Jim McDowell

Building a culture of excellence and inclusion

‘Be polite. Help others. Do your best.’

That’s the approach my mother taught me growing up in an East Belfast housing estate. These three directives have served me well and are the foundation for my own behaviour and my expectations of others.

I believe this approach is applicable within a family, a circle of friends, the workplace or any other community setting as a cultural norm. I hope others will agree that it reflects my behaviour at work!

As the head of the Premier’s department, I am responsible for setting the tone and influencing the culture of the organisation to ensure we have the best possible working environment.

We’re striving for a workforce that is reflective of the community we serve, that embraces the individual skills, perspectives and experiences that our employees bring to the workplace. I want our people to feel included and valued, to be treated with respect and dignity and to have access to opportunities on an equal basis to support their full participation at work.

We do this by ensuring we have adequate resources, policies and systems in place that foster a diverse and inclusive culture. Why? Because research shows we see benefits such as improved employee engagement, improved performance, innovation, retention of talent, improved employee wellbeing and elimination of unlawful behaviour such as harassment and discrimination.

Our Diversity and Inclusion Framework covers a suite of activities to help build an accessible and inclusive culture that attracts and retains diverse talent. It includes several plans:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Plan
  • Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Action Plan
  • Disability Employment Plan
  • Gender Equity Plan
  • Mature Age Employment Plan
  • Young Professionals Employment Plan
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex & Queer+ (LGBTIQ+) Inclusion Plan.

Mandatory training plays a key role in clarifying our department’s expectations by educating employees about unconscious bias, the value of inclusivity, our code of ethics and the public sector values that guide our behaviour.

Earlier in my career, surrounded by white western male peers, I wasn’t aware of my unconscious bias and its detrimental effects. Now, I’m more empathetic and mindful that my background affords me a level of privilege that others cannot so easily expect. By designing processes that anticipate unconscious bias, we can help minimise its ability to discriminate.

Here are some of the goals the Department of the Premier and Cabinet (DPC) is striving towards:

  • increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in DPC to 4% of our workforce, representative across all classification levels
  • increase Aboriginal employment to 2% of our senior leadership cohort
  • increase the number of people with disability employed in DPC by 10% by 2020 and maintain or improve thereafter
  • increase the representation of young and mature people (under 30, above 50)
  • have women comprise 50% of our executive level roles (equally represented, valued and rewarded)
  • have gender balance on recruitment panels and, where possible, Aboriginal representation on recruitment panels.

Currently, our employment of people with a disability is at 2.9%. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment is at 4.2%. Our gender representation is 62% female and 35% male. Women fill 48% of our executive roles.

The department’s Gender Equality and Respect Action Plan outlines our commitment to eliminating violence against women and creating a culture of gender equality and respect in the workplace. It has been developed taking into consideration evidence about gender equality and its links to violence against women and through participation in the South Australian Government’s Workplace Equality and Respect Project.

Every employee has a responsibility to promote a culture where women are safe, equal and valued in the workplace and in the community.

We are proudly a White Ribbon workplace, swearing never to commit, excuse or stay silent about violence against women. Our Domestic and Family Violence Workplace Policy details the actions we can take to help people feel safe at work and assist victims or perpetrators with the appropriate resources.

Now, we have a Gender Affirmation and Transition in the Workplace Procedure, a first of its kind in the South Australian public sector that supports employees to present for work as the gender they identify with. The procedure is employee driven, encouraging sensitivity, open-mindedness and respect, noting a transition plan would be different for everyone.

We also have a free and confidential Employee Assistance Program that helps anyone facing challenges, concerns or issues that may be affecting them at work or at home.

We encourage flexible work arrangements to help employees juggle other commitments whether that’s for parents returning to work part-time, job sharing, working from home, transitioning to retirement or accessing various types of leave for work/life balance.

In comparison to my private sector experience, I have found the public sector to be exemplar in its cultural aspirations and I believe it delivers on public good expectations that advocate for equality.

The area in which I’d like to see improvement is our leadership development and performance management. I believe that leadership traits are trainable and it’s critical for our first-line leaders to receive training that’s comprehensive and equips them to have challenging and fulfilling conversations with their staff.

Often, performance management is underutilised because of the inability to have difficult discussions with those who may be struggling with their role. It’s meant to be a challenging but fulfilling conversation for both parties yet is met with great trepidation. Asking ‘how can I support you to do a better job?’ is a good start.

It’s therefore important that our first-line leaders are better equipped with the skills to confidently recruit, manage, develop and lead their teams effectively. Nurturing talent and supporting further development is just as important.

Culture can be a difficult thing to set or change, it is situational and evolves over time. Unfortunately, it can also be easily disrupted, even by one individual, and differs between business units. The consistency that I would like to achieve is for us all to have a rewarding experience in an environment that’s fair and open.

I want our training, recognition and reward activities to continue to foster a culture of hard work, tolerance, purpose and excellence. In my view, if people feel safe to express objections, then that’s a sign that they feel comfortable.

People will often forget what you said today but they will remember how you made them feel. So remember to be polite, help others and do your best.

Jim McDowell
Chief Executive