Getting problems sorted

Workplace relations is a specialised and tricky field. It shapes society, government policy, business outcomes and at its core is the relationship between employers and employees. Its a broad area of endeavour, is influenced by dozens of ever changing pieces of legislation, and always brings forth ‘passionate’ behaviour. Ni Gao is a talented and pragmatic workplace relations practitioner who loves solving problems. We thought we would ask Ni how she does it.

So Ni, you’re a workplace relations specialist. Can you describe your role and what it involves?

My role is to be a trusted advisor and resolve workplace relations problems. It’s an incredibly varied role given the myriad of employee issues that can arise. I do everything from advising on simple award interpretation issues to IR strategy, disputes, disciplinaries, enterprise agreement bargaining and advocating in the Fair Work Commission.

Can you outline your career to this point?

I have always worked in the area of workplace relations. My career started in an external advisor/ consultant capacity where I provided advice to employers of different sizes, particularly in the printing industry. I made the decision to move in house approximately four years ago which has allowed me to get a much more holistic view of employee issues and have greater input in strategic decisions earlier. Being in house has also allowed me to be immersed in some truly wonderful industries including maritime and utilities.

Describe your average day.

It might be a cliché but I don’t have an average day. Whilst I generally have a plan at the start of each day, that isn’t necessarily how my day looks by the end of it! I might have planned meetings but if something critical occurs, like a safety incident or a dispute notification, then that will take precedence over everything else and it will be all hands on deck to deal with an issue like that. More than anything, that is a reflection of how dynamic my role can be and how many time critical issues I can be required to juggle on a day to day basis. In my role, a lot can change in 12 or 24 hours.

What excites you about your role?

I’ve always enjoyed the work itself. The variety of work is what keeps it interesting and not knowing what issues will come my way is what keeps it exciting. I have been working in this field for over a decade now and no two issues have been exactly the same. This means there is always an element of uncertainty and challenge which requires a great deal of problem solving and creativity. It can be stressful sometimes, but I also get a great deal of satisfaction from thinking issues through and seeing them to resolution.

You deal with people related issues. Have you learnt anything about human behaviour?

In my job I find there are often unspoken motivations that cause people to behave in certain ways. Given this, it’s crucial that I spend the time asking questions and finding out what the underlying drivers are when I am trying to resolve issues. Oftentimes its the common desires we all have as human beings, such as wanting to be heard, feeling respected and a perception that we are being treated fairly. It sounds simple but it’s often overlooked in my line of work and I have had to learn that I won’t get very far if I don’t find a way to address those fundamental needs first.

What skills are needed to be successful in your field?

I’d say the most important skills are curiosity, a thick skin, attention to detail, flexibility, thoroughness in preparation, the wherewithal to back yourself and a genuine interest in the cut and thrust of workplace relations. Also, great stakeholder management is a must for those looking to work in house.

What have you implemented that makes your work life more productive or easier?

I live my life on post it notes. Despite the many apps and gadgets out there designed to improve productivity, I find the most effective method for me is post it notes which I update constantly. The act of writing down my to do list and thoughts ensures I remember them better. It’s simple but very effective.

Work/life balance?

I’ve never had a huge struggle with maintaining work/life balance. Although I generally work quite long hours, I also think we underestimate how much can be accomplished in a day. I try to really prioritise what is important to me and by planning ahead I can usually fit everything in.

What does short and long-term success look like in your role?

Short term success is a manageable inbox of emails which means I’m on top of the issues I’m looking after and feeling in control. Long term success for me would be to be in a position where I can lead through service. I want to get to a point in my role where I can impart my knowledge to others and help usher in the next generation of IR practitioners.

What brings you joy outside work?

I am very much a homebody so when I have downtime I love to just be at home with my cat, Jet. (editors note – Ni is also quite an accomplished scuba diver having dived on sites across Australia and abroad).

Biggest win/loss and what have you learnt from them?

I look at it as more “lessons learnt” than “win/loss” and the biggest lesson for me has been how hard it can be to always live my personal values of “honesty and accountability” in the workplace. The temptation to compromise is always there but I have learnt that making values based decisions, even painful ones, have always been the right ones in the end.

Which famous living people you would have over for a dinner party?

Jacinda Ardern, NZ Prime Minister

Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook

Julie Bishop, former Foreign Minister

Brene Brown, Vulnerability and shame researcher

I would love to be at dinner with this group of people and talk about the issues I’m passionate about such as climate change, women’s role in the workplace and the globalisation/social isolation paradox.

Thanks for giving us some of your time Ni, we appreciate that it is a limited commodity. We can definitely see you becoming a Commissioner of a tribunal in the future.

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