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Water utility leading industry in diversity and inclusion

Western Australia’s Water Corporation has been recognised as one of the most inclusive employers in Australia at the AFR BOSS Best Places to Work 2023 awards – the only WA-based winner announced in the national awards.

The utility won the Agriculture, Mining and Utilities category for its commitment to attracting, retaining and supporting its diverse and inclusive workforce.

Water Corporation CEO Pat Donovan said the award reflects the utility’s ongoing focus on valuing and supporting employees for their unique insights, ideas and talents.

“We’re passionate about delivering sustainable water services to more than two million customers across WA and our strength comes from our different experiences, backgrounds and perspectives,” he said.

“To achieve this, we need programs and initiatives that develop an inclusive, safe workplace culture and supportive career development opportunities. To be recognised nationally among many blue-chip firms speaks volumes for our commitment to making Water Corporation a great place to work.”

Water Corporation General Manager People and Safety Sarah Bagshawe said the award recognises Water Corporation’s ongoing commitment to creating a psychologically safe workplace for its employees.

“I am proud to be part of an organisation that has such a commitment to diversity and inclusion; it was one of the things that attracted me to Water Corporation in the first place,” she said.

“This has been a journey and a commitment taken by Water Corporation because we want to create a workplace that is psychologically safe so that all of our employees can bring their whole selves to work.

“There is enough research to show that if people feel psychologically safe in the workplace – safe to bring their whole self to work – you end up with a more happy and fulfilled workplace. This is something that we really believe in here at Water Corporation.”

Journey to success

With more than 3800 employees, Water Corporation has a staggering array of initiatives and programs dedicated to achieving genuine inclusivity across the business.

The utility has a range of programs and initiatives in place to support and educate employees, and to act on key issues. These include employee resource groups and Aboriginal, youth, disability and return-to-work employment programs; and a wide range of training and learning opportunities to ensure sustainable change.

“We have put in place the resourcing required, both in terms of people and budget, to trial, assess and put in place a lot of different projects,” Bagshawe said.

“We have been looking at a whole array of programs and testing them to see what does and what does not work. We stay alert to programs that resonate with our employees and, when we hit the mark, we roll it out so that it has a bigger impact.”

In terms of the success of these various programs and initiatives, Bagshawe said the proof is in the pudding.

“One of the things I’ve noticed in my five months at the Water Corporation is how much freedom and confidence employees here have when it comes to expressing their views and their commitment to what the Water Corporation is doing with these programs,” she said.

“People can express themselves because we have created a psychologically safe space.

“My personal view is that, as a water utility, we have a higher social responsibility to ensure diversity and inclusion in the workplace. If we can show the way forward, then other organisations will embrace it and move forward, as well.”

Key learnings

So what does it take to become an award-winning workplace for diversity and inclusion? Bagshawe said there have been many challenges and learnings involved in Water Corporation’s journey, but it starts with understanding that diversity likely already exists in workplaces.

“Never assume that you don’t already have a diverse workforce. It’s a trap a lot of employers fall into. They want to improve diversity without realising they probably already have diversity,” she said.

“However, we know this isn’t always the case, so it’s important to do the research to understand the diversity within your workforce, and help identify any under-representation or lack of disclosure.

“It’s really all about how to create an environment where people feel psychologically safe to share and express their diversity at work. It’s about making sure people feel safe enough to speak up.

“But it’s not only about creating a diverse workplace, it’s about how to become more inclusive. And that’s a different mindset.”

In terms of rolling out programs and initiatives, Bagshawe said it's also absolutely crucial to ensure representation, which may require partnering with appropriate organisations to help deliver the desired outcomes – something she advocates for.

“When we do our trials, we very much make sure that we have employees from those representative diverse groups involved and able to provide input. That makes a difference to make sure we are getting things right,” she said.

“We also have an executive team that is very invested in this, and committed to making a difference in this space. They actively support our diversity and inclusion team and our valued external partners to ensure we have a strong platform for positive change.

“When you have that kind of passion and drive in this space it really makes a difference.”

Other important areas to focus on include appropriate delivery of awareness and education initiatives, as well as ensuring the wider leadership is on board with adapting to the needs of diverse employees.

“We have had some real success around educating our people on why it’s important to refer to people by their correct pronouns. That’s been really well received. Other things that haven’t been received so well is our training around unconscious bias,” Bagshawe said.

“What we have found when trialling these programs is that they come across as a bit too academic.

“Our work in this hasn’t hit the mark and it is something that we are still pursuing.”

Bagshawe said Water Corporation's recent work within the graduate space has revealed the importance of ensuring leaders are conscious of the expectations of younger employees.

“We have an ageing workforce. We are going to experience a 15% retirement of our workforce in the next eight to 10 years. We have got a massive focus at the moment on career entry programs and encouraging younger people to seek a career in water,” she said. 

“We are refining our value proposition and seeking to better understand the needs of younger workers. One thing that has come out of this work is that the younger people have different expectations of their leaders.

“The younger generation coming through are expecting leaders to lead with heart and show empathy and humanity in the workplace, more so than in the past.

“So we have embraced looking at our leadership development programs and bringing leading with heart into our workplace. It’s been a learning journey for everybody, me included.”