word of mouth

I’ve been involved in a fair bit of recruitment recently. In an attempt to challenge my own practices, I’ve also been reading a lot about recruitment bias, and observing how effective or otherwise I’ve been experiencing the different phases of the recruitment process.

I’ve also been asked to provide references for quite a few ex-colleagues in the past months. I’ve never been employed by an organisation that refuses to provide references for previous employees, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the friendly phone call and structured Q&A session will be a thing of the past for all of us.

This brings me to a practice I have real difficulty with. It’s common practice in Melbourne, and I believe in much of Australia, for recruiters or employers to mine their networks to get informal references for a preferred candidate before making a final decision. This is usually done without telling the candidate, and is an unofficial step in the recruitment process that the organisation rarely owns up to.

Most of us in the corporate world are subject to a documented formal recruitment procedure that sets out the usual steps: developing a position description, advertising via certain channels, requiring candidates to address key selection criteria, longlisting, shortlisting, interviewing (maybe twice) and perhaps even a formal presentation or psychometric testing to add to the body of evidence for each candidate.

We then get down to a preferred candidate or two, and request the names of some people – usually ex-line managers – who will provide a reference for them.

So far, so predictable.

In a sense the whole references thing is a little pointless, as it would be strange for somebody to give you the contact details of somebody who is not going to give them a glowing reference. But’s it standard practice and very few if any Australian companies are willing to recruit without them.

So because we can, we view the candidate on LinkedIn, read their CV again, see where our networks cross, and make a few quiet phone calls to people we know to see what they know about our potential employee. Too often this part of the process is never declared to the candidate, even after we hire them. It’s then hard not to give the same weight to the opinion of a network contact as we give to the other steps in our official process.

So what, I hear you ask? I know my network, they are trusted sources, and it’s useful to get a different view on a candidate. Culture is important, you argue. It’s critical to hire people who will be a good team fit. We have to be sure.

My argument is two-fold.

Firstly, if we’re going to undertake this practice, we have to be transparent about it. We should write it into our procedures, get Executive sign-off that it’s acceptable and then declare to all candidates up front that we will get feedback about them from whatever mutual acquaintances we can find, without the candidate’s approval or right of reply about our choice of contact. If we are uncomfortable declaring this, or if we find that candidates are unhappy about this, then we have to ask ourselves why.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly, this practice poses the very real danger of limiting our talent pool to more of the same. If we are more inclined to hire candidates who have received the OK from people we know – maybe people we’ve worked with before – then we will turn our company and perhaps even our industry into an echo chamber. Our recruitment processes will rely more on who you know and not what you know. And that’s how things used to be in the bad old days.

Our echo chamber will lock out potential new talent newly arrived from another country, people returning to work after maternity or paternity leave, candidates with amazing transferable skills coming from another industry, young guns trying to get onto the next rung of the ladder. All of these people bring with them the potential to enrich our organisations with new perspectives, different knowledge, and innovative ways of working that will be lost to us if we only hire from the same pool.

Most importantly, this process will limit the diversity of our workforce as we unconsciously filter out all those whose school or university we don’t recognise, whose corporate experience doesn’t intersect with ours, whose name is perhaps difficult to pronounce, whose gender is hard to determine from their first name. And then we’ll spend time wondering what went wrong, and money commissioning a Diversity Strategy to redress the balance.

australia day… my way

This evening, down at Altona Beach, I strolled in the evening sunshine and literally watched the world go by. Australia Day had brought everybody out to enjoy the beach, and the council had put on a festival to help.

A small number of Aussie flags were flying on cars and transferred onto sunburnt cheeks, a few green-and-gold sports shirts were in evidence, and two mounted police officers flew the Boxing Kangaroo flag from their saddles.

On the boardwalk people wore hijabs and chadors, beach towel turbans and long-haired topknots, bikinis and board shorts, saris and sarongs. There was Greek baclava, Italian woodfired pizza, vegetable samosas, New Zealand “fush, chups and igg”, SES sausages in bread, all for sale within a hundred metres. Young muscle-bound men showed their Polynesian tattoos with pride, and one brave soul rocked a bleached-blonde flat-top and bandana.

One end of the Esplanade had live Country & Western music, the other Tongan reggae blaring out from a huge speaker. Kite surfers hung out down the western end of the beach whilst kite flyers dominated the east.

I saw Africans of every stripe, Japanese tourists and Vietnamese families, three generations of Pacific Islander at the same all-day picnic, young and old from sub-continental Asia, Italian nonnas with gaggles of grandchildren, a handful of mix-race couples of various flavours. Not many pale-skinned, freckled people like me though.

There was no “love it or leave” slogans, no “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chants, just people being people, chatting and laughing, running after two-year-olds, drinking coffee and beer, ignoring boys and posturing in front of girls. This is the Australia I subscribe to, the Australia I belong to.





walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. IMG_7274 But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.


I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.


I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.


Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.


These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.


My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.


These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.


Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

cross country Tuesday

After a tedious runway delay and a routine take-off, we ascend westwards out of Tullamarine Airport across outer-suburb escarpments, quarries and farms, turned exotic by the morning sun. Half an hour in we are sailing above red-brown earth, arrow-straight dirt roads dividing the land into geometric blocks, occasionally messed up by a more ancient pathway or wayward river. The billabongs are full after more than a year of rains, glistening like tiny crystals across the landscape. Later, larger lakes cluster together on the flat expanse, turning the nearby land shades of moss-green.

Deeper inland where three states converge, an ancient meandering river feeds giant organically-shaped crop fields. The edges of the lazy river blur into a turquoise haze as ox-bow lakes are discarded and simpler paths carved. Three larger rivers converge on a dammed lake, the only man-made structure for hundreds of kilometres.

The land ripples into mountainous ridges, giving the illusion of a blanket of red-brown clouds below, not the crumpled rock it is made from. There are no roads now, just an infinite stretch of veined red and green, the vegetation clumped together in dots, the earth sculpted into short wave-like patterns. At last, those indigenous abstract paintings make sense: they are not abstracts after all but landscapes.

An hour later the landscape has changed again. The wavelets on the ground have lengthened into flowing lines, making the desert earth look more like scorched tree bark. Soon, even those lines disappear as the Red Centre really takes shape. Flat, featureless red sand is occasionally ripped by an artist’s gash of black paint. It is so easy to understand where some of those Dreamings originate.

The red canvas is abruptly torn by the confluence of two large rivers, which have inexplicable turned their trapped wedge of land a curious blue-green colour, contrasting with the red. Slowly the two colours merge and marble together as the terrain grows hilly again, and perfectly-formed ridges and valleys emerge.

Every fold, every infinitesimal pushing together of the land appears to be visible to the naked eye, pristine and new. Branches of river systems reach towards each other like fractal designs and horizontal oak-tree sculptures.

Suddenly, a farm or homestead appears, surrounded on four sides by a rough-hewn square dirt track, and connected to a roadway running perfectly east-west. A few more roads stretch away north-east and south-west; perhaps we are closer to civilisation than it appears.

A meandering yellow dry river bed is home to a long garden of trees, stretching south-eastwards. The earth still doesn’t know whether to be wearing red or aquamarine. Near the limit of my vision, I am convinced I catch a glimpse of a flash of sunlight on a truck mirror.

As the land softens again, a nearly-dry lake bed hosts a flock of large birds. Flamingos? I cannot tell from this distance.

An hour or so out of Darwin, the grassfires have begun. Snake-like curves of billowing smoke leave blackened earth behind them, burning slowly in isolated patches. The increased cloud cover hints that we are approaching the tropics, and signifies the likelihood of a late afternoon storm as forecast. For once, I have remembered to pack an umbrella.

Soon, the marks of civilisation appear: the black tarmac of the Sturt Highway cuts through, criss-crossed by simpler dirt roads leading to a few scattered homesteads. The vegetation gets thicker and the colours darken to muted greens and browns. More and more land is given over to agriculture, the formality of the crop fields a stark contrast to the wilderness beneath us these past three hours.

The plane turns slightly to the north-west and we commence our descent. Soon, the outer reaches of Darwin appear, smaller fields of market-garden crops and the chequered squares of suburban gardens painted jewel-green by the rains. We loop around past Shoal Bay Coastal Reserve, the flatlands in stark contrast to the man-made landscape alongside it. We are here.

Later, I stand on my balcony watching yet another spectacular Darwin sunset, a fitting technicolour end to my cross-country journey.

11 highlights of 2011

It’s been a hell of a year. Tough at times, full of adventure, travel (some work, some play), hard work, sorrow and joy. Here are my eleven highlights of 2011.

1.  Queensland

The year started busy. I spent most of the first three months hanging out in Brisbane with an army of Red Crossers, responding to event after tragic event. The staff in the Grand Chancellor come to greet me every time I checked in with a “Welcome home, Ms Doyle!”. The night before Yasi hit, I sat in a hotel restaurant with colleagues trying to understand the enormity of what was about to hit, the only Irishwoman at a table of battle-hardened Aussies. In Emerald, I met the Governor-General and got a lesson in looking elegant in tropical heat. Some of the people I worked with developed into an amazing support network that I still have today, and one or two deep friendships have developed from the times spent together. I gained four kilos and none of my summer clothes fit anymore, which didn’t matter as I spent the whole of the summer in a white Red Cross business shirt and black cut-off cargo pants.

What I learned: Just because it’s disaster season doesn’t mean you need less fibre – or more alcohol – in your diet. FitFlops are the only footwear you need. Talk about how you are feeling often, and use others to gauge how you are going. Forgive. Hydrate. Never go anywhere (even a disaster zone) without eyeliner: you never know who is going to drop by.

2.  Christchurch

Ten days in ChCh working with the NZ Red Cross after the earthquake was some of the most challenging but amazing time I got to spend this year. I slept in a tiny room in the friendliest little B&B in the world, and got used to the ground shaking beneath me. I saw regular people turn into heroes and find resilience in themselves they never thought existed. I feel privileged to have been able to help in my small way.

What I learned: Always leave your boots by the bed in an earthquake zone, and keep your phone fully charged. Leap instantly to a doorframe when the ground doesn’t stop shaking after five seconds. Be ready to accept help as well as give it. Take a break. And don’t watch live footage of horrifying tsunamis right after coming home.

3.  Lorne

A chunk of normality at the end of summer: the Easter/Anzac weekend down the Great Ocean Road in Lorne with Orlando.  Arriving Good Friday evening with a roast dinner in the boot. Long walks by the beach in unseasonably warm weather. Mid-afternoon naps just because we could. Watching the surfers and browsing second-hand book stalls in the market. A cosy Spanish dinner in a lovely tapas bar on Saturday night. Time to heal and rest and recover and reconnect.

What I learned: Heal. Rest. Recover. Reconnect.

4.  Barbados

A week in Barbados in June, spent mostly staring at the waves (or floating in them) at Maxwell Beach, near Orlando’s parents’ house. Amazing Caribbean food. Weekend nights at Oistins fish market. Plenty of good Mount Gay rum in our afternoon rum punch. Chefette’s legendary all-beef rotis just because they were there. Spending time with Orlando’s Dad. Shopping for jerk seasoning and pepper sauce in the local supermarket. Scuba diving with Orlando in the sites where he learned to dive.

What I learned: One dive is never enough. One all-beef roti is never enough. One box of seasoning shipped home is never enough. One week is never enough.

5.  Mexico

Nearly three weeks travelling through the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins, climbing ancient pyramids, staying in great little guesthouses and eating proper Mexican food. Diving Dos Ojos at last after twelve years of waiting. Gazing out across the jungle with Orlando from the top of a crumbling pyramid in Coba. Margaritas and good tequila. A long walk.  Discovering cochinita pibil.

What I learned: There are only so many tacos, tortas, empanadas, burritos and quesadillas you can eat. The green chilli salsa is the hottest and the best. The Mexicans keep the good tequila for themselves. Never walk home at night through the jungle.

6.  Tasmania

An August weekend with Mena in Tasmania, our favourite state. Gourmet food at Bruny Island and Salamanca Market. The Goddess of Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park. Driving through God’s own country to Lake Gordon. Discovering the secluded beaches of South Arm and falling in love with Opossum Bay.

What I learned: There is not enough time before we die to explore Tasmania the way we want to. You will always buy more cheese than you can possibly eat at the Bruny Island Cheese Company. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to discover the hidden gems of this small island; you can do it in a Class A hire car. Always bring layers to Tasmania – the weather can surprise you.

7.  Fiji

What more does a body need than ten days on a tropical island, with a little bungalow, a pristine beach a few feet away, a comfy hammock to swing in, a reef full of fish on the doorstep and more Fijian curry than you can shake a stick at. Diving in clear blue waters with more marine life than I’ve ever seen. Snoozing on a hammock under a palm tree, whenever I want to. Watching a wedding take place on a low-tide sandbar out at sea: the wedding party appears to be walking on water. The graceful hand movements of the women and men as they dance for us after the lovo feast.

What I learned: Never go anywhere without nuclear-strength Baygon. Two swimsuits are not enough for one week. There is always time for a little more snorkelling.

8.  Ireland

Ten days in Ireland might seem short, but when all you want is to visit family and get a little Christmas cheer, it’s all you need. Shopping on Grafton Street with the lights twinkling above. Meeting an old friend by chance in a city cafe. Twenty-four hours in the UK just to catch up on all the gossip with Katharine. Putting up Mum’s Christmas tree one morning, listening to old cheesy Christmas tunes and reminiscing about Christmas trees past.  Christmas present shopping with Ashling and Connor. New puppies to adore. Turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Creating new Christmas family memories, even if they were a few weeks early.

What I learned: Don’t wear your precious Links bracelet over your winter gloves. You will always get a good winter coat in Dublin. Melatonin really helps with jetlag. You can never buy too much Newbridge Silverware jewellery.

9.  Darwin

They asked if I was going to Darwin to see Obama. No, I replied: he is in town to meet me. Memos from the hotel asking us to behave on our balconies (in case the Secret Service shot us) didn’t stop me waving enthusiastically at the Black Hawk helicopter that kept flying past. A lovely dinner with Julie Groome at Pee Wee’s. Celebrating the opening night of Darwin Pride with Chris Power. Power walking early in the morning, then trying to catch up with Hydralyte for the rest of the day. Dragging the living room furniture out onto the balcony for a Friday night feast, because they had taken the balcony furniture away at the start of cyclone season.

What I learned: Behave on your hotel balcony if POTUS is in town. Buy more Hydralyte before you travel in the wet season. Always pack one more white singlet top. Try not to turn into a comedy double-act when presenting serious stuff with Julie.

10.  Altona Beach

The one constant in my year: the boardwalk at Altona saved my sanity more than a few times this year. Park up near the Seaholme end of town, on with the Walkman and the sunvisor (not trendy, but it keep my hair at bay), get some UK garage going and power walk to the other end of the beach or maybe right into the park at Truganina. I know every step of the route and its familiarity soothes me, music or no music, sunshine or no sunshine, high tide or low tide.  It helped me get fit and healthy after the Summer of Love – both in body and in spirit.

What I learned: You can always walk just a little bit faster. Carry another layer with you in the boot of the car unless it is January or February. Sometimes it is best to leave the headphones behind and listen to the waves.

11.  Home

Sounds silly, but with all the travel I did this year, a Christmas and New Year holiday at home in our own house was the perfect getaway. No worries about what shoes to pack. Guaranteed comfy bed and perfect pillow. Only the best local red wine and bubbly served. Friends and family close at hand. The best travelling companion in the world. Excellent wi-fi. No air travel or packing or taxis or travel insurance to worry about.

What I learned: There’s no place like home.

Hobart ramblings

A warm spring evening in Hobart. It’s been a long two days, delivering pre-disaster-season briefings with Julie to a lively bunch of Tasmanian staff and volunteers. We finish a little earlier than expected and I dump the laptop and participant evaluation sheets, change clothes and head out into the late afternoon sunshine.

The Radiance of the Seas cruise ship has dominated the waterfront since we watched her dock at eight this morning. I stroll past, photographing the bulk of her, wanting to board just to have a look around, never to be a passenger.

Past Mures and the moored fish and chip shops at Franklin Wharf, past our favourite Fish Frenzy (The Frenzy of the Fish, as Julie calls it), a fire alarm spilling post-work drinkers, waitresses and short-order cooks out onto the pavement in good-natured bewilderment.

I walk behind three young women, dressed to the nines. One has the dangerously short red lycra dress and the substantial thighs I myself had in my early twenties. The look didn’t look great on me either. Her friend is stick-thin: she is having trouble keeping her tiny tight skirt covering her barely-existent behind. The one in the middle has a few more pounds on her, and a few more acres of fabric. Despite everything, she looks better than the other two who are just trying too hard.

Aurora Australis, the Australian Antarctic Division’s exploration ship has gone south for the summer, leaving a gaping hole at the dock beside Shed Number One on Prince’s Wharf. I head down Castray Esplanade, past the beautiful homes once owned by harbourmasters and ships’ captains. I detour briefly through Prince’ Park and continue on through the historical Battery Point area. The sandstone houses and single-storey artisan cottages transport me back to Dalkey, to Sandymount, to Malahide, to Wicklow Town. These few nineteenth-century streets are part of the reason I love Hobart so well – it reminds me of home.

As I pass the Franklin Dock the Radiance of the Seas gives three long blasts of the ship’s horn. Her engines are going astern, and she is off to the next port. I stand with a young family and a handful of tourists as the mammoth cruise ship floats imperceptiby away from the dock. The captain gives another three blasts of the horn, then another, and finally she is off. I continue along the waterfront towards the Henry Jones Art Hotel, passing lobster fishing boats, back to my hotel to freshen up.

Later I retrace my steps through even larger throngs of people out for the evening. The HoTown crowds are out in force, the balmy evening producing even shorter skirts on the girls and even fancier shirts on the boys. I am stopped by a gang of six women looking for a good place to eat. It’s the third time in twenty-four hours I have been stopped on the street in Hobart and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Luckily, I have plenty of opinions. Salamanca Place is buzzing as I stroll past, and I opt for Ciuccio’s, a frequent haunt of mine and a perfect place for this early summer’s evening.

A couple of glasses of McLaren Vale shiraz and one garlic chill prawn pizza later, I brave the crowds once more. It is after nine at night, not quite dark and still over twenty degrees – not at all typical Hobart November weather. The atmosphere is party-like and the crowds belie the fact that is merely a Wednesday night. It feels more like Christmas Eve.

I wend my way back along the waterfront to my hotel room, feeling lucky that I can visit this town as often as I can and that I am almost always blessed with perfect weather when I do.