Closing the gap on Aboriginal employment outcomes


On Friday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on Aboriginal employment hosted by the Kalgoorlie Boulder Chamber of Commerce and Working Together Goldfields Esperance. Aboriginal employment strategies are a subject dear to my heart having worked in HR roles in Kalgoorlie over the past decade that have included implementing strategies to increase the numbers of Aboriginal people in meaningful employment.

Fridays workshop provided participants with an overview of cultural awareness before a presentation from Aboriginal Workforce Services which is a free service funded by the State Government. In the past 5 years the service has placed over 2000 people into vacant job roles, they also offer a mentor service to regional businesses to assist with any employment issues that may arise with Aboriginal employees. The impact of having someone to act as a support to your aboriginal employees, particularly those new to the workforce, can not be underestimated & will increase retention considerably.

In my experience, and others may have different experiences to me, the key areas to a successful Aboriginal workforce strategy are;

  • Providing a supportive, safe and culturally inclusive work environment for Aboriginal people 
  • Attraction and recruitment of Aboriginal people through providing culturally appropriate and flexible recruitment and selection processes 
  • Implementing support mechanisms and provide flexible working arrangements and career development opportunities 
  • Effectively resourcing the strategy/action plan to ensure its sustainability and success. 

Aboriginal employment strategies are a key framework to recognise the importance of providing a long term economic starting base for Aboriginal people, in a workplace where they will feel respected, valued, culturally safe and get to share in the same opportunities for skill and career development on parity to all other peoples, and, acknowledges that employment equity is a key determinant of positive health & wellbeing and consequences that lead to a more harmonious, strong and dynamic Aboriginal community. 

While us HR people often work very hard in the background to develop strategies and build relationships to attract suitable applicants for positions, ultimately the success of the initiative comes down to the wider workforce. I’ve worked alongside Supervisors who have actively undermined Aboriginal employees because they have considered them “too much work” to have in their area, and, with a population diverse as Kalgoorlie’s you are also managing the cultural differences from other nationalities who have little to no understanding of the local Indigenous culture. This is where having a cultural awareness program is vital to underpinning the programme for success. But most importantly, the organisation must embrace genuine efforts of offering career development opportunities, like anyone else, Aboriginal people know when you are not genuine with your intentions and the efforts of the team doing the hard yards will all be in vain.

One of the most commonly heard comments when discussing Aboriginal employment strategies is that “they are being given special treatment” or “jobs handed to them on a platter”. Our workplace system values the way non Indigenous people have been socialised over the way Indigenous people have been socialised, and this is where targets or quotas to meet diversity workforce numbers comes in. Much like the discussions around quotas for females in senior roles, the subject will always be quite divisive and it’s not a rabbit hole I want to venture down today. Employing people based on merit only works when the current system of employing people is already functioning extremely well on a merit based system, and it isn’t. To say that it is means that each organisation in Kalgoorlie-Boulder would have a percentage of Aboriginal employees that is commensurate with the local population of 7.3%, that would mean for every 100 employees in your business you would have at least 7 Aboriginal employees, or if you’re a small business of 25 employees or less at least one employee would be Aboriginal.

Whether business owners and managers like to admit it or not, people tend to recruit someone that reflects back themselves. Sometimes when a management team states they recruit on cultural fit what they really mean is they are looking for a while male aged between 25 – 45 that likes to sink a few beers at the end of the week and supports the West Coast Eagles. Sometimes it’s overt, such as my example, but sometimes you can look around your workplace and realised you’ve basically employed the same person 40 times, this is called unconscious bias.

Research suggests that we instinctively categorize people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. But we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title, automatically assigning presumed traits to anyone we subconsciously put in those groups.

The “advantage” of this system is that it saves us time and effort processing information about people, allowing us to spend more of our mental resources on other tasks. The clear disadvantage is that it can lead us to make assumptions about them and take action based on those biases. This results in a tendency to rely on stereotypes, even if we don’t consciously believe in them.

No matter how unbiased we think we are, we may have subconscious negative opinions about people who are outside our own group. But the more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are to feel prejudice against them. So the more diverse our workplaces, the more it will become the norm, and the requirement of workshops such as Fridays will no longer be needed, and the days of affirmative action reporting and quotas will be relegated to the history books as just “another one of those things we had to do while we waited for the remainder of society to catch up”.

So where to from here? I can assist you with an Aboriginal Employment Strategy, it can be as basic as modifying your recruitment practices to provide a level playing field for Aboriginal candidates or as comprehensive as writing a strategy focusing on creating a culturally inclusive workplace; attraction and retention of Aboriginal candidates; building capability and careers; fostering Aboriginal leaders in your workplace and putting reporting measures in place for your workplace to be accountable to itself.

I can be contacted here for further information.

Based in Kalgoorlie, The People & Culture Office is an independent HR Consultant who can partner with you to offer a one stop HR solution, we only charge you for the work we perform; no contracts, no annual or monthly fees, just quality service. Click here to learn more