Diversity, equity and inclusion at the ABC

The ABC's chief people officer Dharma Chandran discusses DE&I at the national broadcaster

The ABC brings Australian stories and conversations to a global audience through a variety of platforms.

Chief people officer Dharma Chandran spoke with HRDTV about how he has seen the HR industry evolve when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). He also discussed the ABC’s three-year Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging plan. 

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Kylie Speer [00:00:07] Hello, and welcome to HRD TV. I'm Kylie Speer, and we're so thrilled that you can join us for the latest installment of our inspirational HR leaders series. Joining me today is Dharma Chandran. And Chief People Officer at The ABC as a highly trusted broadcaster in Australia. The ABC brings Australian stories and conversations to a global audience through various platforms, including online mobile, social media, ABC Australia TV, Radio Australia and International Development Initiatives. Welcome to you Dharma. And thank you so much for being here today.  

Dharma Chandran [00:00:42] Thanks very much, Kylie. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

Kylie Speer [00:00:46] Well, firstly, Dharma there has never been a greater focus on DE&I initiatives, as there thankfully is right now in HR, how much have you seen the industry evolve in recent years in this regard? 

Dharma Chandran [00:00:59] I think the major change clearly, it's evolved a lot. And the major change has been that it is no longer just the focus on gender. When we started out on the journey, we were heavily focused on gender rightly so because there was a big gap. And there continues to be a gap that we need to address. And we'll continue to work on that. But there have been improvements both at the board and the executive level. But we've expanded that concept of diversity, inclusion, and equity to include other forms of diversity, including cultural and linguistically diverse indigenous, of course, and disability and other important forms. And also, the focus has also shifted from just having demographic diversity of that type, to inclusiveness in the workforce. So that people all different types feel welcome and belong to the organization. 

Kylie Speer [00:01:57] And what can you tell us about your own overarching DE&I strategy at The ABC? 

Dharma Chandran [00:02:03] Well, it's quite a good timing to have this conversation clearly, because we just launched our three year Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging plan called DIB, and that is, as I've said before, in my first answer, more inclusive, more other forms of diversity, particularly with the voice, being a big part of this, year's debates, indigenous has featured heavily it incorporates we did it, our wrap, which were has expired, and now we're we've applied for the next iteration of that. So it is a real strong focus. For us. It's part of The ABCs five year plan and an integral part of our five year plan is the depth of the diversity and inclusion and belonging plan. And within that, The ABC has made great strides over the last few years in increasing our diversity. Of course, again, we can do more in that area. But our big focus is on inclusion and belonging. So once you get that diversity into your organization, it's important that everyone feels welcomed, everyone feels they can contribute equally have the right opportunities to do so. And that's been our focus. I think we've made good progress on the D. And we're focusing on the I and E. 

Kylie Speer [00:03:30] Dharma. Can you talk us through a specific program or initiative within the plan that you've rolled out? 

Dharma Chandran [00:03:36] Yeah, we've rolled out many initiatives. I guess one of the big ones is the Indigenous Languages Program that we've rolled out at The ABC you would have seen on a lot of our programs, acknowledgement of the lands from which we are broadcasting or digitally the content. And in addition to that, we've also emphasized now a big indigenous languages component to educate our people on the different languages that exist and how that can really inform our cultural development as a nation. 

Kylie Speer [00:04:14] Gaining C-suite or board level buy in can often be a challenging hurdle for HR practitioners. What's your best advice for successfully selling in initiatives like this that are so important? 

Dharma Chandran [00:04:27]  

At The ABC, I was fortunate when I started about two years ago that this topic has already had a lot of debate and discussion and significant buy in at the board and executive level. But in previous roles, where I have had to perhaps work on convincing people that this is important, and this is probably several years ago when DE&I wasn't as prominent as it is today. I think the three main reasons you will use to convince a board or an executive team, or both, that this is a really crucial topic. The first is there's a plethora of research that shows a strong correlation between more diverse teams, and performance of the organization, whether it's financial or any other metrics. And so that's quite clear that it improves performance. Of course, it takes higher levels of skill in leadership in order to manage and leverage diverse teams. So you need to while you're increasing your diversity, also improve the quality of your leadership and your capability to do that. But if you do that, you get greater performance. So for me, that's one reason that's the most often focused reason. But I think that alone is not enough. That's a great reason. And everybody is focused on performance. So that that drives it. But I think we also need to understand as a society, there's an issue of social equity. If your society is made up of multiple races, people with different abilities and disabilities, indigenous and many other forms of diversity, especially including gender 50/50 is our social societal mix, then you wouldn't want your workforce as far as possible to reflect that. And so I think there's a social equity component to it so that everybody feels they have an opportunity. And then the third reason, that's become quite clear to me since I've taken The ABC role, because it's such a prominent organization. And the people eat it, therefore are quite prominent is the visual representation that provides, I've had a lot of people talk to me about the fact that I've got this role has inspired them, that there's opportunities for people who have a non Celtic background, to aspire to senior roles in large Australian institutions. So I think just the fact that you have some diversity and executive teams and boards that inspires the next generation of people to try for it, and hopefully get the opportunity as well. 

Kylie Speer [00:07:07] And one of about any key learnings or insights that you've gleaned from rolling out your DE&I programs so far? 

Dharma Chandran [00:07:15] Yeah, I think, you know, the focus for a lot of organizations is in metrics. And so we try to look at the composition of the workforce, male, female, LGBTIQ and also disability and all sorts of forms. And we measure these demographics as far as we can, as far as we can gather data, legally, obviously, and with, with the permission of the people who are supplying that data in an anonymous way, those demographic analysis tend to make you focus on recruitment and retention. So I think that's important. So you need to get the diverse population either you need to retain that diverse population. But what if it doesn't help you is focus on how their experiences once they come into the organization? And how do we make sure that experience is the same, and the opportunities are the same as everyone else in the organization. And I think my big lesson is that if you focus heavily on diversity, but don't focus enough on the inclusion and belonging piece, then obviously your retention suffers, but also your employee experience, measures and engagement measures can suffer. So doing both one after the other, but one closely followed by the other is important, I think, and the biggest lesson I've learned in the space. 

Kylie Speer [00:08:42] Have there been any challenges or pain points you've had to overcome? And if so, how was this done?  

Dharma Chandran [00:08:48] Earlier mentioned to you before, once you get a diverse group of people together, it requires different leadership skills to lead that team effectively. Now, if you can master that you get better results. That's what the research shows better results that if your team was so heart generous, but if you don't, then that improvement in performance that you anticipated when you went down, the path of your DE&I plan won't materialize. So we found it is crucial to provide our leaders, middle managers in particular, with the right capability training and on the job development, as well as understanding of different cultures, how they communicate, how they might act, where they come from, in terms of backgrounds and how that can influence the way they perform. And by educating our middle managers and senior managers about that and giving them skills on how to communicate differently for different cohorts, and how to motivate and inspire differently for different cohorts. We've been able to bake really leveraged that performance and get that performance dividend. 

Kylie Speer [00:10:03] Dhama, you are a wealth of wisdom on DE&I programs. What advice would you share with other HRDs for when it comes to creating an authentic and effective one? 

Dharma Chandran [00:10:14] I think for a start, it needs support or sponsorship, more than support from the board and the executive team. I think that's where you start, if you don't have that, tried to roll it straight out of HR doesn't work. We're fortunate that ABC we have that from our chair, right through to our MD and the entire executive team and board are right behind it. And I plan not just behind, but they are driving us to actually improve it and be better at it, which is fantastic. So once you have that sponsorship, then it's a matter of then convincing the middle managers and others in the organization of the importance of it. And as I mentioned, those three reasons for why you would do it, I think are the way to get around that. And of course, as a creative organization that produces content and broadcasts it we have quite the access to the media, I guess, to influence our people and convince them of its importance. And I think if you go in that way, top down, but also bottom up, be in the middle if you like, then your ideal client will be successful. You also need the external recognition. So for instance, with the RAP, the Reconciliation Action Plan, we're getting we were the first media organization, we were the first media based organization to be provided with elevated status for our app. And I think these like that helped because it really emphasizes to us or reinforces the fact that what we're doing is effective and will gain the traction that we need. So that would be my advice to people who are trying to move down this path. 

Kylie Speer [00:12:05] And finally, Dharma, still on the subject of advice? What has been the number one game changer for you from a career perspective? And what best advice would you share with emerging HR practitioners hoping to forge a successful career in the industry? 

Dharma Chandran [00:12:21] Currently, unfortunately, or fortunately, I've been around so long that when I started at HR, they didn't even teach it at university. Now, if you think about how far we've come as a function as a profession, it used to be that in my first decade or two, the big debate or the big discussion used to be when is HR going to get to the table? And how do we get at the table and all this sort of thing? And the fact is, we've been at the table now for over a decade, maybe 15 years? And the question, I think for us is what are we doing there at the table? So if we're focused primarily as saying, we're at the table, but we're only going to make comments about the people aspect of the business. I think we lose an opportunity. I think we need to demonstrate that. Yes, our deep technical expertise is people. But we need to be able to contribute to the broader business discussions as well. And my advice to people in the function is we're at the table now. Seize the opportunity. Go beyond your technical expertise, by all means, be the trusted adviser in that space, but be a contributor in other parts of the business to whether it's the customer side or the shareholder side, or the supplier side, make sure you're making a broader contribution, in which case, you need to be informed and you need to understand how those other parts of the business work as well. 

Kylie Speer [00:13:49] Well, thank you so much once again for your time today Dharma. It was truly wonderful speaking with you. 

Dharma Chandran [00:13:56] It's my pleasure, Kylie. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

Kylie Speer [00:13:59] And thank you, of course to our viewers for watching the latest episode of HRD TV. We look forward to seeing you again soon.