Traditional family relationships are quite complex and differ significantly from non-Indigenous family relationships. Indigenous Australians tend to have extended families and these often go beyond blood and marriage – a kinship system that defines where a person fits into the community and decides what rights and responsibilities each person has within that community. (Kinship systems also vary across Indigenous communities).
Often Indigenous Australians will refer to Elders or leaders within their community as Aunt or Uncle, even if not blood-related, as a sign of respect. You may also hear Indigenous Australians refer to each other as brother or sister even though not blood-related.
Responsibility for, and to, family is particularly significant to Indigenous Australians and the flow on from this may impact on the workplace. Family will usually be the number one priority to an Indigenous Australian.
Be aware that caring for children and elderly family members, including financial care, health care and general care, is often shared within extended family and community. This means a person will likely have more responsibility outside their ‘nuclear’ family.
The potential for cultural differences in family responsibilities is acknowledged by the Charles Sturt University Enterprise Agreement definition of ‘immediate family’, which includes the qualification that other kinship and family networks may be considered on a case by case basis when interpreting what is meant by family.
Family Responsibility and Absences from Work
Due to the breadth and depth of responsibility to family in Indigenous culture, there is the possibility that there may at times be recurrent or unexplained absences from the workplace, or someone may repeatedly turn up late to work without explanation. Support or care for family may take priority over attending work. In circumstances where this happens, it is important to address the issue early on to prevent any potential for deterioration in working relationships. Speak to the staff member in a private space and in a comfortable manner to try to identify the issues and determine how they can be supported while meeting the expectations and needs of the workplace. Be respectful of commitment to family and avoid judgemental language such as the term ‘walkabout’ when referring to the whereabouts or behaviour of the individual (this term has often implied lack of discipline and responsibility and is disrespectful and highly offensive). Make sure that the staff member understands both how they can be supported and the expectations within the workplace around notification of absence and leave options. It may be appropriate to discuss alternate leave options with the staff member, such as unpaid or purchased leave.