Working with indigenous colleagues for the first time

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With massive new mining and resources projects requiring increased labour across the board – and many companies committed to expanding their indigenous engagement – chances are many urban Aussies could soon find themselves working alongside Aboriginal colleagues for the first time. In fact, we've been contacted by a number of mining employees who are keen to gain a greater cultural understanding of their indigenous co-workers. We think that’s a good thing, so we tracked down an experienced HR manager from the Northern Territory and asked if miners should take any cultural issues into consideration. Here’s the advice that came back...

There’s quite a bit to consider, and it varies depending on whether your indigenous co-worker has grown up among non-indigenous Australians, of course. My main advice is to be courteous and respectful, just as you would be with any new colleague. Generally speaking, here are some other things to consider...

  • Firstly, I never offer to shake hands on meeting. I let them decide if they want to or not (it’s not something that occurs in indigenous culture so many don't feel comfortable doing it).
  • Putting an indigenous person on the spot is generally not a good idea either. Shame is a big factor in their culture and many won't try something new because they’re worried they'll fail. Indigenous people generally learn by watching rather than reading, so it’s best to show them how to do something before encouraging them to try in a safe environment – perhaps without other team members around.
  • On a similar issue, when they’re ready to take on more responsibility, it’s better to let them act in the new role for a while. This way they can try out the job without the pressure of failing and thinking they might lose their old job.
  • A big trap for some people is thinking that indigenous workers are not intelligent because they are quiet or don't want to try something. From my experience, most are really smart – it just gets shown in different ways.
  • Never raise your voice to an indigenous co-worker, or put them down. It simply doesn't work – they'll just shut off and walk away (again the shame factor comes into play).
  • Don’t be perturbed by lack of eye contact, especially between men to women. It’s a cultural thing.
  • We find indigenous people to be very good long-term strategic thinkers – they seem to have no problem thinking 10 years into the future.
  • They also generally have a great sense of humour, you just need to break down the barriers first. Once they decide you are OK, they really open up.
  • If someone dies, their name should not be used. In many communities there is also no need to express sympathy – the indigenous way of grieving is to be very accepting of it.

As with many of these things, this article is written from a non-indigenous perspective. We'd love to hear from any Aboriginal workers or mining families out there too. To touch base, please click here!