Flexible work should be the “default position”: Commissioner

Monday, 01 August 2016

Employers should make flexibility the “default position” for how work is performed to increase the workforce participation of older workers and people with disability, Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says.

Ryan, whose term as Commissioner ends on Wednesday, told a Diversity Council Australia event last week that age and disability discrimination is a “growing problem”, but that turning negative attitudes into positive ones “is not beyond us”.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the issue found that at April 2015 some 27 per cent of people aged over 50 had recently experienced workplace discrimination; and in the previous 12 months, nearly one in 12 Australians with disability reported experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment.

It also found employers were struggling to find information and support, Ryan said, adding that she was disappointed with employers’ lack of awareness of support services such as JobAccess and the Employee Assistance Fund, which provide organisations with advice and reimbursements for the costs of work-related modifications that help employees with disability.

“Discrimination is costly – it contributes to higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher staff turnover, and increased recruitment costs, as well as lost business opportunities as a result of abandoning experienced, skilled and corporate knowledge,” she said.

“On the other hand, we also know that organisations that are inclusive and diverse report tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation.”

One way to build inclusion and diversity is flexible work, Ryan said, noting that during the inquiry, “virtually every submission and consultation” identified workplace flexibility as an “important element to raise workforce participation”.

“Businesses should seek to normalise flexible work by making flexibility the default position in terms of work location, work hours and job design as far as the role allows,” she said.

In March 2016, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced that all public service jobs would be flexible by 2019 on the basis of “if not, why not”, she said by way of example.

Several other best practice examples are included in a guide released at last week’s event. These include Catholic Homes, which allows for flexibility in shift work; and Commonwealth Bank, which has a number of tools to help managers and employees make flexible arrangements work.

PwC report supports flexibility recommendation
Adding to the evidence that flexible work is good for business, PricewaterhouseCoopers last week released
its Golden Age Index – a weighted average of seven indicators that reflect the labour market impact of workers aged over 55 in 34 OECD countries.

The Index shows Australia has improved in the rankings since 2003, moving from 20th place to 16th in 2014. It performs poorly when compared to other Asia-Pacific countries, however, ranking last in the region, and below the US and Canada.

If Australia increased the participation rate of people aged over 55 to match that of Sweden, it could increase its GDP by about 4.7 per cent ($69 billion at 2014 values), according to the Index.

PwC says employers should adopt flexible working policies, such as ‘phased retirement’ or expanded training programs, to support older workers.

“They should also take steps to achieve age diversity, for example through opening up apprenticeship schemes to older workers so that they can capitalise on their experience,” it says.

AccorHotels, for example – which both the PwC report and the AHRC guide refer to as exemplifying best practice – supports older workers by providing them with a work experience and placement program.

The five-day training program involves work health and safety, complaints and feedback, and basic front office services training, and includes two days of on-the-job work experience in their selected department, as well as interviews with the talent and culture team to prepare them for job placement.

Willing to Work – Good practice examples: A resource for employers, AHRC, July 2016

Golden Age Index, PwC, July 2016

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