Amazon’s DE&I director on ensuring workplace inclusion for LGBTQ employees
Establishing diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the workplace goes beyond business growth; it is imperative for companies to make a sustainable positive difference. People Matters caught up with Swati Rustagi, Director, DE&I, International Markets, Worldwide Consumer, to find out the current state of LGBT people in the workplace, what is needed in workplaces to truly foster a sense of safety for queer talent, and more. Swati is responsible for leading Amazon’s vision for an equal work opportunity for all, across Consumer, Operations, CS, and corporate teams, outside of NA. Swati joined Amazon in 2018 with over 20 years of experience in leadership roles across HR, operations, and business in FMCG and healthcare in India and internationally.
Here are the edited excerpts.
What does the corporate landscape look like for LGBT+ professionals today?
While a company's success depends on all areas of inclusion, LGBT+ inclusion is the frontier for inclusion and diversity. Companies that embrace LGBT+ inclusion send a clear statement that they are leaders in diversity and inclusion, implying that everyone is welcome.
Businesses have been striving for years to strengthen their LGBTQ branding and internal processes and have started investing in culture, perks, and marketing to embrace LGBTQ employees and consumers to spread inclusiveness and openness.
Today, Indian companies are in competition with global companies for the best people as they begin to globalize. When it comes to choosing a place to work, top talent prioritizes LGBT+ inclusivity. Companies that are LGBT+ inclusive can present themselves as global and progressive, which boosts their branding at home and abroad, particularly among the global "millennial" generation. To progress, the need to find employment avenues, financial security, career mentorship, nurture aspirations, and help the community to stand up on their own feet should be the central effort for India Inc. To create an equal workplace for people from the LGBTQIA community, businesses should have effective hiring processes that allow them to hire from a wide talent pool and support those who have struggled to obtain work, advance their careers, or improve their quality of life.
Pride Month continues to witness a spike in conversations around LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace. How can leaders steer clear of tokenism here as they engage in dialogue and queer-friendly branding?
At the core of any leader who wins the confidence of others is authenticity and a deep sense of contribution, and a desire to see others thrive. What I love about our leaders at Amazon is their humility, ownership, drive, and commitment to making “Every day Better” not just around topics central to the LGBTQIA+ community but towards our customers, employees, partners, sellers, and these qualities of a good leader always help in avoiding negative/unfruitful conversations. For all leaders, the last two years have proven that adversity brings out true resilience and has forced organisations and HR leaders to adopt and accelerate dynamically altering how we deliver the experience to their employees. What I have learnt in my journey is to stay resilient throughout. No matter what goes outside, an organisation's culture, conversation, and engagements should be directional, and leaders should always keep their employees, their goals, and their teams ahead of everything else.
Like, at Amazon, we are all guided by our leadership principles and people have always been at the core of all our leadership principles.
Not everyone echoes the need to be inclusive and diverse. How can organisations then work towards bringing everyone to the same level of understanding and purpose to enable equity?
Equity in a workplace means everyone receives respectful and dignified treatment. There is transparency to cause and effect, and everyone knows what to expect in terms of consequences and rewards. When equity exists, people have equal access to opportunities.
The evolving talent landscape requires us to be agile in our approach. At Amazon, we review our policies/processes to cater to evolving needs such as gig workforce, need for non-standardized employment models, etc. and will continue to review and streamline our policies and processes, as necessary, to provide a frustration-free experience to our Amazonians. Leaders should always look for people who are builders, and innovators, who are ready to take risks, try out new things, and express their opinions.
Finding the right people and investing in their growth is essential to building a team that is constantly innovating on behalf of customers. Organisations should work relentlessly to define products and programs that enable leaders to objectively identify top talent and ensure that they can provide crucible experiences for their talent for them to be the best version of themselves to achieve equity.
What are some ways leaders can empower queer talent to be out, visible, and vocal in the workplace? How crucial is LGBT+ representation in leadership?
A leader should act as a role model for other employees in an organisation. Today, not all members of the LGBTQIA community are open about their sexuality, those that are forthcoming often play an important function as a role model to many and having a role model as a member of a marginalized group demonstrates a company’s acceptance and commitment to diversity. This embeds a sense of belongingness and safety in the minds of the people that the organisation appreciates every employee equally irrespective of their sexuality or identity. Visible leaders from the LGBTQIA community can bring authenticity to the teams and it is seen that employees feel a sense of belongingness and inclusivity.
Amazon India is committed to not just empowering people from the LGBTQIA community, but we feel empowering women, mothers, and others from diverse cohorts is a necessity, helping them discover meaningful career opportunities.
A significant percentage of LGBT+ employees and leaders have faced homophobia and harassment, at work and at home. What is needed from workplaces to truly foster a sense of safety for queer talent?
Equity and Inclusivity strengthen the foundation of diversity and we are committed to driving this agenda. As an organisation, what best one can do is create a strong culture of inclusiveness. An organisation should convey the message that they are an inclusive company and will not tolerate negativity or harassment at work needs to be reinforced everywhere—from the break room to leader meetings and employee conversations.
Employees should have consistent and ongoing training on how to foster an inclusive workplace for all employees. Training should focus on how to address homophobia and transphobia and employees should be educated on LGBTQ issues. It is this diversity of thought that enables us to deliver continuous value to our customers and is also aligned with our mission to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.
Allies play a pivotal role in building a sense of psychological safety for underrepresented groups in the workplace. In your opinion, what are some key behaviours every LGBT+ ally must demonstrate to sensitize the broader workforce?
Diversity requires a deliberate focus on equity and inclusion to survive and thrive and we believe an organisation which can balance this is one that will remain strong and resilient. Establishing diversity, equity and inclusivity in the workplace goes beyond business growth; it is imperative for companies to make a sustainable positive difference, and we, at Amazon, strongly believe that DEI is non-negotiable.
As organisations enable a multi-generational workforce to let go of bias and discrimination against the queer community, is there something the community can do to accelerate the shift?
Organisations need to understand that Inclusion is the foundation of diversity programs. Focusing on training resources, and providing training and mentorship for the people from the LGBTQIA community would be the first step to addressing the issue of bias and discrimination.
People from the community should be provided with equal opportunities for jobs, training, and career advancement. Sensitization should be done across organisations to ensure that people understand the challenges faced by people from diverse cohorts.
When it comes to communities – awareness is key, from the very beginning, we should teach students and millennials to recognize and deal with issues stemming from the lack of diversity in the environments they would enter. Communities should take efforts to consciously persuade people not to be biased and should be exposed to positive reinforcement regarding other groups helping in influencing non-biases.