The Guardian

 Indigenous people can feel scrutinised for all their behaviours and ‘otherness’ Indigenous people can feel scrutinised for all their behaviours and ‘otherness’. Photograph: Johnny Greig/Getty Images

When Damian Shannon was looking for his first job as a graduate, he was on his guard. The last thing he wanted to be was a “poster child” for a corporate Aboriginal inclusion program.

“You can get that vibe pretty quickly when you speak to recruiters and people within that organisation,” he says. “It is part of just trusting your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, chances are that it is not.”

Shannon joined construction company John Holland three years ago and is employee relations and mobility co-ordinator in the human resources department.

He says cultural safety has been an important factor in finding the right place to work: “It is about that ability to walk into a space and feel comfortable to be able to express yourself.”

Shannon says John Holland impressed him as a company that was serious about recruiting and supporting Aboriginal people. “It wasn’t a marketing exercise,” he says. “When I graduated, having conversations with some of those companies, you got the vibe that they wanted Indigenous employees to be their poster child.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 3% of the population is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Around 4% of John Holland’s workforce and staff are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. For onsite workers, 11.8% have an Indigenous background, above the target of 10%.

Feeling culturally unsafe is more than experiencing open or covert racism, or being made to feel conspicuously different from others. It can also come from being expected to be an explainer of Aboriginal culture to everyone who is curious, but can’t be bothered to Google.

Dr Rae Cooper, associate professor in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School, says this can make Indigenous people feel scrutinised for all their behaviour and “otherness”. “That creates extra pressures on those individuals,” she says.

Non-Aboriginal people are often shocked when they realise how much unwanted attention people of Aboriginal appearance get, says executive director for PricewaterhouseCooper’s Indigenous Consulting, Nareen Young.

“It is part of the fabric of life, as soon as they leave the house. It is being followed in shops. It is not being served, or being served rudely, not being able to hail cabs,” says Young, a former chief executive of Diversity Council Australia.

And it seems everyone has a view about what Aboriginal people should do: “They say what they think, whether it is rude or not. There’s no manners framework when it comes to discussion about Aboriginal people. If you talk to other Aboriginal people, they’ll say it is not up to us to educate. It just gets tedious.”

Young says the constant “being on show” at work should be named as bias: “It is not up to people to come to work and have to justify who they are or justify their community or explain their community. It is that constant negativity. It just wears people down.”

The national Aboriginal engagement manager at John Holland, Sharon Gray, says her role is to make sure John Holland is culturally competent and to ensure everyone in the company understands the organisational culture and its values.

Gray, a Kamilaroi woman, says practical steps include making cultural awareness training available, having a “buddy system” to check in on how the Indigenous employees are going, and having a mentoring system for them.

Retention of those employees means finding new jobs for them when projects finish and providing opportunities to grow into supervisory, management or project roles.

A major part of inclusion is the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP): a business plan to build respectful relationships and create opportunities for Indigenous people, supported by not-for-profit organisation Reconciliation Australia.

Today, more than three million Australians work or study in an organisation that has developed a RAP, including 35,137 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Employers include Qantas, Wesfarmers, Brisbane airport and government departments.

Gray says John Holland’s RAP was introduced last year, after eight years of Aboriginal engagement strategies.

The National Australia Bank launched its RAP in 2008, when there were between five and 10 indigenous employees across the entire organisation.

“And most of us were here despite the system, not because of the system, so we had made our own way here,” says Glen Brennan, National Australia Bank’s head of Indigenous business.

Today, 230 people of Indigenous background are working for the bank, says Brennan, a Gomeroi man, who is also state director Victoria of government, education, community and franchise banking, and the most senior Indigenous person at NAB.

“We see Indigenous Australia as a great source of talent. We want them to see themselves having a career in the bank because they are really good at what they do.”

Brennan looks forward to the time when RAPs are no longer needed. “When does it just become business as usual? I’d like to see that happen sooner, rather than later.”

A former public servant, Brennan says he has been fortunate to have always been treated with respect at work: “I’ve always run into people that have done nothing but want to help and the people who have treated me poorly are so rare I can’t remember them.

“The truth is there is a tremendous amount of goodwill from good people in corporates that feel just as offended by the plight of Indigenous Australia as I do and want to help – and the RAPs provide a vehicle for corporates and those people to contribute to Indigenous affairs.”