Becoming an Employer of Choice for Indigenous Australians

Becoming an Employer of Choice for Indigenous Australians

In today’s workplace, diversity, equity and inclusion are good news for business. And, by making a genuine effort to attract and boost the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, organisations can reap the benefits of inclusion alongside the wealth of skills, knowledge and experience Indigenous employees bring to the workplace.

A 2020 McKinsey study tracked six years of data and found that more ethnically and culturally diverse businesses are as much as 36 per cent more profitable than the least diverse companies.

A workplace diversity, equity and inclusion strategy ensures a culturally safe and welcoming environment, and successfully implemented, the outcomes include greater staff retention, increased innovation and positive co-worker relationships. However, it is critical the program is genuine and not tokenistic, with meaningful work experiences and opportunities on offer.

To help organisations raise employment levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a range of incentives, wage subsidies, and access to Indigenous experts and organisations are available. In addition, Indigenous-led services can provide advice and support for recruitment, mentoring and cultural knowledge training.

There’s also the Australian Government’s Employment Parity Initiative (EPI), which aims to increase Indigenous employment in large companies to reflect the proportion of the Indigenous population nationally – approximately three per cent.

In a recent media article, AFL Sydney Swans star, Lance “Buddy” Franklin – a Noongar-Whadjuk man who grew up in Perth – urged major corporations to take action to increase levels of Indigenous employment and to get serious about “Closing the Gap”.

Franklin touted programs and initiatives to improve both education and employment opportunities as critical and emphasised that indigenous employment isn’t just about jobs – it’s a powerful move towards reconciliation.

“Meaningful employment and supportive workplaces encourage our people to better respect themselves, respect others, and show leadership within their communities,” he said.

“It goes so much further than just a job – it gives them a career pathway, an opportunity. It makes them believe and see that they do have options, they can make choices and achieve great things.”

The 2020 Closing the Gap report showed the Indigenous employment rate was around 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-indigenous Australians and hasn’t changed markedly in the decade since Closing the Gap targets were set.

Previous data has also shown younger members of the Indigenous community aren’t receiving enough education, training or employment opportunities.

Providing guidance on how to become an employer of choice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, First Indigenous Recruitment Solutions outlined three important characteristics for the workplace:

  1. Workplace flexibility

Flexibility means different things to different people, but it’s something employers should approach slightly differently when hiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

Spend time to understand the culture, background and what’s important to them, such as family and cultural traditions.

    • Cultural and ceremonial leave – Provide additional options and flexibility for bereavement leave to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people greater opportunity to attend these events and celebrate the lives of loved ones.
    • Culturally significant days – Several days of the calendar year are celebrated within Indigenous cultures, such as Mabo Day and National Sorry Day. Offer flexibility around these days.

2. Be culturally inclusive

As a culturally inclusive workplace, it is important to provide a safe environment – a space where employees feel secure in their own identity, culture and community. This should permeate through the whole business, requiring the employer to actively model the values of the work culture.

Offer supportive programs and workshops to allow non-Indigenous staff to develop a deeper understanding, respect and appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, languages, kinship structures and culture.

NAIDOC, which is held across Australia each July, is an important week for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to celebrate history, culture and achievements. Employers can further demonstrate an inclusive culture by participating in activities and events.

3. Supportive environment

Wrap-around mentoring is a great way to support new employees. Workplace mentoring, especially through indigenous mentors, is important in assisting Indigenous employees sustain employment and enhance workforce attachment.

Consider implementing a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). This strategic document supports an organisation’s business plan and includes practical actions to drive an organisation’s contribution to reconciliation both internally and in the communities in which it operates.

A range of support programs are available including the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), which help Indigenous high school students finish Year 12 and go on to University study or other programs. For university students, Career Tracker and other programs provide opportunities for employers to engage Indigenous workers early and to support them through their career. Getting involved in these types of initiatives will help attract and support Indigenous staff.


Indigenous survey highlights how to improve workplace inclusion

Capturing workplace experiences and insights from Indigenous employees, the Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research and Diversity Council Australia produced the recent report, Gari Yala – meaning “speak the truth” in Wiradjuri.

More than 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were surveyed with the report identifying 10 key focus areas for organisations to improve workplace inclusion:

  1. Ask Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff about how it is to work there. Listen to what you are told with an open heart, however uncomfortable this may be.
  2. Ensure any Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander-related work is led and informed by Indigenous people. This means engaging with Indigenous people both inside and outside your organisation.
  3. Develop specific principles for your own organisation that guide how Indigenous community engagement and employment should work in practice.
  4. Don’t focus on getting Indigenous people “work-ready”. Focus on your organisation’s readiness to employ Indigenous people.
  5. Recognise identity strain – this refers to the strain employees feel when they themselves, or others, view their identity as not meeting the norms or expectations of the dominant culture in the workplace – and educate non-Indigenous staff about how to interact with their Indigenous colleagues in ways that reduce this.
  6. Recognise that cultural load exists is real and is a burden. Recognise it in job descriptions and compensate for it. Cultural load refers to the (often invisible) additional workload borne by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workplace, where they are either the only Indigenous person or one of a small number of Indigenous people. It includes expectations to educate non-Indigenous colleagues about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and racism, and expectations to talk on behalf of all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.
  7. Consult with Indigenous staff on how to minimise cultural load while increasing cultural safety. This will take honest discussion and probably the commitment of resources.
  8. Build better careers for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people by supporting career development and leadership development.
  9. Act on workplace racism. Make complaint mechanisms clear, train managers and never brush it under the carpet. Results of this report suggest formal racism complaint procedures are uncommon.
  10. Look to high-impact initiatives that evidence-based research shows increase Indigenous employees’ wellbeing and retention. These include formal career development programs, mentoring and support, anti-discrimination training and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days and weeks of significance.

References and further reading:

National Indigenous Australians Agency: Employment Parity Initiative

HRM: A look at top Indigenous employment programs

HRM: 3 things you might not know about Indigenous employment

CV Checkpoint: The many benefits of developing recruitment strategies to attract more Indigenous Australians (and how to do it)