What should you keep in mind when doing an Acknowledgement to Country? And what do you need to know about Sorry Business? To mark NAIDOC Week, two experts answer six common questions about supporting Indigenous employees.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2022. We are republishing it to mark NAIDOC week.
Many HR leaders and managers have good intentions of creating an inclusive workplace culture. They might want to increase the representation of Indigenous employees, and ensure they’re facilitating a supportive environment that encourages loyalty.
Building a truly welcoming workforce requires learning about Indigenous employees’ communication styles, needs and experiences.
However, sometimes building this knowledge means asking hard and uncomfortable questions. But often people don’t out of fear of offending someone.
Reconciliation and allyship experts Aunty Munya Andrews, a Bardi Elder, and Carla Rogers, co-directors of Evolve Communities, are here to help.
Spurred by the success of the series, HRM has put together some of the most common questions Aunty Munya and Carla have been asked. Here are their responses.
1. What should we keep in mind when 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.
For more information on doing acknowledgements of country, see the guidelines on Evolves’ website.
2. How can I support Indigenous employees and become 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 [in May last year] when Anthony Albanese made his conference debut as Prime Minister with both flags mounted in the blue room.
“We like to joke that “A cup of tea is still a cup of tea no matter how much milk is added!” – Aunty Munya
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.
[Such programs] go 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.
Watch Carla and Aunty Munya’s video on supporting Indigenous employees for further information:
3. How can I build strong relationships 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. In our culture silence is 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 this case, the employee was often late to work, and the company wanted to know why while ensuring they could retain that staff member.
- Relate: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
This employee 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 employee out for a coffee. She didn’t make assumptions but simply said, ‘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 employee 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 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 fulfill 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.
Read HRM’s article on companies that are introducing progressive leave policies, such as for Sorry Business.
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: 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 Aborigional 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!”
Do you have other questions about Indigenous employment that you’d love answered? Join the AHRI lounge, exclusive to members, to voice any queries or concerns and get advice from your peers.