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How to create an impactful Indigenous recruitment and retention strategy in Australia

CXC Global9 min read
CXC GlobalDecember 10, 2023
CXC Global

The recruitment and retention of Indigenous people in Australia involves unique challenges for employers and their hiring managers. Navigating these challenges requires time, resources, and a willingness to make internal cultural changes. That being said, the opportunities presented by Indigenous talent are many, and organisations in Australia are increasingly aware of this.

Indigenous Australians are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment. They are underrepresented in the workforce and maintain lower levels of education compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. Indigenous Australians are also almost completely absent from senior management and executive leadership roles. (Source: Indigenous Employment Index (2022))

In this article, we’ve provided a roadmap for your organisation to understand the nuances and processes involved in hiring Indigenous workers. Our goal here is to help you develop an Indigenous recruitment and retention strategy that is successful, respectful of Indigenous peoples, and longstanding.

Understanding the recruitment landscape of Australia for Indigenous hiring

To understand the landscape for hiring Indigenous talent, your business needs to have a detailed knowledge of Australia’s Indigenous history and peoples. Once you’ve gained this knowledge, you’ll be well positioned to undertake recruitment conversations and hiring activity with Indigenous talent, suited to their professional and cultural needs.

Importantly, you’ll need to be acutely aware of past barriers to hiring for Indigenous people, so that your workplace culture is suitable, accepting and offers the opportunity for Indigenous workers to thrive. A sustainable strategy is one that offers social impact, not just tactical hiring. In this way, your organisation becomes a known provider of quality career opportunities of diverse peoples, especially Australia’s Indigenous.

Also, your business needs to understand the employment benefits valued by Indigenous workers. Outside of income, Indigenous workers seek support structures that allow them to meet the needs of their family and community. For example, this may be in the form of additional annual leave or educational opportunities, over other benefits. Quality of life for Indigenous workers, will unlikely reflect the same measures deemed important to non-Indigenous peoples.

By building your knowledge and hiring practice to meet the needs of Australia’s First Nations people, your business, in delivering a truly inclusive hiring strategy, can start the process of supporting intergenerational change for Indigenous peoples and their opportunity to work.

Indigenous recruitment and retention challenges in Australia

The challenges to hiring Indigenous people into corporate Australia are many. They include a reluctance of companies to adapt their hiring, workforce management and talent engagement practices, to include Indigenous talent. There’s a lack of informed approaches in companies just like yours. And there’s a lack of commitment and allocation of resources for genuine inclusion.

There’s also the tendency for organisations to develop shallow strategies, absent of research, insight or consultation with the very people sought for hiring. This ‘bolt on’ approach is more box ticking, less solutions focused, and can come with elements of racism.

Building a robust Indigenous Talent management framework

According to Uncle Paul Gordon, a Ngemba man born at Brewarrina, the importance of relationship building with First Nations people, is critical to hiring. He has a process that he recommends to organisations like yours, when building an Indigenous strategy for hiring.

In relationship building with Indigenous people – both for recruitment and retention of workers – there are six L’s:

  • Lore

Lore is an important part of Aboriginal culture, so it’s important to have knowledge and awareness of Aboriginal lore.

  • Love

Building a culturally safe environment for Indigenous workers, involves love. In terms of Aboriginal heritage, love is a strength-based approach to relationship building. This is also about recognising the historical effects of the past 250 years while maintaining high standards for those Indigenous people we work with. Holding our First Nations colleagues to a high standard is acceptable, as long as we acknowledge, with love, the historical impacts that have brought us to this point.

  • Look, Listen, Learn

Listening to deeply understand the Indigenous people we work with, will bring the professional relationship to a culturally fruitful point. Listening and looking at our Aboriginal colleagues and where they’re coming from, will teach non-Aboriginal people in your business, a great deal. A formalised way to learn could include the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) where the skills of First Nations People are developed, allowing them to be elevated in the organisation, where they can truly be heard. More on RAPs later.

  • Lead

Becoming a leader in your industry for better racial interactions with Indigenous people, will propagate genuine relationships with Indigenous talent and help to build a talent pipeline. Following this simple process to relationship building will greatly assist your company’s efforts for hiring and inclusion of Indigenous workers.

In addition, Uncle Paul Gordon also recommends the following strategies for recruitment and retention of Indigenous workers:

  • Targeted advertising:

Undertake advertising to the specific communities you’re seeking to engage. By adopting the ‘look, listen and learn’ approach noted earlier, key people in your business can develop relationships with individuals in targeted Indigenous communities, to understand their motivations. Colourful brochures that ‘speak’ to Indigenous people, are very effective. Brochures need to avoid too much copy, and include questions about the Indigenous worker’s needs, community and goals.

  • Communications in a digital world:

Indigenous people often have a lower level of digital literacy as access to computers, and the cost of broadband can be problematic. Also, with many Indigenous people living in remote locations, digital infrastructure and services can be unreliable or non-existent. Engaging an Indigenous outreach expert to help guide your communications and navigate digital hurdles, will allow you to reach Indigenous communities most efficiently.

  • Traineeships and pathways:

Like non-Indigenous workers, First Nations people have ambition and motivation. But, if the organisation doesn’t provide the opportunity for growth and professional development, retention of Indigenous people will be poor. Given responsibility, Indigenous people seek the opportunity to grow in the organisation, into leadership positions. Establishing a pathway to achieve this growth, is your responsibility as the employer.

  • Mentoring:

Indigenous workers value support in the workplace. Enabling mentoring as well as skills development, will give them insight and confidence. Mentoring opportunities could the following:

  • Enabling Indigenous workers to shadow business leaders or senior executives.
  • Providing opportunities to attend conferences.
  • Travelling for work.
  • Training on a new tool or speciality area.

Culturally, your organisation will likely need to make some changes, to successfully include Indigenous workers in your talent mix. A commitment to genuine relationship building, a development plan that provides a pathway for professional growth, and a heightened sensitivity to First Nations culture are all steps that will see high levels of engagement and retention of Indigenous workers. As a typically loyal peoples, if Indigenous workers see you’re investing in them, they’ll respond with loyalty, commitment and respect.

Embracing cultural sensitivities in the hiring process

There are various cultural nuances associated with hiring Indigenous talent. These considerations are crucial for a successful Indigenous recruitment and retention strategy.

The cultural nuances of hiring Indigenous talent

Unlike non-Indigenous hiring, the notion of community and relationships is very important to Australia’s First Nations people. Relationship building in community settings is important for recruitment, and frequently, your organisation will need to be known to the local Indigenous community before you can engage.

Also, your organisation will need to be highly regarded before any members of the Aboriginal community will consider applying to work with you.

When reaching out to Indigenous communities, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the community structure, traditions and the best time and avenues to engage with them. Keep in mind, this may vary from community to community, so complexities are common. As mentioned earlier, using the services of Indigenous experts is a great solution, so your business knows how to approach each Indigenous community, and so you deploy the right engagement protocols.

Or, if you choose to approach the communities without the help of an external expert, make sure you do the following:

  • Be very clear about the purpose of your communications and outreach.
  • Be clear about who your organisation is, what you do and the cultural systems you have in place, for making your business a safe place for Indigenous workers.
  • Include your company’s commitment to Indigenous hiring in all your recruitment and Employer Branding communications.
  • Be clear about the jobs which you’re proposing to fill with Indigenous talent.
  • Be fair and transparent about the remuneration and benefits, including the factoring in of all cultural needs of Indigenous workers.

A final point on digital literacy. Indigenous communities tend to be less technology enabled than Australia’s non-Indigenous people. And technology can definitely be a barrier from a hiring standpoint. Indigenous people tend to interact face-to-face, so by showing your commitment to physically meeting with and engaging these communities, you’ll be able to build relationships based on trust and respect.

The Australian Public Service Commission has a helpful guide for Indigenous hiring, covering key cultural and practical considerations. You can find it here.

Enhancing employee engagement and retention

There are cultural and practical activities your business can introduce, to ensure high levels of engagement and retention of Indigenous talent. Integrating these activities into your organisation’s daily routines will boost your non-Indigenous workers’ appreciation for First Nations’ cultural practices, and it will make your Indigenous workers feel seen and welcome.

Boosting indigenous employee engagement levels

By recognising the six Ls of relationship building with Indigenous peoples, the organisation can take key steps to enhance the employee experience for Indigenous workers. The following recruitment and retention initiatives are proven to engage Indigenous people and can be adopted to suit your business culture and environment.

  1. Recognition of ceremonial obligations:

Indigenous workers will have obligations outside of the workplace, associated with cultural ceremonies and commitments. Many of these ceremonies have been in place for over 150,000 years. Being armed with this knowledge when you embark on Indigenous hiring, the organisation can ask about ceremonial obligations at the start of the professional relationship, so expectations can be set. Absenteeism due to ceremonial obligations can lead to discontent, staff leaving or dismissals. An open, clear line of communication about ceremonial obligations will help to avoid any misunderstanding, and to educate your organisation about the importance of culture to your Indigenous workers.

  • Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs):

We mentioned these earlier, RAPs are considered crucial to creation a culturally safe organisation, for your Indigenous workers. A RAP is a valuable tool that allows your organisation to contribute to a reconciled Australia. By prioritising Relationships, Respect, and Opportunities, corporate, not-for-profit, and government groups can collaborate to foster social change and promote economic opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The RAP can’t just be a document of intent. Your Indigenous workers need to see the RAP in action, at all levels of the business.

  • Acknowledgment of Country:

By acknowledging country, your organisation demonstrates acknowledgement of the importance of the beautiful land of Australia. And the land is of major cultural significance to your First Nations workers. Acknowledgement of Country tells your Indigenous employees that they are safe in your organisation, that their identity and culture are valued and what they contribute as an Indigenous Person is valuable. Tokenistic acknowledgment won’t cut it. Your entire workforce needs to come to an understanding of the importance of the land to all people of Australia – especially Indigenous Australians. Also, acknowledgment of country helps to combat racism. Your company’s approach to acknowledgment of country can be undertaken in the following ways:

  • At the commencement of meetings.
  • In your company email signatures.
  • In your recruitment marketing materials.
  • As a pop-up when your website is launched.

In today’s increasingly competitive recruitment landscape, diversity and inclusion must be key factors in your recruitment and retention strategy if you want to stay ahead of the game. Demonstrating diversity within your business, of the representation of First Nations employees, can attract potential candidates and customers to invest their time and resources in your organisation. You can promote long-term reconciliation and respect for this diverse talent pool by celebrating the cultures of First Nations peoples and providing them with opportunities to succeed.


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