Big Interview: Dean Watts and Oliver Chiaroni.

Dean Watts and Oliver Chiaroni

Morphum Environmental, among the most recent signatories to the Accord, are an Auckland-based environmental engineering firm. In this Big Interview, Morphum’s Dean Watts and Oliver Chiaroni explain why they felt that signing the Accord was an important next step in their journey, and tell us about the mahi they’re doing to bring their commitment to life.

Dean, you and your business partner Caleb signed the Accord in early July. Why was it important for you to do this?

Dean Watts: After 20 or so years in the business, Caleb and I have seen that the engineering side of the business struggles to achieve the same level of diversity that we see on the science and GIS side. We stood back and realised that it’s not enough to commit to the change, we have to instigate it as well. Our journey is still in its early days, and its certainly been eye opening. We’ve partnered with Diversity Works along the way. We’re proud of how far we’ve come, but there’s a long way to go.

I think signing the Accord demonstrates, particularly in the small to medium enterprise arena, that we can do it. We’re showing that we can make that change. It doesn’t matter how big your organisation is, we can all commit to making change. The more people that sign up to the accord, the more change we will see and that can only be a good thing.  I know there are a few SMEs already signed up which is fantastic. It’s impressive, but there’s still a lot more mahi to do.

So, what work have you done to make changes in your recruitment?

DW: We’ve focused on recruitment heavily in the initial stages of our DEI program, so potential employees think ‘they’ll give me a fair opportunity to get into their workplace.’ I think that’s key for us. It’s where we can make the quickest changes and get immediate traction. There’s a lot more work to do, in building a place where employees recognise: ‘my workplace is actually thinking about me, my voice is going to be heard, and I’m going to feel safe in that space.’

Before, it could have easily been just me and my business partner, two middle-aged blokes, running an interview. With a quick change, we’ve immediately improved diversity in our interview process. We’re bringing in our leaders, asking them to join interview panels. We’re making interviewees more comfortable and we’re making the panels more balanced in terms of gender, age and role.  

Oliver Chiaroni: We also now screen our CVs through a third-party person who isn’t involved in selection, to remove as much potential for unconscious bias to creep in as possible. Names, gender, where you came from, where you went to school – it’s all removed. There’s a few other things we’ve been doing as well. We run job postings and job descriptions through bias screening software, we’ve modified the referral process, and we’re updating our recruitment policy formally. The idea being that if we have a new position going up, it’s the same steps that we take to ensure that we’re providing opportunities for everyone equally.

Are you seeing results yet in terms of applicants, the process of getting people to the interview stage and the flow on effects of that?

DW: For sure. We’re in a pretty big growth phase and one interesting thing I’ve observed is that a lot of our recruitment is done by networking. If we hadn’t changed what we’re doing in the recruitment stage, we’d still be hiring the same people, we’d be going to the same contacts, and not giving a more diverse workforce a chance. We’ve actively said ‘no, we’re not doing it that way anymore. If we know someone who might fit the bill, we can send them the ad, but the advert must go through the same channels and process as everyone else.’

What about outside of recruitment? Is there any other mahi that you’ve undertaken in this area?

OC: We’ve identified four key pillars to focus on, and they’re all interlinked. Recruitment, education and awareness, leadership and culture, internal processes and policies. Specifically, the education and awareness pillar is about sharing resources and knowledge and access to DEI initiatives and training, and promoting the need for, and benefits of, diversity and inclusion.

DW: There’s been a few guest speakers that we’ve had come in to talk to our kaimahi as well. The next one is about finding the balance between family and careers – an interesting space that’s different for everyone, every family. I’m quite passionate in that area having been through the process myself. At the moment we don’t have too many part-time parents working with us, but at any minute that’s something we’re going to be facing, so we want to at least have those discussions and get educated to understand what we can do on a wider level. We’ve done a bit of a sprint to get to somewhere, but we’re under no illusions: this is a long-term journey.

Oliver, we’d like to hear how you managed to set up a DEI committee in a smaller business. Lots of businesses want to introduce these but can get roadblocked by thinking this is only for big business. Perhaps not the case, as you’ve managed to do it?

OC: Going back to where the DEI team started – the leadership team nominated seven of us, and the idea is to keep it as diverse as possible. We’ve got a range of ethnicities, a good gender and age balance. The first stage was identifying areas that we need to focus on. We ran a company survey to understand the feelings of our kaimahi, and we engaged a specialist company to provide insights into how we can improve, which helped us come up with the pillars I mentioned before. We have monthly DEI team meetings in which we discuss our strategy and ongoing initiatives, share resources, observations and experiences. The goal is to continuously identify any previously unforeseen bias and to make the workplace more inclusive and equitable across all areas.

I suppose my main role is really making sure that we don’t slow down on progress. That would be quite easy to do in a space like DEI because it’s not like an engineering project where you’ve got a set budget and you’ve gotta have it done by next week – it’s a long-term game so maintaining momentum can be a big job.

What’s the benefit of having diversity, equity, and inclusion when it comes to your working projects?

OC: I think everyone knows that DEI is key to building a more ethical society, and to addressing historical inequalities; this is what I see as most important. But it does also improve outcomes at work – having diversity in our projects brings new perspectives, and an inclusive culture encourages collaborative environments – everyone feels that they can speak up. It fosters an innovative spirit, which isbetter for problem solving and decision making.

And what does it mean to you to be part of an organisation that’s an Accord signatory?

OC: It increases my motivation to come to work knowing that I’m working with people who are genuinely trying to act ethically and improve the balance of our society. I’m not just part of a machine. They’re trying to make progress in areas where there’s been less than ideal social equity in the past.

It’s probably one of the reasons Morphum has quite a low turnover rate. It’s a progressive company and we’re building a good culture. You can see it when people come in to work, everyone’s smiling and chatting – it’s really satisfying.

DW: The leadership involvement is important and it has to be genuine. It’s not just box ticking from a Director or CEO. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve gotta be invested and right in it and be at the table. If you want to just sit back and let it sort itself out, it’ll trip you up and not work out that well.

What would you say to companies who have yet to commit to the accord, or don’t see value in diversity and inclusion?

DW: If they don’t see value in it, they’re locked in a bit of a time warp and don’t have their finger on the pulse of where we’re headed as a community and industry. We need to hope they have a light bulb moment, but in the meantime, we just keep plugging away. The best way to get them on board is to keep walking the talk. By signing the Accord, you’re proving that this is worth it. It is changing our business, and this is good for us, the community, the industry, and that will create change. It’s only been our first year on this journey but I’m so proud of our team. It’s an eye-opening, important piece of mahi that everyone needs to do.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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