How to be an Ally to Indigenous employees

Many HR leaders and managers want to know how to create a culturally safe and inclusive workplace that engages and inspires Indigenous talent – but they don’t know where to start, or who to ask.

Thanks so much to HRM (the news site of the Australian HR Institute) for seeking out our input.

Reporter Sophie Deutsch spoke with our co-directors, Aunty Munya Andrews and Carla Rogers, to get answers to some common questions.

Following is an extract reprinted with permission. You can read the article in full here.

Six Common Questions About Supporting Indigenous Employees

1. What should I keep in mind if I or another employee is doing an Acknowledgement to Country?

Aunty Munya: It’s an important cultural protocol and it means a great deal to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be acknowledged in this way. The most important thing is to use the name of the Traditional Owners, pay respects to Elders past and present, and be sincere.

Carla: People can get really nervous about doing and saying the right thing. Think of it like you are going to someone’s home for dinner. You don’t just barge in and sit at the dinner table. You acknowledge them, you thank them for welcoming them to your home. It’s not just about doing this formally, you can Acknowledge Country anytime you feel inspired.

You can read our guide to creating your own authentic and inspiring Acknowledgment of Country here.

2. How can I support Indigenous employees and be a better Ally? 

Carla: We recently received an inquiry from an HR manager who had been unsuccessful in her efforts to retain a high-performing Indigenous employee. In her own words she said: “I feel if I was better educated to understand [the employee’s] culture, I may have been able to help our team and managers approach things differently and affect a better outcome.”

Making Indigenous employees feel welcome is all about creating cultural safety, and there are many simple things you can do to create a supportive environment.

One of the easiest ways is to have visual signs that help someone feel welcome and that they belong. Have the beautiful Aboriginal map of Australia on display, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. An example of how impactful this can be was demonstrated just last week when Anthony Albanese made his conference debut as Prime Minister with both flags mounted in the blue room.

Aunty Munya: We also advise anyone in a position of leadership to consider becoming an Accredited Ally, so they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Our Ally Accreditation Program goes into detail about the impacts of our shared history and white privilege, stereotypes and assumptions and also differences in communication styles that can lead to misunderstandings. 

It’s important that all staff members have been provided with cultural awareness training and have some understanding of the cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

3. How can I communicate effectively with Indigenous people? 

Aunty Munya: There are some key differences related to eye contact, questioning, time, silence, colours, humour, body language and manners. For example, in our culture, it is not usual (or polite) to ask direct questions. To gather information from someone, you need to ask questions in a much more roundabout and indirect fashion. For example, in our culture, it’s best to use leading questions that suggest the answer in the question and to spend time with someone before going straight in with the question.

One of the few direct questions that is acceptable to ask is what mob someone belongs to. It’s one of the first things we will ask when we meet someone new. It is absolutely fine for Gudia (non-Indigenous) people to ask this as well. I think it shows an interest in our culture.

We are also much more comfortable with silence. So you may find you get no response to your questions which can be frustrating, but in our culture it’s quite normal and can signal a multitude of different things, such as active listening, being a sign of respect or to convey consensus.

Carla: We have developed a communication model called the R3 Approach. While it was designed to support communication with Indigenous people, it can be helpful in a range of situations where there is potential for conflict or misunderstanding. The 3Rs are reflect, relate and reconcile. I’ll illustrate this using the example of an Aboriginal graduate who was consistently late to work.

  • Reflect: Identify the issue at the heart of the matter?
    In the case of the graduate, he was often late to work, and the company wanted to know why while ensuring they could support and retain him.
  • Relate: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
    This graduate was from a remote part of Queensland and new to the workforce. Imagine how terrifying it would be for them to move [from home] for the position.
  • Reconcile: Design a way forward together. The manager took the graduate out for a coffee. She didn’t make assumptions but simply said, ‘I think the start time is 9am. I could be wrong about this, but I believe you’re coming in much later than that. Is that correct?’The manager found out that the graduate was scared of public transport. He loved his job, but some days he was walking a very long distance to get to work. The manager paired him up with an Ally to catch the bus with him until he was comfortable doing this on his own. He turned out to be a star employee.

4. How can I support an employee who needs to take Sorry Business?

Carla: The first thing to understand is that the Aboriginal kinship system is far more complex than ours. An Aboriginal person will likely have many mothers, fathers, uncles and grandparents. Also, sadly, the life expectancy of Indigenous people is almost ten years less than other Australians. 

When you take all of this into consideration, it’s likely your Indigenous employees will frequently be required to take leave to fulfil their cultural obligations when a family member passes. Making sure you have provisions for this leave is the best way to support your Indigenous employees. 

5. How can we acknowledge the shared history of Indigenous people and white Australians?

Aunty Munya: We say that white Australia has a Black history. There are two sides to this. The positive side is the incredible wisdom and resilience of our people, going back 100,000 years to the Dreamtime. The difficult side is the impact of our shared history – especially the trauma of the impacts of both colonisation and the Stolen Generations. 

Carla: The theme of National Reconciliation Week 2022 is to ‘Be Brave. Make Change.’ 

What does it mean to be brave? Why do we need change? Part of being brave is being prepared to have the hard yarns around privilege and racism, and to look at the truth of our history.

We have to acknowledge this shared history to move forward as a country. In the words of author Richard Flanagan: “If we would accept it (our shared history), rather than spurn it, we might discover so many new possibilities for ourselves as a people”. 

While truth telling is hard, it’s so important to do. Immerse yourself in books, movies and TV shows that tell our shared history from an Indigenous perspective.

6. What is Indigeneity and why is it important?

Aunty Munya: Indigeneity refers to the quality of being Indigenous. It’s a felt sense of identity and connection to other Indigenous peoples both here in Australia and around the world. 

Who is considered Indigenous is a vexed issue in Australia. Often those who do not look Aboriginal are challenged about their Indigeneity or called ‘part-Aboriginal or half-caste’ which is deeply offensive. 

For us, it’s all about biological descent and socialisation, i.e: whether you are brought up as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We like to joke that “A cup of tea is still a cup of tea no matter how much milk is added!”

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