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Focus area 3: Retention

Key points

  • Managers play a key role in employee retention and engagement, and should see people management as a key responsibility.
  • A good induction process and supportive workplace contribute to retention.
  • Career pathways and development opportunities are essential for growing and retaining the future workforce.
  • Understanding why Indigenous employees leave your agency will help address negative workplace factors.


Coming to terms with public service workplace environments can be a challenge for any new recruit. For many Indigenous people, workplace cultures can be very different from their own cultural and family experience—for example in terms of language, social affinity, and family and community obligations.

A thorough induction process is the first step in building a two-way relationship between the agency and the employee. It can help new starters feel valued, included and supported in the workplace from the first day.

It may be particularly useful to bring in an existing Indigenous employee to help with the induction—perhaps an additional role for the IEC.

Effective induction starts during the recruitment phase:

  • clearly articulating what the job is and what is expected of the person working in the position
  • what supports are available during the process (eg Indigenous Employment Coordinator)
  • what assistance will be provided for study and training
  • what to expect if relocating e.g. wages and cost of accommodation and groceries compared to where the person is currently living.

As for all new staff, effective induction programs for Indigenous employees should cover:

  • the public sector—its structure, agencies and relevant legislation, general conditions, expectations in relation to duties, and learning and development opportunities, and for those in the APS, the APS Values and Code of Conduct
  • agency-specific information—the culture of the agency; the roles, structure, and functions of the whole agency; and the particular work undertaken by line areas
  • performance agreements—detailing job expectations, clearly articulated measurable work objectives, and skill and career development opportunities
  • teaming your new employee with another Indigenous employee as a buddy
  • providing details of local Indigenous organisations and other key service providers in the area, particularly if the person has moved to take up the role
  • providing local area advice that includes public transport, local eateries, car parking etc and how they can find out more information about local Indigenous networks, sporting clubs and special interest clubs will assist the employee to find their 'home away from home'.

For APS agencies, the Commission offers an online APS induction program to ensure that new starters in the APS are equipped with a broad understanding of the Australian Government and the roles and responsibilities of the APS. This can complement effective agency induction.

Cultural awareness induction for all employees

Part of providing a culturally respectful workplace is ensuring that all employees value and respect the cultures of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. A good way to do this is to include a cultural awareness component to general induction processes, either face to face or online. Some agencies also incorporate cultural awareness and competence into their performance management systems, ensuring that all staff are required to demonstrate their ability to be socially inclusive in the workplace.

The importance of good managers

Line managers play two important roles—delivering outcomes for their agency, and managing people. Their success in the first role is highly dependent upon their ability to effectively manage an engaged and productive team. Their people management skills have a direct influence on the team environment, and employee experiences. Options to support improvement in people management practices include:

  • referring managers to a range of support tools that are available to assist them in their people management role41
  • inclusion of people management measures in performance agreements.

Providing career and development opportunities

Career and development opportunities improve retention rates for all employees.

Support from managers is pivotal in identifying development needs and career aspirations. Supervisors have a significant impact on employee retention. It is important that supervisors have the necessary skills to perform their roles in a culturally respectful manner.

Results from the 2009 Census show that Indigenous employees in the APS need to be encouraged to apply for a wider range of job opportunities, and have improved access to career development opportunities.42 Most comments made through the Census included the need to have more regionally focussed learning and development opportunities rather than always Canberra-centric (which require more time out of the office). Consider the possibility of locally based development opportunities.

A lack of necessary qualifications and experience is one of the most commonly identified factors hindering or preventing Indigenous staff from seeking higher positions.43

An important approach through the IES could be to include strategies that address the following:

  • Appropriate personal and professional development opportunities to equip Indigenous employees with the skills and confidence to work in the area of their choice.
  • Providing assistance to Indigenous employees to map their career pathways and to consider where greater mobility can be achieved.

Talent management program

You may wish to consider the implementation of a talent management program, outside of the performance management program. A talent management program would identify those Indigenous employees with potential to become managers or senior executives, and formulate a career development plan to help employees reach those goals. It could also include the implementation of a senior coach and mobility opportunities.

Agency size and development needs would determine whether an 'in-house' or externally sourced program would be more beneficial.44

Indigenous career pathways/Capability development programs

Mobility across organisations is fundamental to expanding employee skills and capabilities. Options may include secondment opportunities to portfolio agencies or externally to the private or community sectors.

There are also Indigenous-specific pathways for career advancement opportunities for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees. APS agencies can access a range of generic and Indigenous-specific training courses developed by the Commission, including career development through the Career Trek program. This has been designed particularly for regionally-based staff and those employed by small to medium sized agencies.45

Some agencies run their own Indigenous development programs or general trainee and graduate programs with nominated places for Indigenous Australians. For example, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) coordinates an Indigenous Australian Government Development Program. The program is open to all Australian Government Departments and agencies to participate and provides a pathway to employment for Indigenous Australians. Participants on the program are employed as ongoing APS 3 employees and undertake a Diploma of Government in Contract Management, Community Capacity or Project Management. More information about this program can be found on DEEWR's website http://www.deewr.gov.au/Indigenous/Employment/Programs/IAGDP/Pages/default.aspx.

Your agency can also support Indigenous employees undertaking formal studies or tertiary qualifications in fields which link to agency objectives, or which meet employees' career development needs. That support might include:

  • paid leave to travel to attend classes, undertake examinations, or for study purposes
  • additional leave to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees who undertake part- time study
  • payment of HECS fees
  • scholarships, study awards or other mechanisms which allow employees to undertake their studies full-time.


Mentoring aims to help individuals achieve their full potential, and includes guidance and advice on specific agency business challenges, including strategy and policy. Through your IES, your agency can establish formal mentoring arrangements for Indigenous employees. You might consider including mentoring training for interested employees, or people from outside the agency may be approached to take on a mentoring role.

I started in the Australian Public Service in the late 80s. Back then my only career aspiration was to become an Aboriginal Liaison Officer, which was at the ASO4 level. I did not know how I was going to get there, but I knew that was where I wanted to be in the long term. But how would I get there?

I discussed with a senior member of staff how I could become an Aboriginal Liaison Officer. It was through this informal chat that my career plan and the required skills set were identified and mapped out. This senior staff member was my very first Mentor.

My Mentors have provided me with open and honest discussions, constructive feedback, assisted with looking at what skills I needed to improve and celebrated my successes along the way. I truly believe that I would not be where I am today without the advice, guidance and support of my Mentors.

Mentors need to:

  • be able to provide useful advice, drawing on their own experience and knowledge
  • generate respect and trust in their relationships
  • communicate openly and honestly about personal, often difficult, issues
  • know where the boundaries are and not play an advocate role.

Mentors for Indigenous staff don't have to be Indigenous people. Often the provision of a different perspective is useful in itself.

I have Mentors that are employed with the APS and some that come from my Aboriginal community. I find that this approach to my Mentor selection provides me with the balance I need. On occasions, I have found myself implementing polices that do not sit well with my Aboriginal value system. Through my Mentor relationships, I have been able to discuss this conflict from both angles. I might not always come up with a solution but sometimes just talking about how I am feeling with my Mentors is enough.

Mentors can have a remarkable and long-lasting impact on those they mentor.

My career journey has been a challenge but very rewarding. I have come a long way from being an ASO1. I am happy to say that I did become an Aboriginal Liaison Officer. I am now an Executive Level 1. I would not be here without the help of my Mentors. My Mentors encourage me, inspire me and keep me humble. My Mentors have been with me every step of my career to date and they will be definitely with me in the future.

Staff networks

Networking and peer support is important to the wellbeing and morale of many Indigenous employees. Establishing and/or providing access to an Indigenous network is a positive way for your agency to show support to Indigenous employees. Employees may also find the mentor who is right for them through attendance in networks.

A number of agencies have their own agency-specific Indigenous staff networks. Indigenous agency-based staff networks can provide opportunities for Indigenous employees to share experiences, provide support, and be a sounding board. They can also help identify areas where employees need or wish to increase their skills.

Network meetings can be either formal or informal. Formal meetings can provide greater structure and direction for the Indigenous employee network and could have a learning component. They may involve a HR representative, and may also be used to gain feedback on the effectiveness of the agency's IES. Informal meetings may provide all of the above, be just as effective, and be run completely by your Indigenous staff. They may provide a relaxed way to welcome new employees to your agency, farewell old employees, and for employees to share experiences and insights.

Indigenous Australian Public Service Employee Network (IAPSEN)

The IAPSEN consists of a number of individual APS Indigenous employee networks in capital cities and regional locations around the country. The IAPSEN was established to provide a supportive environment, and to create a sense of community that is empathetic to Indigenous employees. The network can also be used to discuss broader issues that may be impacting on Indigenous employees in the public sector.

While predominately targeted towards APS employees, some IAPSEN groups include Indigenous employees from non-APS Commonwealth agencies.

Providing Indigenous employees with permission and encouragement to attend IAPSEN meetings is one way that managers and agencies can show their support and commitment to Indigenous employment.

More information on IAPSEN is available at http://www.apsc.gov.au/iapsen/.

41 For example, Leading productive people: A manager's seven steps to success available on the Commission's website.

42 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees, p.67.

43 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees, p.66.

44 As part of the APS Reform, APS agencies should keep abreast of the ongoing work of the Centre for Leadership and Learning, www.apsc.gov.au/strategiccentre/.

Last reviewed: 
7 June 2018