improve their legal and business acumen. Unconscious bias impacts on all areas of the legal profession: people and talent, assessment of cases and evidence, jurisprudence, client interactions, ethics and strategic business decisions.

Symmetra is offering a range of solutions to address unconscious bias for solicitors, barristers, in-house counsel and legal support. All solutions will be nationally recognised for Continuing Legal Education / Continuing Professional Development points.

Workplace Inclusion and the art of dialogue

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I recently attended the Forum on Workplace Inclusion, held in Minneapolis, USA, where I was privileged to present a paper on Symmetra’s program to Embed Psychological Safety in the Workplace. One of the aspects I sought to emphasise in Symmetra’s proposition is that a psychologically safe environment is one where opposing views and differences can be aired without fear of comeback and that this is an important element of building innovative organisations.

Somewhat fortuitously, a keynote speaker at the conference was Van Jones, a high profile presenter on CNN and public speaker of note. Jones is an open supporter of the Democratic Party but he campaigns for a degree of civility and rationality from competing participants in all political controversies. His address explored the current very polarised nature of US political discourse and the vast and seemingly unbridgeable gap which separates the two main political parties. The point he made is that politicians on both sides and their supporters are intent on point-scoring against the opposition rather than listening to the arguments and weighing them up to see what can and what cannot be agreed upon. He spoke of “constructive disagreement’ which requires listening to the points made by others even if the views expressed are unacceptable or repugnant. In many ways, of course, the kind of dogmatism of which Van Jones speaks is now unfortunately typical of many public figures in Australia and other Western countries. It is also a function unfortunately of many leaders steeped in the belief that the way they have always done things is the only way.

This led me to thinking about the connection between my paper on psychological safety and the argument advanced by Jones. His premise is essentially that listening to someone else with a view to extracting what is positive and valuable from what they say, rather than as a prelude to a rebuttal, is a valuable way to grow and move ahead.

This notion underpins the theory of Amy Edmundsen’s work on psychological safety which is that sharing views and learning from failure rather than attributing blame is the hallmark of successful teams.

In the political sphere a reluctance to listen to the other side simply means that politicians talk past each other. In the business and organisational sphere, a sense that one will not be listened to simply limits or shuts down potentially valuable interactions and wastes the full value of the intellectual capital that organisations work so hard to recruit.

The common thread which runs through any sound initiative to promote constructive interaction is that of ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is not the same as discussion. Dialogue comes from the Greek ‘dialogos’ – or ‘through the word’. It implies a stream of shared meaning flowing between participants.

As a leading thinker on organisational management, Edgar Schein has said:

“Dialogue is a basic process for building common understanding. By letting go of disagreement, a group gradually builds up a shared set of meanings that make much higher levels of mutual understanding and creative thinking possible”.

A culture which creates a platform for successful dialogue is one where psychological safety will be pervasive which, in turn, will result in greater creativity and innovation.  Those who have an interest in fostering more inclusive organisations can take a huge step forward by helping to facilitate the art of dialogue. As a consultant in the field of diversity and inclusion, I take heart from the very significant input of someone like Van Jones. It reinforces some of the basic precepts which we at Symmetra have endeavoured to embody in our various service offerings – that listening well and encouraging genuine dialogue is a major building block of high performing organisations.

Judges Confronting Their Own Bias A Necessary Exercise?

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Biased thinking can lead not only to minor mistakes but can precipitate major disasters. This is so whether the bias is conscious- apparent to the actor upon self-reflection (explicit) or unconscious – hidden from the actor’s reflective thought processes (implicit).

A recent edition of the New Scientist magazine (Aug 15) explains that the explosion in 2010 of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig could have been prevented but for the existence of a distinct “confirmation bias” amongst rig workers. When a test on a critical seal showed a failure, this was explained away as something innocuous by the workers rather than facing the evidence indicating that something was seriously amiss.

Allegations of bias arise in all sorts of contexts and sometimes have to be resolved by a formal inquiry. Where requests are made for judges, arbitrators and judicial commissioners to disqualify themselves because of alleged bias, the aggrieved party will seek to establish demonstrable manifestations of such bias.  In other words it is conscious bias that is decisive in a recusal application. Unconscious bias rarely, if ever, features in these enquiries and short of requiring the judicial officer to take an unconscious bias test, the operation of implicit biases while often plausible, remains outside the scope of the argument.

Recently Royal Commissioner Hayden was requested by certain unions to stand down. The commission was established to enquire into possible breaches of governance standards, malfeasance and criminality on the part of elements within the trade union movements. While sitting, the Commissioner had accepted and later declined an invitation to give an address on a legal topic at an event sponsored by the Liberal party. The initial acceptance, the unions argued,could be viewed as sympathy for the Liberal side of the political spectrum.

The legal question which the Commissioner had to decide was not whether he had been shown to be biased but whether a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably apprehend that the Commissioner would not bring an impartial mind to bear to the issues at hand. So the Commissioner is required to put himself in the position of an independent third party viewing the potential for bias. Applying this test, the Commissioner refused to disqualify himself, holding that a fair-minded observer would not apprehend any bias on his part.

In truth, unless one is alive to the hazards of the application of heuristics (mental short-cuts) any enquiry as to bias in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings is itself potentially subject to unconscious bias. This is so because, as the highest UK court observed:

“The fair-minded and informed observer is him or herself in large measure a construct of the court”.

Since different judges have in the past created different constructs of the ideal fair-minded observer one can conclude that this imagined paragon of objectivity and fair-mindedness could easily be a product of the judge’s own biases. In other words, the judge is more likely than not to think that the fair-minded observer “thinks as I do”. This is a manifestation of a classic and well-documented bias known as the “false consensus bias” which involves an assumption that the thinking of most people or at least most right thinking people is consistent with one’s own.

While lawyers and judges are indeed trained to exclude irrelevant matters from their consideration this is not the same thing as being free from unconscious bias. Extensive research, for example, by Cornell Law School has shown that in the area of race, judges hold the same implicit biases as others.

And as one prominent Australian judge has written “The task of fact finding or fact selection has involved a large amount of intuitive decision without conscious deliberation. It has, no doubt, also been done with some preconceived or unconscious bias, potential distortion and error” (Hon.G.T. Pagone)

In principle, therefore it would be very beneficial and perhaps even imperative, for anyone and particularly those who perform a decision – making role to examine their own biases and take steps to counteract them.

Judges like others who are placed in a position where critical decisions are made need to understand that it is not disparaging of oneself to acknowledge one’s own biases. Recent scientific advances have shown that use of heuristics is a natural part of human cognitive functioning. All of us, judges included make errors in judgement every day because of the design of the machinery of our thinking and therefore need to bring our biases from the unconscious to the conscious level so we are better able to counteract them.

By Errol Price

2015 – The tipping point year for women on Company boards

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Malcolm Gladwell who popularised the phrase ‘The Tipping Point’ as the title of his best-selling book defined it as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold the boiling point”. Often the tipping point in significant social movements is recognised only in retrospect. However in the march to give women their rightful role in large public companies it seems that we are able to recognise that in 2015 that very milestone has arrived.

For many years the moral arguments against the glass ceiling and the economic arguments positing that companies profit when their boards are diverse made little headway.  The percentage of women on the boards of the largest public companies in the U.S.A, and the U.K remained obstinately below the 20% mark until about 2010 and in Australia it was below 10%.

Now in developed economies the U.S.A.,U.K, Australia, Europe and Canada and even surprisingly in   India and there are discernible  changes as women start occupying more seats on company boards. Incremental steps originating from a variety of quarters have begun to create momentum for change. That change is almost certainly now unstoppable.

The impetus to implement concrete changes for women in the workplace is now coming from both sides of the gender spectrum. Men are acknowledging that the system is unfair and needs to be changed.  Women are increasingly recognising that they are not powerless and are beginning to use political leverage and economic muscle to force change.

Norway in 2006 was the first country to legislate a quota of females on its boards (40%) and it was followed by France, Spain and the Netherlands. The Bombay Stock Exchange of India in 2014 mandated a minimum of one female director in every listed company.

The dramatic move by Norway signalled that at last, one country was prepared to take serious steps to redress a glaring inequity in the workplace. The consequence of this has been a significant re-think in other countries. It has injected an element of urgency and resolve to reach the goal of adequate female representation within a plausibly acceptable time-frame.

For those countries seeking alternatives to quotas other routes have been found to advance women on boards.

Firstly there are Voluntary Targets. In the UK in 2011, the government fixed the target at 25% female directors by the end of 2015.  That goal was willingly adopted and is likely to be reached with female board representation already at 23.5% by mid-year.

A second option is internal corporate programs allied with transparent reporting mandated by external regulation. In Australia for example, the ASX guidelines incorporate a ‘comply or explain’ rule with respect to the advancements of gender diversity has had rate worthy success. The percentage of women on ASX 200 boards has risen from 8.3% in 2009 to 20% in 2015 with the Australian Institute of Company Directors pushing for a 30% target by 2019.

Naturally companies which depend on female consumers or those with high proportions of female employees are more likely to be in the forefront of those by actively seeking to appoint female directors.

And of course there are laggards in all countries -those that are simply unwilling to act or believe that they are immune to the forces for change. They are almost certainly on the wrong side of history. At the beginning of July, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors wrote to the chairpersons of 32 ASX 200 companies without any female directors asking for an explanation for this state of affairs.  Since the members of this organisation control some $1.6 trillion in investor funds, their disapproval is likely to carry some considerable weight.

The movement to achieve respectable representivity of women in Australia’s leading companies is gathering momentum at last. A corner has been turned and there will be no looking back.


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