The new world of work brings forth a multitude of opportunities and challenges for the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative. However, it is difficult to determine whether the number of opportunities outweighs the challenges, or vice versa, as both aspects carry significant weight in shaping the future of DEI in the workplace.
Pallavi Jha, Chairperson & Managing Director, Dale Carnegie Training India and Walchand PeopleFirst says there exist tremendous prospects to capitalise on in the new world of work. However, it is inevitable that challenges will arise as we strive to make the most of these opportunities.
“The more opportunities there are, the more we will uncover challenges, and solutions will be found around that. But between the two, opportunity is the buzzword now,” she adds.
During an exclusive interview with People Matters, Jha discusses the obstacles that the pandemic has posed to the progress of DEI endeavours. She also sheds light on the underlying reasons for the lack of success of many DEI initiatives and offers insights on how companies can establish a fair and inclusive work environment by being purposeful and proactive in tackling these challenges.
What are the three main challenges when it comes to DEI, and were these challenges intensified by the pandemic?
Although there are persistent general challenges in DEI, the pandemic has introduced one notable change: the widespread adoption of remote work, possibly in a hybrid format, which is becoming increasingly prevalent.
While the exact nature of remote and hybrid work is still unfolding, it is evident that most of us are now working in a remote/hybrid environment, making it difficult to comprehend one another. In order to build understanding, interaction is necessary, and this was taking place when we were all working together in the office.
The current scenario presents a unique challenge where individuals are celebrating their first work anniversary without ever having met their colleagues in person, attending virtual interviews, and possibly being off-boarded remotely. This unprecedented situation has created its own set of difficulties.
The pandemic has brought about a significant transformation in our market concept, business model, products, and services, necessitating the need for reskilling ourselves. This reskilling requires a change in the talent pool within our company. Currently, we are witnessing a phenomenon that I refer to as the "great workforce renewal," although it could also be referred to as a "churn" or a "buzz." This renewal process is taking place within companies, and if productivity and connectivity cannot be established, significant challenges may arise.
Achieving productivity requires a significant amount of change management, but it cannot be accomplished without building connections with people. A collective effort is necessary, although not every employee needs to contribute equally. A sizable team must be willing to put in the effort, while allowing others who work traditional nine-to-five jobs to make meaningful contributions. This is where the primary challenge lies. In the world of hybrid work, inclusion is the most significant challenge, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
How do you see the future course of DEI? In India, specifically?
Diversity has gained immense significance, meaning, and momentum in recent years. Over the past five to six years, it has emerged as a global trend, driven by issues such as racial discrimination and the MeToo movement.
According to our research, diversity is largely being pushed as an agenda by large multinational and conglomerate companies, while many other international companies have followed suit. At present, it remains a niche agenda. However, the vast majority of mid-sized organisations in India, which constitute around 70 per cent, are not giving it significant attention.
The pandemic was such a significant crisis that even large companies had to put their planned diversity initiatives on hold.
However, it is crucial to recognise that what is happening globally may not be the same as what is happening in India. In India, diversity remains a predominantly large company-led agenda. Hopefully, these corporations can establish best practices, set shining examples for everyone else, and serve as role models.
For these big companies, the focus now is to shift from mere awareness of diversity to instilling an inclusive mindset throughout the organisation. This is the current agenda and trend.
Mid-sized organisations that have not yet embraced diversity and inclusion have some serious awareness issues. While some of them are not thinking about it at all, there is a fairly good section that is considering it because they have heard of it, and some have even set goals such as having a certain percentage of women in the workforce. However, this equation of diversity solely with women is limiting and represents a narrow understanding of diversity.
The trend in India is now towards creating greater awareness of the various aspects of diversity beyond just gender. It is essential to broaden the understanding of diversity and promote inclusion across all areas, including race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, ability, and more.
The focus has shifted from simply acknowledging diversity to understanding what needs to be done to achieve it. More emphasis is being placed on developing self-awareness, recognising our unconscious biases and microaggressions, and addressing them. Without this, we risk having a diverse workforce that is unable to work effectively due to conflicts and exclusions.
While many tout the benefits of diversity for innovation and creativity, it is important to remember that collaboration is the first step towards productivity.
Why do most DEI initiatives fail?
There are several challenges that are easily recognisable in the diversity space.
Typically, work in this area starts with creating diversity policies. It is important to establish whether the diversity strategy is a genuine top-management agenda or simply an HR agenda. If top management is not genuinely invested in it, then the strategy may fall short. On the other hand, if the strategy is top-management oriented, they will ensure it is constantly driven, demand metrics, and expect to see impact and returns. However, if it remains solely an HR agenda, it may stay stagnant without significant progress.
In most businesses, diversity initiatives are often driven by HR personnel, who are empowered by top management to carry out the agenda. However, this can result in diversity initiatives being perceived as a mere corporate image exercise if the top management is not genuinely invested in it. The challenge lies in determining the level of top management's investment in diversity initiatives and how much influence they have in driving it forward within the organisation.
Godrej Industries is a prime example of a company doing commendable work in the diversity space, such as hiring LGBTQ interns. It's a great initiative because it's being driven from the top, but we also see cases where companies do something just for the sake of having a talking point, such as showcasing a facility with an all-women workforce that represents only a small portion of their overall plant.
While it may serve as inspiration for others, the challenge is not to stop at just the showcase but to continue with meaningful efforts towards diversity and inclusion.
Most diversity and inclusion initiatives are policy-driven, and implementing those policies remains a significant challenge. Many companies are still struggling to move beyond the awareness stage, where they are just learning about what diversity and inclusion mean and why they are essential, to actually taking concrete steps towards becoming more diverse and inclusive. This was highlighted in a recent Economist paper, which found that many DEI initiatives have only reached the level of awareness, and there is still a long way to go in terms of actually implementing effective strategies for improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
One of the problems is that the focus remains on creating policies instead of genuinely diversifying behaviours and mindsets within the organisation.
The second challenge is the culture resistance that arises when the mainstream group perceives the smaller group as receiving preferential treatment. This highlights the need for diversity approaches to be merit-oriented, even if they involve quotas. Compliance actions without genuine commitment from top management sends the wrong signal to the rest of the organisation. However, if there is genuine commitment, a merit-oriented quota can be established, such as a 40 per cent female workforce. This can be achieved with development and enabling support, as equity does not require equal treatment. To overcome cultural resistance, it is essential to create awareness about equity and foster dialogue around it in the context of diversity.
The third hurdle is the typical obstacle of change management, where there is a natural resistance to change, whether it is related to diversity or new technology.
The final challenge is creating an inclusive environment through appropriate training and support.
What would you advise HR leaders to get right on the DEI agenda?
For most leaders, the conundrum is how to build a culture when people are constantly moving and not physically present due to remote work. It's essential to understand that organisational cultures are constantly changing, and HR leaders need to adapt accordingly.
The pandemic has also brought about a shift in leadership itself. Leaders are now faced with the challenge of managing a remote workforce and measuring productivity outside of traditional office settings. They may struggle with recruiting and getting the best out of their teams, and with hybrid working, proximity bias can creep in. Inclusivity is key to overcoming these challenges.
Inclusivity is not just about minority groups. With the rise of remote and hybrid working, there is now a gap between those working from home and those in the office. To bridge this gap and create a more inclusive workplace, leaders need to be more empathetic and sensitive to emotional connections and mental wellness.
Overcoming personal biases and creating a psychologically safe workplace is crucial for success, regardless of which aspect of diversity is being addressed.