The Constant Questions

Comfort and safety for your First Nations employees in 2023

In 2023, Australians will be asked to vote to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. As the debate intensifies on this referendum, it is important to explore the issues that already affect Indigenous peoples in the workplace and ask how organisations will support them during the debate on The Voice.

Alarming, early findings from recent DCA research (for the upcoming 2023 Inclusion@Work Index) shows that many Indigenous employees are already disadvantaged and risk further trauma this year.

Nareen Young, from the Business School and the Jumbunna Institute at Sydney’s UTS, and Joshua Gilbert, a senior researcher at UTS Jumbunna, examines racism and cultural load in the workplace this year. UTS will also be providing information to help organisations support First Nations staff this year in a free, online event on July 20. More details below.

In 2019, the Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research and Diversity Council Australia, supported by the National Australia Bank and Coles, conducted Gari Yala (meaning ‘speak the truth’ in Wiradjuri language). The project was the first and, so far, the only Indigenous-led and Indigenous-formulated employment research sharing the workplace experiences of over 1,000 Indigenous people (the research is soon to be repeated).

The alarming nature of conducting this research is that despite the frequent hype towards “Indigenous employment” in Australia, asking Indigenous people about their experiences, narrated by First Nations people, within a human resources and policy framework lens has taken such a substantial duration. The project portrayed the importance of an Indigenous Voice for self-determined projects to be developed, conducted, and told by First Nations people for success.

The research indicated that:

  • 63% experienced high identity strain – the strain Indigenous employees feel when they themselves, or others, view their identity as not meeting the norms or expectations of the dominant culture in the workplace.
  • 39% carry the burden of a high cultural load, which comes in the form of extra work demands and the expectation to educate others.
  • 28% work in culturally unsafe workplaces.
  • 38% reported being treated unfairly because of their Indigenous background sometimes, often or all the time.
  • 44% reported hearing racial slurs sometimes, often or all the time.

While there’s not an Indigenous person in the country who didn’t know precisely what the research indicated anecdotally, it was a relief for us to be able to offer data to reinforce these expected consequences.


Sadly, the data about how Australia’s workplaces deal with these consequences is just as stark. The research tells us that current workplace supports are woefully inadequate:

  • Only 1 in 3 had the workplace support required when they experienced racism.
  • Only 1 in 5 worked in organisations with both a racism complaint procedure and anti-discrimination compliance training that included reference to Indigenous discrimination and harassment.

While the Voice seeks to provide further opportunities for First Nations communities to share their experiences within governance systems, organisations and society at large have taken this opportunity to add an increased cultural load on Indigenous peoples, employees, friends and family members. It appears through the racist social media campaigns on our devices during the day, the challenges to our identity as Indigenous peoples on the news at night and it suffocates us in our dreams..

We know that this cultural load has placed Indigenous employees under tremendous stress and has led to unsafe practices at work. Diversity Council Australia is working on the next iteration of its groundbreaking Inclusion@Work Index. Early data indicates that  everyday exclusion experiences towards First Nations workers has not improved.

  • 50% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander workers reported sometimes, often, or always being ignored by people at work or being treated as if they didn’t exist (compared to 24% of non-Indigenous workers)
  • 49% reported sometimes, often, or always being left out of a work social gathering (compared to 23% of non-Indigenous workers)
  • 51% reported sometimes, often, or always having people make incorrect assumptions about their abilities because of their age, culture/ethnicity, disability, gender, Indigenous background, or sexual orientation (compared to 28% of non-Indigenous workers).

Most alarmingly, the 2023 data showed a 9% increase in the number of Aboriginal  and/or Torres Strait Islander workers who experienced discrimination and/or harassment, up from 50% in 2021.

In 2023, all the behaviours shared above are simply unlawful, pursuant to the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Now, not only are First Nations employees facing racism, increased cultural load and challenging workplace experiences, we must be deeply re-traumatised simply for naming the workplace right to be safe. Concerningly, why is it that only 1 in 3 of Gari Yala survey respondents had workplace support when they experienced racism? Why has the human resources sector, which was mandated with the development, implementation and carrying out of the policies and procedures that derive from the Racial Discrimination Act, 45 years ago, not been supporters in our efforts and shouldered some of the responsibility for the predicament we find ourselves in?

The First Nations Employment Alliance argues that the racism situation for First Nations employees requires a serious public review and discussion, including placing anti-racism workplace provisions firmly in the employment jurisdiction as well as the human rights jurisdiction so that it is taken seriously by the employment community. While we examine the disturbing horror of what has become the daily situation for Indigenous people in Australia’s workplaces, we hope that future campaigns offer the ability to reflect on our workplaces deeply, prioritise Indigenous voices and experiences and stop racism at work.

So, what should we do in our workplaces this year when racism is rife while the legislative frameworks are woefully inadequate and not fit for purpose? How can we reduce the burdensome cultural load our people feel at work and provide safe spaces for reflection, consideration and truth-telling?

Nareen Young is Associate Dean, Indigenous Leadership and Engagement UTS Business School and Professor, Indigenous Policy (Indigenous Workforce Diversity) at UTS Jumbunna Institute. She is informed by her Indigenous and culturally diverse heritages in all her work.

Joshua is a Worimi man and is a Senior Researcher at UTS Jumbunna Institute.