How businesses can help close the Indigenous employment gap

Ex-footballer, First Nations man and David Jones brand ambassador Adam Goodes assisted in the development of the department store’s RAP.

Over the course of a few weeks in June, Sonja Stewart received a flurry of messages from companies asking her to speak to their workforces about the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.  

The death of George Floyd in police custody in the US just a few weeks before had reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked protests against racism around the world. And people were starting to question the corporate sector’s role in perpetuating inequality through its hiring and advertising practices. 

It wasn’t surprising that local business leaders thought Stewart could help them. As the interim CEO of Arrilla, a highly regarded cultural competency training firm, Stewart regularly advised senior management and boards on employing and retaining Indigenous talent. It was surprising, however, that every business reaching out to her was a foreign-owned multinational that just so happened to have an office in Sydney.

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“The silence has been deafening in terms of other Australian companies,” Stewart tells Inside Retail. “That’s been really marked in the last few weeks.”

As the protests showed, Australia has a long way to go to become an equal society. The mortality rate for Indigenous children is still twice that of non-Indigenous children, according to the 2020 Closing the Gap report. In addition, only around 49 per cent of Indigenous Australians are employed, compared to 75 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians, which exacerbates other negative health and economic outcomes. 

Research suggests these gaps may be due to widespread implicit bias. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Australian National University, three in four people hold a negative view of Indigenous Australians. That is based on data from Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which has been taken by over 11,000 Australians over the past decade. 

But despite these alarming statistics, racial inequality has not generated anywhere near the same level of action from Australian businesses as other ‘political’ issues, such as climate change. 

“It’s a pretty brave thing to put your head above the parapet and say we live in a racist country. In markets where your brand is important and you’re trying to drive people to buy one thing over another, the competitive advantage versus the risk is…” Stewart trails off, but the implication is clear.

Creating culturally competent workplaces

That is not to say some companies aren’t willing to take the risk. Over the past three years, dozens of businesses, including Qantas, Rio Tinto, the Business Council of Australia and Woolworths Group, have pledged their support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In practical terms, the statement calls for constitutional reform to establish a First Nations voice in parliament and a Makarrata Commission to facilitate a treaty and truth-telling process between governments and First Nations people. 

Both the Turnbull and Morrison Governments have rejected the statement, citing their belief that most Ausralians would not support changing the constitution. But many businesses continue to back the statement. A partner at KPMG called it “a gift to the nation” in The Sydney Morning Herald last year. 

Another way businesses are engaging with Indigenous communities is through cultural competency training. Arrilla has provided training to hundreds of organisations since it was started nearly 30 years ago by Shelley Reyes, a Djirribul woman, who received the Order of Australia for her work with Indigenous communities. 

Arrilla’s vision is to provide teams with the knowledge, skills and confidence to employ, retain and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We talk a lot about removing eggshells,” says Stewart, Arrilla’s interim CEO. “Often people say they want to improve Aboriginal employment, or deliver better for their Aboriginal clients, but they just don’t know how.”

Arrilla’s multi-hour courses use a yarn, or narrative, to help teams understand the country’s history and its impact on Indigenous Australians and to make the business case for change.

“It’s about evoking empathy, which is key to behavioural change,” Stewart says.

Arrilla works primarily with senior leaders and directors, because they have the biggest influence on organisations. Other Indigenous-owned consulting firms include PwC’s Indigenous Consulting, Cox Inall Ridgeway and the Centre for Cultural Competence Australia.  

Some businesses that undergo cultural competency training do so as part of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Over 1100 organisations in Australia currently have a RAP, a strategic document that explains how an individual organisation supports the national reconciliation movement. 

At its heart, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for the benefit of all Australians. But this can only occur when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are able to participate equally in society and are no longer subject to racism. 

Leon Walley and Annie Young are team members at the Bunnings store in Bayswater, WA.

Businesses can play a role in achieving this by helping to close the gap on health, education and employment outcomes for Indigenous Australia, and RAPs can provide the framework to make it happen.

RAPs can be tailored to each organisation’s unique business plan, but every RAP must be endorsed by Reconciliation Australia. RAPs are also divided into four types – Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate – which are designed to suit organisations at different stages of their reconciliation journey.

Taking concrete action

Wesfarmers has been a strong supporter of the RAP program for the past 10 years, and in that time, it has made good progress towards its goal of having 3 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment, which is on par with the broader population. 

The company actually achieved this target in 2018, but after it spun off Coles, the share of its workforce that identified as Indigenous slipped back down to 1.7 per cent. As Wesfarmers works its way back to 3 per cent, however, it is benefiting from that experience.

For instance, one of the barriers to employment for young Indigenous Australians is the fact that they could be the first person in their family to get a job. Coles dealt with this by developing First Steps, a pre-employment program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander job seekers. 

The program was so successful that Coles received the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Business Award for it in 2015. 

“By the time we demerged Coles, we had a real legacy there, and it became apparent we needed to establish a team and structure within the rest of the organisation,” Phil Sillifant, Wesfarmers’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander manager, tells Inside Retail

In January 2020, Wesfarmers appointed a 12-person team to support the employment of Indigenous team members in every division in the company (Bunnings, Kmart Group, Officeworks, Industrial & Safety and Chemicals, Energy & Fertilisers). 

This team is spread out across the country and is responsible for recruiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through Indigenous media and word-of-mouth, as well as retaining team members by identifying opportunities to move up in the organisation and between divisions.

This focus on Indigenous representation in management and leadership roles is new for Wesfarmers, and the company plans to include it in its next RAP, which is currently in development. 

“We have exactly the same disparity from an Indigenous standpoint as we do from a gender standpoint,” says Naomi Flutter, Wesfarmers’ executive general manager of corporate affairs. “We don’t have 3 per cent of general managers who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and we know we need to work hard to make that happen.” 

One way Wesfarmers plans to boost Indigenous representation in more senior roles is through its partnership with CareerTrackers, an organisation that gives Indigenous university students access to internships. Now in its second year, the partnership has been extended from Wesfarmers’ Industrial & Safety division to its corporate office. 

“There’s no shortage of talent,” Flutter says. “You need to work hard to win that talent, and provide them with evidence that it’s a workplace where they will progress.” 

Another way Wesfarmers plans to diversify leadership roles is through executive buy-in. Wesfarmers recently restructured its RAP Steering Committee to include all of its division managing directors, alongside five Indigenous representatives both from within and outside of the company. 

Wesfarmers also has a team called the Wesfarmers Indigenous Network, which is made up of an Indigenous team member from each division, who are able to quickly feed up any issues on the ground to senior leadership. 

Sillifant says this structure has helped Wesfarmers’ MDs to better understand and embrace the goals of the RAP and set an example for the rest of the organisation. 

“When it comes to our senior leadership and executives, people follow the leadership they set,” he says. 

This extends even beyond Wesfarmers. If the company’s next RAP is approved later this year, it will be one of just two dozen organisations in the country to have an Elevate RAP, the highest level available.

Besides Wesfarmers, just a handful of retailers have a RAP. They include David Jones, Ikea, Caltex, Woolworths Group and Australia Post. The Iconic has submitted its first RAP for review and is waiting to hear back from Reconciliation Australia. 

Sillifant believes there are many compelling reasons that more retailers should be doing this.

“We see more and more young people coming out of university who want to know what you’re doing about climate, what you’re doing about Indigenous affairs – we get asked those questions all the time,” he says. “My advice would be to educate yourself. It doesn’t have to be one reason why.”

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