Opinion

Inclusion is as important as diversity

Anu Oza | Updated on March 07, 2021

Coming together   -  /iStockphoto

Companies must make their staff feel included and ensure that the workplace is a home away from home

Shankar was a boy from a small town in Tamil Nadu. He was a bright boy who had studied hard and studied smart, without tuitions, and who had consequently done very well in his Board exams. He turned out to be one of the Chartered Accountant toppers and before long, many big companies were knocking at his door. Most of them were multinationals but some were also Indian conglomerates.

He interviewed with several and chose one that had its base in Chennai because he wanted to be able to speak the language and adjust to the food and culture as fast as possible.

He found two flat mates and they took up a flat near the office. Their parents saw them off in the nearest station and he was thrilled but also a little apprehensive on his new journey.

Within two months, his dream began to unravel. While he knew the language and adjusted to the culture and food, he felt he was not in the same class as his batchmates. Most of them drove motor bikes and many drove cars. They spoke incessantly in English and he felt left out, disillusioned and uncared for. They often went out to restaurants and while he was earning as much as them and could quite easily go out too, he was never invited.

Most important, all this began to affect him professionally. He hesitated to speak up in meetings. When, bigwigs came visiting and no one even asked him what he thought. He could not discuss the finer points of a presentation because no one seemed to have the time to sit down with him and chat. He had been assigned a buddy and a mentor but they became pat-on-the-back friends.

In about six months, he went to speak to HR and talk about his resignation. The HR person was totally taken aback and asked him what had gone wrong. Shankar was too embarrassed to tell him the real reaosn. The HR person asked him if he had another job, and Shankar said no. He did not dare to tell him that he just wanted to run away and hide and that he wanted to go back to his home town and be with his parents and family. He wanted to say that he didn’t belong here but couldn’t bring himself to.

Shankar’s is a classic story of a young man recruited by a company with a diversity mandate but had failed miserably on inclusion.

Are there real benefits to diversity and measurable benefits?

It surprises many business leaders that people still ask this question. As Tiger Thyagarjan of Genpact says, “In reality, the world is a very diverse place and a company must have a diverse workforce in order to meet the needs of that world. Diversity is not just about gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, or any other dimension but about fostering cognitive diversity. The more perspectives you have that are different on a topic, the better the outcome is going to be. If you have 10 people in a room that all look the same and have the same background, you’re not going to get the same results as 10 people in a room who look different and have different life experiences.”

“Further, in a company like mine which is in the professional services industry, talent is our biggest asset. If we overlook a group of people that might have been marginalised because of their gender or their race, we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage. There are so many people with so much skill and potential that get left behind because of circumstances in their lives, maybe someone had a child and wanted to leave the workforce, maybe someone unfortunately didn’t have access to resources other groups had because of institutional racism. Take gender as an example — more than 50 per cent of the global population is women, yet we know women are underrepresented in many industries and companies. If you don’t pursue gender diversity, you’re leaving more than 50 per cent of your potential talent pool on the table. In the war for talent, you can’t leave people on the table, because your competitors won’t.”

How do we avoid another Shankar-type story from recurring?

Working on inclusion

Where companies err most is that they mandate diversity and assume that inclusion will just happen. Once you have built your pool of talent, a company needs to invest in ensuring that this group actually feels included, feels that they belong, feels that the company is a home away from home. Companies need to invest in different kinds of training: cultural sensitivity for one, unconscious bias for another,group dynamics as a third to make their diverse talent feel at home and be at their best These kinds of training interventions, are, at their best, truly non judgmental of others and consciously educative to people. They point out how groups work or don’t, how we are unintentionally exclusionary to people, and how different cultures can get along. From the structure of the brain to the slicing of the unconscious, they cover it all.

Without interventions like this, people can feel lonely and distanced, uncared for and alienated, stressed and silenced. This is a real problem for companies that want to nurture and groom their talent. Indeed, these companies need to periodically check if their diversity and inclusion programmes are working as well as they should. .

Diversity needs to be measured and nurtured like any other metric. Measuring diversity as a metric does not dilute quality, rather it enhances it. Getting this balance right is a nuanced challenge, but that’s what good HR departments set for themselves as their own targets

It may be a while before diversity is seen for the many splendoured thing it is, but the journey and the destination are well worth our money. Time. And effort .

The writer is Director-HR, in an auto company in Chennai. She also thanks VN.(Tiger) Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact, for the article.

Published on March 07, 2021

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