How to advance diversity and inclusion by giving staff permission to be themselves

How to advance diversity and inclusion by giving staff permission to be themselves

By Chris Sheedy

It wasn’t until she learned to be comfortable with her own differences that Dr Michelle Phipps FCPHR truly appreciated the power of diversity and inclusion.

Growing up in Mount Eliza on the shores of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria was often a “very uncomfortable experience” for Dr Michelle Phipps FCPHR.

Even though she was born in Victoria, for a long time Phipps felt she didn’t belong in Australia. Her family tree, she says, can offer an explanation as to why.

Her mother is from British Hong Kong and her entire family come from all over the world, including in Ukraine, India, China, Malaysia, England, Canada, the U.S and New Zealand. 

“I’ve been to Hong Kong about 50 times and I lived there for a time to do my PhD,” says Phipps, who has held senior HR roles at QBE Insurance, Coca-Cola Amatil and Brown-Forman, and is currently Chief People Officer at VetPartners, a role she started ten days before being interviewed for this story.

She is also the recently appointed Chair of AHRI’s Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Panel, and will join Dr Susan Carland as a guest moderator at one of AHRI’s four upcoming state-based International Women’s Day breakfast events.

“My mother was brought up in British Hong Kong to be ‘more British than the British’, she used to tell me, proudly.”

This was one of the reasons Phipps felt her mother didn’t want her to learn Cantonese.

“It was to protect me from racism, which she experienced quite badly. But it would have been so useful, and I experienced racism anyway,” says Phipps.

“My mother played a big role in the way I see myself and the way I explored my identity. She made me acutely aware of my differences. Whether or not that was a good thing, she was trying to make me proud of my difference by making me aware of my otherness.” 

Phipps is still very aware of her otherness. While these days she chooses to view it as a strength, the dark side of otherness can crop up from time to time. For example, when outgoing Chair of AHRI’s D&I Advisory Panel Rhonda Brighton-Hall recently championed Phipps for the role, Phipps was deeply touched but surprised.

“I wondered for a moment if it was because I’m from an Asian background or because I’m good at what I do. 

“Then I realised Rhonda has a track record of making good decisions about good people. She has an unrelenting belief in forging ahead. I realised a lot of my reaction – my impostor syndrome – was shaped by the way I felt about myself when I was younger.”

The path to diversity and inclusion

For a long time Phipps wanted to work in sales. Her future, she felt early in her career, was about not leveraging her identity or lived experience in diversity.

“I went through a period where I just didn’t want anything to do with it. I was seeking to fit in. I wanted to be the ‘good Asian’. 

“Just as my mother said she was ‘more British than the British’, I wanted to be ‘more Australian than the Australians’. Now I wonder what that even means. To be honest, that was an angry time.”

The anger, of course, came from Phipps never feeling she had permission to be herself. But after spending time in sales and managing large teams, including at department store David Jones, she began to realise that diverse teams had a distinct performance advantage.

“That wasn’t just about cultural diversity,” she says. “There was also diversity in thinking, abilities, preferences, the environment and more. When I embraced this and had some wins, and also some failures, in leadership, I realised that I loved how HR enables leaders to manage people better.”

“I was seeking to fit in. I wanted to be the ‘good Asian’… I wanted to be ‘more Australian than the Australians.’” – Dr Michelle Phipps FCPHR

By giving people permission to be themselves at work, she discovered those people are usually happier, more engaged and higher performers. 

After a decade in sales and marketing in the early 2000s, Phipps shifted lanes to HR, culture and D&I. By learning to embrace her authentic self and her unique background, she found a career in which she could be engaged and make a difference in people’s lives.

Leadership behaviour

People say that everybody in a business has to own the culture. Of course that’s true, but leaders have the loudest voices and the largest share of attention. Success in D&I therefore comes down to the example they set and the language they use, says Phipps.

“The first change to organisational culture is around language. Leaders need to know the language of an inclusive leader. Why? Because an inclusive culture is an environment that allows agility of minds and agility of ideas. And an inclusive culture attracts talent.”

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Inclusive language means being welcoming of difference, she says, and using words that encourage engagement and belonging.

For almost five years, from February 2014, Phipps held the role of Vice-President HR, Asia-Pacific at global spirits business Brown-Forman. She was surrounded by leaders who appreciated the value of D&I done well and openly supported Phipps in designing and implementing a culture and D&I strategy across the business. 

She began with a gap analysis, which fed data back into a model – not unlike the AHRI D&I Maturity Model, which benchmarks best-practice organisations. She also launched a D&I council, including representatives from Brown-Forman’s executive leadership team, and developed a vision and purpose for D&I within the business.

“Then I had people look at what was happening inside the organisation in terms of the way we communicate and our internal and external processes.

“I had a group of people from all levels across the organisation, not just the ELT, talking about what good D&I looks like. 

We focussed on employee resource groups and built a strategy around the gaps to ensure we knew exactly what we needed to do to embed D&I throughout the organisation in an organic way.”

Hard data came from payroll and more broadly from the finance and HR systems. Then further research was conducted among leadership, employee and stakeholder groups to develop insights and build a strong business case for D&I, and ensure the right functions were in place, such as equal opportunities panels during the recruitment process.

It was a project that ended up being awarded with AHRI’s Michael Kirby LGBTIQ+ Inclusion Award in 2018.

“That roll-out was immensely satisfying,” she says. “It was a huge team effort carried out by incredibly knowledgeable and passionate people. And it really did change the culture,” she says.

“Our benchmarks were updated every year as we moved through the journey. We set timely targets for our own business, for how we worked with suppliers, for how we’d always ensure all stakeholders championed our values, etc.”

That program brought great and sometimes immeasurable returns to the business, says Phipps, from the bottom line to the employer value proposition, and more. 

This was determined by positive spikes in engagement, retention and applicant data, as well as a drop in absenteeism rates.

“In an [organisation] that doesn’t have a good understanding of D&I, people who work there will feel they have to do things a certain way to fit in,” she says. 

That can halt progress in a short and long-term way, so that’s why it’s important for these D&I initiatives to be co-created with employee groups and woven in at a foundational level.

“An inclusive culture is an environment that allows agility of minds and agility of ideas.” – Dr Michelle Phipps FCPHR

In her next role, as Group Head of Talent, Leadership and Inclusion at Coca-Cola Amatil, Phipps developed unique measures of cultural indicators, creating hard data around aspects of culture that some had previously considered immeasurable. These included how many people were promoted as a result of learning and development programs, how many women in the leadership program stayed with the business or had been promoted, and how many staff had lost time due to injury.

“These indicators can be used as a flag to tell the board and executives about the health of the business. They are a clear indicator of organisational health, and included various D&I measures.”

A thousand faces

While researching her PhD, which explored notions of identity, Phipps read the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. It’s an exploration of the shared structures of mythological narratives, says Phipps, and develops an image of the common threads of any hero’s journey.

Phipps saw her own journey reflected in this book – a journey which, so far at least, had felt anything but heroic.

“We are all the hero of our own story,” she says. “We have to go through the journey of life and all of its challenges and initiations alone. The hero is always alone. 

“That comforted me because I realised I’m alone in this journey. And that’s okay, because while you’re on the journey alone, you are not lonely if those around you respect you.”

That’s what the very best businesses realise, says Phipps. Success in D&I means creating an environment in which people can be heroes by thriving in their uniqueness, rather than feeling they must conform.

“All success takes is a leader who’s happy to deal with the ambiguity of someone who has a different lived experience to them.”

*This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.

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