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The importance of respectful engagement

“It was the first time I felt respected” – the words of a 60-year-old Aboriginal man who had spent many years living on the streets of Perth.

He made the comment after he and other residents at a transitional accommodation centre in Perth had the opportunity to have a yarn with Premier Mark McGowan following an announcement of additional funding for homelessness at the start of the election campaign last year.

Aboriginal people make up about 40 per cent of the street homeless population, so as the organiser of an event for this transitional accommodation centre, I wanted to ensure that some of the Aboriginal residents had the opportunity to meet the State’s leader. It was also important for the organisation, which was in the process of developing a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), to be living its commitment to respectful engagement.

The Premier made the time to speak with the man and the other residents present, despite having a plane to catch and being clearly pressed for time.

Reconciliation Action Plan

A growing number of companies and organisations are developing RAPs. It’s increasingly becoming an expectation of government, and many companies awarding tenders, that those bidding for work have a RAP or clearly illustrate their performance in terms of Aboriginal procurement, engagement, and employment.

The critical piece that some companies and organisations overlook is the whole purpose of having a reconciliation action plan in the first place – and that is developing and maintaining respectful and meaningful relationships with Aboriginal employees, stakeholders and clients or customers.

Respectful engagement does not just apply to working with Aboriginal people. It applies to the work we do with all our stakeholders, from those we want to continue to support our business – our customers – to those we want to support us on an important community project. If the engagement is not sincere and respectful, the chances are it will impact the likely success of your product or project and potentially your reputation.

Genuine respect

So what does your organisation need to do to ensure it is respectfully engaging?

Take the time to listen to your stakeholders and then genuinely address their concerns – don’t just pay lip service to them – and ensure you have built the capacity in your organisation, in terms of skills and resources, to deliver on your commitments.

The golden rule is always to under commit and over deliver. A good example can be found in Aboriginal employment. Promising to increase employment levels without first ensuring a culturally safe workplace and addressing other barriers that exist is not a wise move, and many businesses have learnt this lesson.

I had the privilege of being involved with the roll-out of a reconciliation process at an organisation that had implemented a RAP before. But due to a lack of commitment from the top, the Plan fell by the wayside and with it the commitments that were contained within it, including the further training and development of existing Aboriginal employees.

The second time around, the Aboriginal employees who took part in the original process were clearly distrustful. In the interim period, they had often been called upon for media opportunities, but the commitment to further development and training had not honoured.

Fortunately, the business had evolved and its leadership team was fully committed to the process. In time, the trust was regained when it was evident this RAP was not just a ‘tick the box’ process.

So as we celebrate NAIDOC Week, it’s time to reflect on how your business engages with Aboriginal employees, clients and stakeholders – and time to make some changes if this engagement is not genuine and respectful.

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Wendy Pryer is an Associate Director with Cannings Purple’s Corporate Affairs team with a specialist knowledge of the energy, health, and community services sectors, and an intimate understanding of Aboriginal affairs, including reconciliation. Contact Wendy here.

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