Inclusivity, culture and leave entitlements: An Indigenous business perspective

Kerry Arabena, Managing Director

What did I mean by cultural leave?

Last week, I was asked an intriguing question by my staff, ‘What does Karabena Consulting mean by cultural leave?’  Like many other businesses and workplaces, we have an in-house policy which enables us to provide cultural leave every year. Whilst we do not specify that the leave entitlements are directly related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I had assumed that this is what was meant when I approved our policy position. But these are unusual times, and I am well positioned to determine how we meet the needs of staff who strive to make a difference for our communities and organise leave entitlements around this effort. 

 As many Indigenous businesses in a COVID-19 environment, trying to grow from contract to contract, could attest – there are few First Nations people who will work in other people’s Indigenous-owned businesses when there is so much more certainty offered in other sectors, often times at better pay, on longer contracts and with more prestige than I can offer in this current competitive environment. Those who join our team are committed to making good in the world. Call us idealists, but we truly appreciate what we do, how we do it and who we do it with. This loyalty, from an employer’s perspective, is truly humbling and a great deal of fun. But the need for certainty in uncertain times does impact our capacity to employ our mob. Currently, and in addition to myself, we have three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working with us, two as sub-contractors and managers of their own businesses. What this means in relation to leave entitlements is that I have a five-day cultural leave entitlement available to a small proportion of my staff.

Establishing a culture celebrating the ‘frank discussion’

What ensued was a frank conversation, the type of conversations I cultivate because I am interested in creating a business which respects staff and their commitments to what it is we want to achieve, together. This, I believe, is the special contribution of female entrepreneurs, particularly those who connect to their staff and who can listen to what is needed with empathy, in a spirit of collegiality, and in anticipation of the rapidity of changed workforces and foci, for now and the next century (the Anthropocene). 

The Platinum Rule

Frank conversations extend the ‘Golden Rule’ – do unto others that you would have done to (or for? Can’t remember) you – to what I have learned in becoming a DISC practitioner: the Platinum Rule, which recognises that people are different and that others may not wish to be treated the same way you do. Anyone who is interviewed for positions with Karabena Consulting is offered the opportunity to do a DISC Assessment and have a feedback session with me. What this also does for us as a team is work out how everyone needs to be communicated with, so that we cultivate a workplace which supports people to be the best they can be. We have also instigated a Friday afternoon group session which is done online with great effect.

Lunch and Learn Sessions

At 12.30pm until 1.15pm, we have a ‘Lunch and Learn Session’ where we have presentations and discuss and recommend strategies that, if implemented, could benefit the organisation. This week, we heard from our Accountant at Grow Accounting on the use of Xero. Next week, we will be discussing these HR policy inclusions. We have had professional development sessions on digital marketing, social media and NAIDOC Week, and soon we will be discussing inclusivity and running a gender lens over our policies, which could be perceived as strongly heteronormative. I can’t say I totally understand gender pronouns and how to use them in my signature block, but in no way does that mean we cannot learn through cross-cultural, gendered and intergenerational discussions, and come to conclusions where no one feels like they lose while others win. This is because of our commitment to self-determination – we do not want people to be represented in policy without being included in the design, implementation and evaluation of the policy’s overall effectiveness.

After our ‘Mental Health’ themed Lunch and Learn, where we heard from staff who completed a 
Mental Health First Aid course, we discussed COVID-19 and the impact of lockdowns. We reactivated the leave entitlement of ‘Doona Days’, that I first introduced in the SHFPACT EBA as the CEO there many years ago. With a view to recognise menstrual pain and the importance of mental health, each day can be taken without having to provide a medical certificate. We promote gender equity, as Doona Day leave can be used by men for mental health reasons, to extend current parental leave arrangements for men and for LGBTQIA+ parents. 

This lunchtime event is followed by two hours of shared administration, and on Zoom we have four breakout rooms where people can meet. We finish our week with a 30-minute presentation discussing what we have each achieved throughout the week. The combination of these events contributes to a culture of frank and respectful discussions, and facilitates people caring about the organisational culture they want to create.

Cultural leave is a relatively new entitlement in Australian HR law and practice. In The Karabena Group, we have redefined the nature of cultural leave from an Indigenous business perspective, to reflect a deeper understanding of the principle of inclusivity, our ecology, and the role that culture has in the construction, reinforcement, resilience and acceptance of an identity. For First Nations peoples, cultural leave could include attending funerals or walking a Songline. For the LGBTQIA+ community, attending Pride events in safety can reinforce a sense of belonging, solidarity and collective pride. Actions that reinforce culture and support positive identities are an enriching experience. I feel it at NAIDOC Balls or at First 1000 Days Australia Welcome Baby to Country events. Same too for those who recognise different ways in which we communicate to the divine: for example, IslamicBuddhist and Christian holidays, multicultural affairs and food festivals, and Indigenous observances from different continents.

My only stipulation

My only stipulation is that it has to be in a calendar that is recognised in Australia, and that people need to attend a cultural event. This is the purpose of cultural leave, being with community, not having a lazy day at home on the couch with a good book. We are reorientating cultural leave to recognise identity constructs that are culturally based. I suggest the dates and times that people take cultural leave are discussed with my managers and booked in across each year in the month of July. I also propose that cultural leave can be taken two days at a time, giving us a chance to ensure we can plan our activities around cultural leave. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people can use the leave for the primary purpose for which is intended. Other staff can plan their cultural leave because it aligns with a calendar of events. If staff want longer periods of time than is written in policy, then I propose staff use annual leave entitlements.

Our position on other leave entitlements (as a small business with employees not covered by an award)

  • Like sick leave, Doona Days leave and cultural leave will not be paid out to staff upon their employment ending with Karabena Consulting. Cultural leave and Doona Days leave will reset on 1 July each year.  
  • Sick leave, of course, will be carried over. 
  • I propose all annual leave be taken throughout the year in which it is due. As a business, I will endeavour to carry over up to 40 hours worth of leave per employee on a year-by-year basis. The purpose of annual leave is to rest and restore. 
  • Where an employee is on a short-term contract and wishes to take time off but has not yet accrued enough annual leave, we can discuss them taking a period of annual leave in advance, up to a maximum of five days. This supports people taking some time off during their contract in the event they have not had the opportunity to earn that leave. I propose that this can be asked for one month after beginning employment with Karabena Consulting.
  • I also propose that people be provided the opportunity to cash out up to two weeks of annual leave entitlements on a case-by-case basis. This will have to be negotiated with me directly and can happen once a year.

Home Office Allowance

We are also working on the development of a retrospective home office payment of up to $2,000 per annum to cover off on phone use, heating and lighting, and will be talking with our accountants on how to do this. At this stage it will be a one-off payment, and from this year it will be a pro rata payment to acknowledge that people are working from home during lockdown. 

After we reach an agreement that benefits staff and the company, we will be able to forward our considerations to a HR company to ensure they are gold standard. We can then incorporate these ideals into our policies and procedures going forward. The pay isn’t flash, but the mission, conditions, and the capacity to contribute and be heard are extraordinary. And there are nice childcare centres in the region. If you are interested in learning more about how to work with Karabena Consulting, contact us on for more details. We are currently recruiting and applications close on 30 July! Hope to hear from you soon.

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