Eliminating tokenism from representation
Amidst an avalanche of discrimination and bias-fuelled workplace behaviours and practices that deter the growth of diverse employees, global organisations continue to brand themselves as diverse and equal-opportunity employers.
The percentages of diverse representation are ridiculously low. Yet, under the disguise of celebrating small wins, several organisations warrant a celebration for tokenistic diversity hires. Thes celebration fizzles out soon and comes up as an occasional reminder around earmarked days such as International Women’s Day, Pride Month, International Day for Persons with Disabilities, Military Veterans Day, and so on.
With socio-economic shifts in recent years demanding employers to take a stand or risk losing talent, several have fallen prey to tokenism. They remain either ignorant or unaware of how this path is a humongous cost in the making.
“Tokenism can have detrimental effects on employees from under-served groups. It causes minority employees to begin to believe that they aren’t actually talented or qualified, and that they got the job because they were a diverse candidate. Token employees are often the “only” person like them in a room, causing performance anxiety or pressure,” said Priti Shetty, Head of People, WeWork India when we asked her what organisations need to be wary of to prevent falling into the tokenism trap instead of meaningful diverse representation.
She added, “When it comes to token women and racial minorities, they are more likely to experience harassment or discrimination when compared to the same underrepresented groups in more inclusive and balanced working environments. Tokenism affects the entire company culture. If other employees are seeing tokenism happening within their organisations, it may be difficult for them to stay and build trust with the company.”
With the impact of tokenism being detrimental to both individuals as well as organisations, can organisations equip their leaders and the workforce at large to recognise tokenism, and eliminate that from the efforts that go into building a diverse and inclusive workplace?
Read on to find out the what, why and how of eliminating tokenism from representation.
Representation and Tokenism: The Difference
“Tokenism does not work for the organisation or the minority group. It is merely a superficial gesture to include members of underrepresented groups… more form than substance. Expecting one or a few employees to shoulder the burden to sensitise or enlighten an entire organisation sets both the employees and the organisation up for failure,” Elizabeth Faber, Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte Asia Pacific Limited told People Matters.
“Successful organisations make inclusion of underrepresented groups at the core of their business strategies, starting with strong leadership commitment. They are not separate, adjunct HR programs,” she added.
Ram Sinha, Co-founder, Pride Circle emphasised that if it is tokenism, it is bound to fail. “In the idea of reaching out to diverse talent and hiring effectively, the larger goal is for an organisation to ensure that they're building a workplace where anyone can contribute positively, build a thriving career for themselves and contribute to the organisation. And that anyone is all kinds of diversity we talk about. So, hiring efforts have to be genuine.”
Sharing her thoughts with People Matters on what representation truly entails, WeWork’s Priti Shetty said that it is important to look at the impact of diversity hiring, rather than just percentages. She highlighted three questions that leaders must ask themselves:
- Do the diverse talents have a say in the decision-making? Are they in leadership roles, driving critical charters?
- What is the influence that the diversity talent can exercise on organisation strategy, day to day execution, customer experience or people development?
- What is the impact of this hiring on company culture? Has it opened up opportunities for people from other minority populations?
“The company policies need to consider the needs and preferences of the diverse or minority employees so that the employment becomes meaningful for them. For example, Inclusion of dependents of LGBTQ+ employees in insurance policies, parental leave, inclusion of benefits like gender reassignment surgeries in insurance benefits, are some examples at WeWork India that indicate our commitment to our diverse workforce. Diversity is not just a tick in the box; it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort,” added Shetty.
Echoing the philosophy, Faber said that successful organisations take a holistic approach to all talent-related processes, including recruiting and hiring, to ensure that all employees understand the business benefit of a diverse workforce and inclusive culture.
Moving away from tokenism
On being asked how can organisations ensure their hiring efforts contribute towards boosting representation and not tokenism, Parmesh Shahani, DEI consultant and author of the 2021 CK Prahalad Business Book of the Year Queeristan suggested a few steps for organisations:
- Understand that there is a strong moral as well as business case for inclusion - so all your efforts are geared towards the eventual financial benefit of the company. When organisations realise they are acting in their own business interest and not purely out of altruism then they will be more committed to walking the talk.
- Walk the talk. Invest in your DEI teams - pay them proper salaries and commit resources to them. Don't just give the role to some overburdened person from a minority community (woman, LGBTQ, etc) as a "stretch role" and then constrain that person by not giving them resources. You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs!
- Invest in sensitising your senior leaders so that they empower rather than hold back these efforts.
- Work with community organisations. So, if you're interested in trans, then working with Periferry or TWEET Foundation, if you're interested in PWD then work with Nipman Foundation or Rising Flame.
- Link inclusion efforts to outcomes and reward the leaders and teams who achieve these and also vice versa. If leaders are not making progress on their DEI agenda, then hold back their variable pay. See how quickly they will progress next year!
Further to the above, Pride Circle’s Ramkrishna Sinha advises organisations to ensure their hiring efforts and culture steer clear of tokenism by adopting due diligence through the five steps below:
- Sensitization of the TA team, the hiring manager so that they are aware, they have the right vocabulary. Irrespective of which diversity spectrum you're looking to hire, you have to have basic vocabulary so you are able to exude confidence about understanding the individual's identity and journey.
- There's massive pressure to get the right talent in the minimum turnaround time at the best price. There is a talent war going on. But can we also make some reasonable accommodations based on the needs of the individual?
- Hiring for 100% fitment versus hiring for 100% fitment of crucial skills and changing a bar a bit where it is something the individual can pick up. So hiring for potential along with talent, not just 100% fitment. If you really want to get diverse representation, then this step is important because we are looking at trying to include marginalized communities which are generationally and historically disadvantaged. There might be certain skills which can be picked up. For instance, a really good coder with average communication skills. Will you invest in that talent or not? Those are the things that companies need to look at.
- A dedicated buddy system for at least a month or two so that the person has a smooth onboarding. This is very important, especially when you are the only person who is different in the entire room. The office can be a very difficult space and then you have this whole identity baggage that you need to carry and integrate with. Having a buddy really helps.
- Set them up for success and not failure. Resources to support individuals in education training should be there, in addition to mentoring, coaching and a good feedback mechanism. If a diverse employee is not doing well, you will have to let go. But in that journey of whatever duration you have that person onboard, are you providing them enough support, enough feedback so that they can improve and they can work better? Are you giving them the right resources? It is important to do that right.
Moving the needle on diversity and inclusion together
Sinha highlights an interesting touchpoint on the need to move the needle on D&I together: Greeting by a security guard at the company entrance. “We don't think a lot about how a security guard at the door can treat a visibly trans person very differently compared to how they treat other visitors. These are very small things that just need to be taken care of. It's important that we take care of both diversity and inclusion, so that we continue to learn. There's so much to learn and so much to do better and hire people so we have more engagement, more exposure and learn from people we are trying to include, but it can't be one after the other and definitely not after hiring people and then sensitizing.”
A majority of business leaders continue to believe that it is essential to onboard diverse talent first and then equip and sensitize the workforce to be inclusive. However, can they really afford to do that? What risks do organisations carry should they onboard diverse employees in an under-equipped and unprepared ecosystem? The answer lies in the grey zone.
“I think that both go hand in hand, but neither should be an excuse for inaction. It is easy to say - let us create the right atmosphere and then hire diverse talent, but till then, what will the people that need jobs do? Wait on the side? Similarly, you can't hire talent and then not have the infrastructure or the welcoming environment for them to flourish,” noted Shahani. “So to me, both of these are steps you take hand in hand, and frankly, given that we are not in an ideal world, I would say, commit to the journey and go on it, doing whatever step you want in whatever order but please, just do it!” he added.
We Work’s Priti Shetty agrees. She believes the diversity and inclusion strategy go hand in hand. “At WeWork India, we take our employees through inclusion workshops at least once a year. However the conversation around inclusion is ongoing. We have a vibrant Employee Resource Group culture that drives inclusion through various education and awareness initiatives aligned to various strands of diversity (women, persons with disabilities, mental health, parents, LGBTQ+).”
Shetty added that onboarding diverse talent requires a thoughtful strategy, and it is hard to onboard diverse talent without an inclusion mindset. Inclusion has to reflect through action and inclusive communication at every stage of the employee lifecycle for under-served talent - recruitment, selection, onboarding, performance management, career development and growth etc.
“The question about whether we onboard first and then equip and sensitise, that is like inviting guests at home and then figuring out you need to prepare meals for and then start the process. We know how that is going to end. However, there's also this aspect that you are never really 100% ready as an organisation and only then will you engage with talent. I think both have to happen simultaneously,” noted Sinha.
He suggested investing time in senior leadership sensitization and buy-in across the board so that the business is aware of this is what they are doing, along with sensitisation sessions for the team an individual is joining. The rest of the organization can also be sensitised simultaneously.
Explaining the downside of not doing that, Sinha said, “When you onboard a new person, you really want them to feel this is the company they chose and they made the right decision. This is where they can really build a career they deserve. And because you have not sensitized and informed staff, there could be some experiences and instances which leave a very bad taste for the individual. This bad taste can be totally avoided by just a little bit of pre-planning and action.”
It is clear that diversity and inclusion indeed go hand in hand. To accelerate the DEI agenda, one cannot await or expect 100% readiness, there is no static ground where one would know if each and everyone is indeed ready to embrace inclusion.
What then is required is stepping away from tokenistic gestures and laying down concrete frameworks on not just boosting diversity and inclusion, but also reprimanding behaviours and practices that go against these very efforts. It’s only when we eliminate tokenism from representation, that true inclusion, equity and diversity would see the light of the day.