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Jordin Payne examines why some businesses fail at Indigenous employment.

Why do businesses fail when it comes to Indigenous employment?

According to Industry Capability Network (ICN) data, there has been a near 50 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous businesses since 2013.

There is no denying that the demand to work with or hire Indigenous people is on the rise, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Different structures, policies and how non-Indigenous businesses go about engaging Indigenous people, employees or businesses are impacting on successful Indigenous employment.

With Reconciliation Week around the corner, I think it is timely to reflect on what this means for us in the corporate sector. Like many in the community, I feel encouraged by the increasing amount of Indigenous-owned and operated businesses across the country – businesses which are not only contributing across various sectors but also setting best practice standards.

I see these employees and businesses supported by increasing numbers of strategic partnerships, joint-ventures and stand-alone consultants who deliver excellence for the benefit of their communities and business. This demonstrates that Indigenous people are not only participating in our corporate industries but prospering and growing the capacity of Indigenous people from within businesses.

It’s probably not surprising to find concentrations of Indigenous workers in Indigenous-owned businesses. The unresolved issue is whether it is possible to substantially improve workplace environments in non-Indigenous businesses so that more Indigenous workers want to work in these organisations.

Additionally, the value-add capacity of Indigenous businesses is not fully understood by non-Indigenous companies – nor the inter-related nature of issues facing Indigenous people in this country and their impact on employment attitudes. These can affect what the business understands to be successful engagement or what targets for employment and retention are reasonable to set.

Let’s take a look at what it takes to succeed when it comes to Indigenous employment. Increasing a business’ Indigenous workforce cannot be a stand-alone measure of success – even though it has been shown that Indigenous people are better at employing Indigenous people, the workplace also needs to be culturally responsive.

Helpful tools include procurement policies and contracts that encourage better Indigenous engagement within a business, such as Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), which are effective when attached to, and supported by, targeted strategies and committed resources. They are a great starting point, especially for non-Indigenous businesses.

However, the majority of RAPs are in larger businesses because the fixed costs of establishing and monitoring plans may not be justifiable in smaller businesses with tighter profit margins. There is also no guarantee that larger businesses will allocate the appropriate level of funds to meet the commitments outlined in a RAP,  thus hindering its purpose and function. RAPs must exist within a conducive corporate culture.

This is where partnerships come into the picture. Partnerships with organisations representing Indigenous business demonstrate that a company is serious about encouraging greater Indigenous participation in the economy and ensuring Indigenous perspectives are embedded in business practices.

There are fit-for-purpose organisations which can assist with building Indigenous partnerships with business. One of them is the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI), which aims to bridge the gap between the commercial world in which businesses operate and the cultural values of the Noongar community.

Organisations such as these are great platforms to connect and consult on measurable outcomes important to increasing Indigenous employment and reflecting a desired corporate culture.

Regardless of these policies and practices, however, ultimately your business needs to be seen by Indigenous people as a culturally safe place to work. So rather than focusing on the role of non-Indigenous business in increasing employment outcomes, we should accept the fact that Indigenous employees choose to work in organisations that understand their culture across every level – from the board room to the boots on the ground.

So, in the spirit of this year’s Reconciliation theme – grounded in truth – perhaps it is time to ask what honest conversations around corporate culture your organisation is having?

Cannings Purple will showcase the power of genuine, Aboriginal-led consultation at the IAP2 Ngalla waanginy event on the 24th May.

A sociologist and Cannings Purple’s Senior Consultant in Corporate Affairs, Jordin Payne specialises in strategic communications and relationships with the community. She is a proud Nimanburr woman and traditional owner from Broome Western Australia with ancestral ties to Yawuru, Djugan, Nyul Nyul and Bardi groups on the Mid Dampier Peninsula. You can contact Jordin directly at  jpayne@canningspurple.com.au.

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