Diversity is the key to business success, says engineering firm Sinclair Knight Merz.
Sinclair Knight Merz is a private international company offering strategic consulting, engineering and project delivery. It employs 350 people in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. And this company, says SKM’s regional manager Richard Hancy, champions a workforce that is diverse in all senses of the word – from ethnicity and sexual orientation, to thinking styles and religious beliefs.
Diversity – an essential value
“Diversity is key to a successful team, project, workplace and community,” Richard says. “In fact, without it, you can’t appropriately represent the community you are aiming to work with, or for. Managing diversity well makes SKM more creative, flexible, productive and competitive.”
The company runs two specific initiatives to support workforce diversity: one to boost the representation of women and the other to drive diversity strategy.
Women in Consulting
Three of SKM’s nine New Zealand board members are women (33%); three of five regional leaders are female (60%). Engineering tends to be a male-dominated sector, but SKM has been achieving better gender balance as the years pass, says Richard: 26% of SKM’s staff are women, and the company underscores its commitment to gender diversity by holding an annual client function on International Women’s Day, March 8.
SKM globally encourages the creation of Women in Consulting (WiC) groups to promote a supportive professional environment that attracts, develops and retains talented women. New Zealand WiC started in 2010 with an open call to all employees to join the organising committee. It provides management with advice and strategic direction to encourage gender diversity, as well as offering support and networking opportunities to female staff.
Most of WiC’s events are open to all employees. Its current committee is made up of a diverse group of senior, middle and junior-level staff, technical and functional staff, several different cultures and men and women, says Richard.
Among WiC’s achievements, Richard says, is greater manager awareness of the importance of women in the workplace; more women exposed to leadership development events; increased opportunities for women to engage with mentors; and an increase in female recruitment , with females forming 34% of new staff over the last year.
WiC has supported female employees to attend international women-in-engineering conferences or events. And several employees are involved with the University of Auckland’s Women in Engineering group as speakers or mentors (just 17% of all engineering graduates are female).
Cultural awareness and inclusion
SKM has a global diversity committee which meets quarterly and regional committees; they drive strategy and results across the company. The New Zealand committee has devised an intercultural awareness programme. “It’s not just about etiquette in different cultures,” says Richard. “It’s being aware of their own and others’ cultural preferences and recognising the impact they can have on effective working relationships.”
Committed leadership drives SKM’s approach to diversity and inclusion. The subject is on the agenda of all management meetings; employees benefit from a flexible working policy, parental leave policy, diversity policy and a good working relations policy. Richard says SKM continues to strive for pay equity, analysing salary reviews to ensure they are fair. All open leadership roles are advertised, with diverse interview panels created.
Diversity in action
SKM has supported employees participating in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, offering a private and dedicated space for prayer and flexible working hours. Senior financial accountant Saheem Nabi, who is Muslim, says staff “really appreciate” what the company does for them at Ramadan. “SKM allowed us a private prayer room and this has made it easy for us to meet and pray together during the day. We were also provided with car parks during this month. We got the opportunity to start and finish earlier so we could be at home at sunset to break the fast together with our families.”
Drafting team leader Jacques Greyling, who is deaf, says there were “concerns” about his deafness when he started. “After talking about my needs, SKM arranged a flashing evacuation light [in the event of a fire alarm]; they took care of me and the disability safety situation, even going onsite with me – they are happy to take me along and provide an extra guy to walk with.
“Overall, SKM is really good at providing the needs, or support, whenever it’s needed and is prepared to go outside the box to support people with a disability.” When necessary, a government-funded sign language interpreter comes to meetings to ensure effective communication between Jacques and his colleagues.
Active and genuine support for diversity is good for recruitment and retention, says Richard. Managing water scientist Laurien Heijs agrees, saying that she did her homework on the company before applying for a job. “I did a bit of research and found that I liked the company culture, SKM’s value system and the opportunities that would be available to me.”