With the Indigenous Voice referendum coming up later this year, employers should consider how they can ensure discussions around this topic remain productive.
Since the government announced the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum last year, the issue has sparked intense debate nationwide. Many Australians are sitting firmly in the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps, and others are still unsure about how they’ll vote. This means there are likely to be differing opinions within your workforce.
Due to be held on 14 October, the referendum (a compulsory vote for all Australian citizens) will determine whether a permanent Indigenous Voice to Parliament is enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
Given the diverse range of perspectives within the community, both individuals and employers should be mindful that tensions may run high on both sides of the argument. Discussions about this topic at work should therefore be approached with the utmost care and respect for all parties involved.
Managing conflicting opinions in the workplace
Given the complex and sensitive nature of the debate, it might be tempting for employers to try to avoid these discussions entirely. However, neglecting the issue is likely to do more harm than good in the long run, says Carla Rogers, Co-Director of Evolve Communities, a trusted authority for Indigenous cultural awareness and allyship training.
“If we want to create culturally safe and inclusive workplaces, we have to be prepared to have conversations about the events and policies that are having a real impact on the lives of our employees,” she says.
“There is a lot of misinformation [out there], from why we need a referendum to what the Voice will mean. We would advise HR departments to make sure people have access to reliable sources of information.”
A core component of Evolve’s mission is to provide this essential information to employers through its training, workshops and resources.
“Creating inclusive workplaces is all about welcoming diversity – not just in our cultural backgrounds and abilities, but also in our ways of thinking and our political views,” says Aunty Munya Andrews, Aboriginal Elder and Co-Director of Evolve.
“Cultural awareness training isn’t about getting everyone to agree, it’s about making sure everyone has accurate information so they can make up their own minds.”
Initiating helpful conversations about the Voice is especially important given that the underlying cause of tension is often a lack of transparency, she says.
“Our cultural awareness training isn’t about getting everyone to agree, it’s about making sure everyone has accurate information so they can make up their own minds.” – Aunty Munya Andrews, Aboriginal Elder and Co-Director of Evolve Communities.
“Unfortunately, in Australia we haven’t done a very good job of teaching our true history – about the lives that Indigenous people led before the arrival of the First Fleet or the impacts of colonisation on First Nations people.
“Conversations about The Voice inevitably will touch on the disadvantages that First Nations people are still experiencing today, and that’s very confronting, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”
Rogers notes that exposure to these issues can sometimes evoke feelings of guilt or shame from participants. To address this, they encourage employers to strive to provide a safe space for different perspectives to be expressed and explored.
“Instinctively, we don’t want to experience these feelings, so we try to run away from the conversation and enter into denial, or become defensive and angry to avoid facing the truth,” she says.
“That’s why [employers should] focus on creating a non-judgmental space… We have to move past those feelings to move forward, inspire action and achieve reconciliation.”
As well as initiating helpful discussions about the Voice, employers should be particularly conscious that they are creating a culturally safe workplace for First Nations employees in the coming months, says Andrews.
“We are already seeing an increase in racist rhetoric… If possible, set up your Indigenous employees with a peer-support group where they can offer support and encouragement to each other.”
A framework to improve communication about the Voice referendum
For employers who are concerned about tensions rising at work, Evolve has created a simple and practical framework to help resolve conflict or confusion that crops up during conversations about the Voice or other Indigenous issues.
Evolve’s R3 Culture Model (sign-up required) advises participants to approach these conversations by:
- Reflecting – pause to identify the source of the conflict and consider the factors that led to it.
- Relating – without making assumptions, consider how things might look from the other person’s point of view and how they might be feeling.
- Reconciling – if possible, work with the other person or party to design a solution and consider how you can move forward together.
“Being an ally takes a lot of courage and making mistakes is inevitable – take it from someone who knows,” says Rogers. “But the word ally is a verb – we have to take action, even when it makes us uncomfortable. My advice is to first make sure you are sharing accurate information and, if you do find yourself in a difficult conversation, apply the 3 Rs.”
Ultimately, the referendum presents an opportunity for individuals and organisations to learn about the significance of Indigenous representation and the impact of acknowledging and embracing diverse voices in decision-making processes, Rogers and Andrews say.
By fostering a culture of awareness and open-mindedness, employers can help make the referendum – and Indigenous issues more broadly – feel more approachable.
“Just like the vote on legalising same-sex marriage generated a lot of controversy at the time, today we look back and wonder what all the fuss was about,” says Andrews. “I think it will be the same for the Voice.”
Discussing sensitive topics in the workplace can be tricky. AHRI’s short course will arm you with the tools to effectively prepare, plan and conduct a difficult conversation and achieve the best possible outcomes while maintaining harmonious working relationships.