Cultural sensitivity is an essential part of developing successful indigenous people recruitment programmes

Sean Armistead is the indigenous employment programme manager at Crown Melbourne, the largest leisure complex in the Australian state of Victoria.

His own mother is from an old traditional station in south-east Australia called Potaruwutj Padthaway. He has a passion for improving the prospects of the Australian indigenous community, and co-founded the not-for-profit CareerTrackers, which aims to help create career pathways for indigenous university students through structured internship programs.

Armistead argues that employers should focus on the attitudes of young people rather than their school marks, and he extends this philosophy to his current work at Crown. With 8,500 employees under one roof, Crown is the largest single-site employer in Victoria with a target to create and maintain 2,000 positions for Aboriginal people over 10 years.

Despite these impressive targets, Armistead says that it is “not a numbers game” but rather “all about retention”. He takes comfort in the fact that even if an employee moves on, they will have developed new skills.

Armistead has helped formulate indigenous employment strategies for other major corporations and management consultancies. “I love what I do”, he says, adding that there has “never been a better time than now”, in relation to the corporate sector’s active commitment and appetite for indigenous employment. Despite this, there are still many improvements that can be made to the employment process.

Overcoming challenges

Armistead is well positioned to know the difficulties facing indigenous people seeking employment and the most successful techniques that employers can use to help get the most from their indigenous employees.

Generational unemployment. Indigenous families may historically have no or little experience in working for money. When a candidate’s employment history is lacking, a lower risk option is to ease employees in by starting them out working part-time.

Demystifying the space. Comprehensive pre-employment programmes for new indigenous employees at Crown include a tour of the company and an explanation of workplace behaviour such as adherence to the start and finish time of a working day. This can help to foster a sense of settlement and belonging.

Understanding any educational disparitybetween indigenous and non-indigenous employees. Employers need to know where indigenous candidates are starting from in order to address any deficits with catch-up training programmes for core business skills such as maths.

Mentor programmes.Sean states that a buddy programme for new Aboriginal employees is critical to retention at Crown. For the first few months they are assigned an existing Aboriginal employee to guide them as they become accustomed to their new jobs.

Who’s your hero?As well as mentors acting as role models, the company can help to share the experience of other successful Aboriginal professionals so that employees can have something to aim for.

Opportunities for growth.At Crown, indigenous people are offered a diverse range of roles, from entry level to back and front of house. In five or six years the company’s aim is to have these employees in managerial positions.

Targets and measurement. Whilst quotas and targets can be helpful for setting a minimum number for Aboriginal employees, businesses should not be bound by them as motivations can change. A good measure of success is how many indigenous people are still employed after one year, two years or ten years.

Confidence.Companies need to have faith in their Aboriginal employees, be supportive and flexible to their needs in order to give them self-confidence and consequently the desire to succeed.

Public-private partnerships.Private sector companies should use the support offered by the government in order to deliver successful outcomes.

Cultural awareness trainingand workshops are not yet standard across companies based in Australia, but they are becoming more widely used and there is a new industry emerging to offer such services.

Cultural awareness

One of the things inherently learnt by non-indigenous employees through cultural awareness workshops is sensitivity. Offence can be taken to questions such as “what part/percentage Aboriginal are you?” or “is it your mum or your dad who is Aboriginal?”

Yet these questions are commonly asked to those members of indigenous communities who do not “look” Aboriginal. The full term is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, meaning indigenous Australians. Another area of culture sensitivity surrounds bereavement. With many indigenous employees hailing from a large family, time is inevitably taken out of work for attendance of family events, and particularly funerals. The time following a family member’s death is termed the “sorry business” period and can mean that an employee wants to take personal leave for a good few weeks.

Employers should be aware that nobody is supposed to say the person’s name or show an image of them once they have passed on, as it is believed to be akin to calling them back from the spirit world and not allowing them to go peacefully.

Cultural awareness works two ways, of course. For indigenous people, the process of earning money can be entirely new. It is quite usual for indigenous young people to have their earnings go directly into their parent’s bank account.

Ganbina is an organisation which uses an after school work programme to build a strong work ethic to help ensure Aboriginal students complete schooling. They also establish individual bank accounts for the students to set them on a path of financial independence. This also helps the indigenous community to understand the importance of a young person earning and owning their own money, having responsibility over it and a choice as to where it should go.

Government’s role

In the past, the Australian government has tried to help improve Indigenous employment opportunities and there have been some positive outcomes as well as some policies and programs that have not worked so well.

Australian Employment Covenant campaigns to have businesses hire indigenous Australians. Covenant founder Andrew Forrest says: “If you throw money and not opportunity, if you throw money instead of training, if you throw money instead of education, then you give them a fairly bedded path to destruction.”

Armistead argues that the Australian government can do more to loosen the restrictions on employing indigenous people. More can be done to help companies who are bound by legislation covering the need for background checks. There are comparatively high prison rates amongst some Aboriginal communities, yet a company may miss out on a perfectly good employee because a person has a minor criminal record from many years ago.

A currently helpful scheme is in the use of subsidies, though this could be made more effective. The government currently endorses an indigenous wage subsidy scheme whereby companies can receive payment after they have employed someone from an Aboriginal community for 13 to 23 weeks.

Armistead believes that funding to assist private organisations, particularly small to medium enterprises, is a good thing, but that the duration of Aboriginal employment should be extended to at least 12 months before the subsidy is granted.

Pools of talent

There is an endless supply of potential indigenous talent, but the demand and encouragement for indigenous employment has to come from companies. Employers can do more to increase their capacity to identify the qualities needed in a candidate, to support indigenous employees once they start and to establish trust within a community.

Indigenous people – in Australia and elsewhere – need to be reassured that their employment is not tokenistic and that they will not be treated differently from those employees from other communities.

Many of the challenges faced in recruiting and retaining Australian Aboriginal employees are similar to those faced in areas in parts of Africa, and elsewhere. Programmes and models used to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can be replicable in these disadvantaged communities too.

Whilst there continue to be challenges to overcome, increasing corporate indigenous employment and ameliorating the structures around it can have immeasurable benefits to company productivity and the wellbeing of the individual employee.

Rosie Helson is a consultant with Amida Recruitment in Sydney

In an earlier report, she examined some of the wider opportunities for Australian companies in developing talent from indigenous communities.

Australia  equality  human resources  Indigenous talent  Rosie Helson 

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