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  • Ken Markwell

Attracting and retaining Aboriginal talent

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

When it comes to attracting Aboriginal staff, it’s important to understand what it means to be an employer of choice for Aboriginal people.


Aboriginal people will generally be attracted to an organisation that has:

  • cultural capability

  • cultural leave provisions

  • good Indigenous leadership

  • good engagement with the Aboriginal community

  • access to coaching and support.

Having all these elements could be the difference between an Aboriginal person feeling fulfilled in their role and staying; being disenchanted and wanting to leave; or leaving.


First and foremost, you should have a Reconciliation Action Plan and be able to demonstrate that it’s part of the organisation’s fabric, not a document on a shelf.


You need to make sure your recruitment practices are culturally appropriate, otherwise you’ll lose people before you’ve had the opportunity to determine if they’re you’re preferred candidate.


Underpinning it all, though, is having a work environment that’s culturally safe for Aboriginal people.


I’ve written separately about the issue of cultural load for Aboriginal people in workplace and education settings. That’s when Aboriginal staff members are expected to take responsibility for cultural matters, even when it’s not what they are were hired to do.


When cultural load becomes overwhelming, it can lead to unexplained absences.


It’s important for you to recognise if you have these expectations as an employer, and then to have an open conversation with that staff member. Together, you can find a way to balance the needs of the organisation and their needs as an employee.


A growing number of organisations have recognised the value in making cultural leave available for Aboriginal staff – paid and unpaid. Connection to culture and country is critical to an Aboriginal person’s identity and their ability to walk in two worlds. Allowing time for Aboriginal staff to reconnect – often by going on country – can lead to a higher level of productivity on their return.


Creating a culturally safe place means uplifting cultural awareness and capability among all staff. It’s impossible to create a space where Aboriginal and non-Indigenous workers can connect if the latter are unaware of what’s important in an Aboriginal context.


For example, a company I worked for opened a new office and it was important for our Aboriginal staff that the space be cleansed through a smoking ceremony before anyone entered. Non-Aboriginal staff didn’t understand the significance and started celebrating with champagne while the ceremony was under way. I had to address this with a colleague (someone I knew and trusted), to explain why this wasn’t appropriate. It was a case of people with their heart in the right place, but where a lack of cultural awareness had created an uncomfortable situation.


For Aboriginal people, there are two strong emotions we fight: pride and shame. We can be particularly proud and we can be shamed. Understanding that and how to work through those emotions is important.


I offer coaching and mentoring for non-Indigenous executives and leaders who want to become allies for non-Indigenous staff and create culturally safe and mutually respectful environments.


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