Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – Leading Practice

Understand the 10 truths to centre Indigenous Australians’ voices to create workplace inclusion

Before your organisation works on building workplace inclusion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, it is important to understand the 10 truths to centre Indigenous Australians’ voices to create workplace inclusion.

Before anything else, organisations must be prepared to interrogate and understand their own current truths when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees’ experiences at work. Hearing home truths can be an uncomfortable experience, but meaningful organisational change can only begin when this happens.  If organisations seek to engage in this process, not only must they be prepared to hear the truths, but they must be willing to listen with an open heart, not get defensive and act on what they hear.
It is critical that any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-related activities, strategies and work is led and/or informed by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. This means putting Indigenous voices and perspectives at the centre of any work you do.  Centreing Indigenous voices cannot be done in a tokenistic way. The approach needs to be genuinely participatory and involve engaging and working with multiple Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander stakeholders (from within and/or outside the organisation).
Consider developing specific principles for your own organisation, which guide how Indigenous community engagement and employment should work in day-to-day practice.  Make sure you work in a participatory way with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and community members to develop these principles.
To date, much of the dialogue in the Indigenous employment sector has focused on building Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff capacity and capability.  What is often missing is a focus on workplace readiness – that is, how culturally safe and inclusive the workplace is for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff. Organisations need to work with their staff to identify and baseline current cultural safety levels and determine how to improve these results.
An important element of creating a culturally safe and inclusive workplace is taking into account the identity strain that close to two-thirds (63%) of respondents reported dealing with at work. Instances of identity strain can include an Indigenous person having to work harder to prove that they can do the job, being asked to do something that compromises their cultural identity, or being told to ‘tone it down’ or be less outspoken about Indigenous issues.

Cultural load is 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. This includes, extra Indigenous-related work demands that non-Indigenous colleagues do not have, 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. 

Organisations need to understand cultural load, and recognise and reward it in job descriptions. This provides Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees with the opportunity to spend time on and be fairly compensated for this important aspect of their work.

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-focused activities that an organisation implements has a direct relationship with the level of cultural safety within that workplace. These activities provide opportunities for Indigenous employees to engage with the broader workforce, take time off for cultural events and share Indigenous culture through cultural awareness training. However, these activities also place additional (usually unrecognised and unremunerated) cultural load pressures on Indigenous staff.

Career development is an important aspect of Indigenous workplace satisfaction and wellbeing. Some steps to build sustainable career development for Indigenous staff could include: 

  • Listen to and develop a real understanding of your Indigenous staff.
  • Build an accessible, meaningful Indigenous staff network that provides a culturally safe space to network.
  • Enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to advise how organisational policies and practices can be made more culturally safe and inclusive.
  • Provide Indigenous mentors to employees entering the workforce for the first time.

Racism manifests in many ways and can have a dramatic impact on individuals, leading to identity strain, as well as reductions in job satisfaction and wellbeing. To address racism, organisations should: 

Develop, regularly review and promote racism complaint procedures and anti-discrimination compliance training. 

Train managers on how to constructively address and effectively resolve racism and exclusion. 

Train all staff on what constitutes racist behaviour and how to respond appropriately to a person raising a concern about racist behaviour.

Gari Yala survey findings shed light on which initiatives are most likely to have a positive impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. The initiatives are: 

  • Formal career development programs for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees.
  • Racism complaint procedures.
  • Indigenous (Leader/Elder) support or sponsorship of new and young staff.
  • Anti-discrimination compliance training that includes reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days or weeks of significance. 

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