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The hard truth about creating an inclusive workplace

An out-and-proud people manager shares her experience of creating a gender-neutral, diverse office

Creating inclusive workplaces is like chipping away at a large block of marble with a fork. You have to scrape away years of inherited behaviours and mindsets before you can set new norms.
Creating inclusive workplaces is like chipping away at a large block of marble with a fork. You have to scrape away years of inherited behaviours and mindsets before you can set new norms. (iStock)

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It’s that time of the year again when we paint our social channels a rainbow colour and brands like to talk about their “wokeness”. As it happens every year in June, a part of me feels proud that LGBTQIA+ issues are being so openly discussed, while the other remains pensive about the efforts made to really ensure diversity in the office.

Creating inclusive workplaces is like chipping away at a large block of marble with a fork. You have to scrape away years of inherited behaviours and mindsets before you can set new norms. After over a decade of putting metal to stone, I think I have earned the right to address some of the harsher facts about inclusion in the workplace that not many like to talk about.

Also read: 7 queer voices you should be listening to

On gender neutrality

Moving away from a language consisting solely of “he/her” to a broader language of “they/them” is hard. In our sensitisation efforts, we explain to employees why it’s important to use gender-neutral language in the workplace. I do, however, hear often that sometimes employees slip up and go back to using binary pronouns.

Trying and failing is okay. It is, however, important to understand that when these slip-ups happen, they affect the person at the receiving end. Non-heteronormative communities have had it tough to find their safe place in the social fabric. Asking them to be understanding, when a heteronormative person fumbles pronouns, makes assumptions about their appearances or waits for them to “announce” their orientation before adopting appropriate behaviour is adding to the burden they already carry.

Why wait for someone to tell you their preferred pronouns? Why not be the first one to ask that question? Gender neutrality is at the core of inclusion, and it does not end with just an awareness and sensitisation session during Pride Month. It is reflected in how your managers talk to candidates they interview, in the emails you send, and in that very first phone call that a recruiter makes to a potential talent as a representative of the brand.

CHROs and people managers who run diversity and inclusion initiatives must ensure that the cis-employees understand and appreciate the need to do the self-work, and not just depend on their HR teams or colleagues to educate them on the dictums of inclusive behaviour.

The follow-up processes

Diversity and inclusion efforts should not just be an annual event in the office. Of course, the focus during Pride Month should be on inclusion, but it should be reinforced during the rest of the year as well. In many workplaces, the need to do “something inclusive” rears its head around the end of May, and starts to peter out a couple of weeks later. If there are LGBTQIA+ employees in the office, they end up becoming the flag bearers of the project. The rest of the year, though, the focus shifts to other important mandates.

During the pandemic, the spotlight on marginalised communities caused a lot of corporates to re-evaluate at their internal policies and what they were doing to help alleviate global issues. In the aftermath of the Great Resignation, the priority has shifted to hiring someone, from hiring a diverse candidate. In fact, diversity hiring might just be an added burden in the current recruiting process. At times, it feels like the gains we made during the era of remote-first and Black Lives Matter have been redacted somewhat due to the urgency that came after.

The pandemic was unprecedented, but now we know better. And it is times like these that all recruiters and people managers have to prep for. The problem statement is simple: how do you ensure that diversity and representation are met even when the business needs are different? Some compromises are inevitable, but by stepping back and letting other factors gain importance, are you then relegating your inclusion efforts to just lip service?

That personal agenda

If you’re a people manager,and also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, then get ready to have some awkward conversations. If your diversity scores are low, you may be told that you’re not doing enough. There is a lot of discrimination that the community deals with. So, if your brand values a culture of equality, then as the face of the brand you will be held responsible for the organisations’s gender-inclusive policies, or the lack thereof.

At the same time, if you try to enforce strict rules of order, you could be pegged as selling your agenda. I have seen both sides of this scenario. As a people manager, you are the “safe space” for all employees to vent about how they might not be feeling “included” enough.

If you introduce LGBTQIA+-friendly policies but fail to institute the same for disabled employees, for instance, you can be accused of being “inclusive” only toward a particular segment of society, while marginalising others. What do you do about this? Sometimes, you have to double up as a therapist and let people come to you and be fully themselves. And then, you try to find a middle ground through it all while repairing the dents made in your thick-skinned coat and reminding yourself of why you do what you do.

I think it’s the dream to have workplaces that support employees of different orientations. The trouble is, that dream does not come with a DIY manual. Each of us in the HR industry, and as members of the Pride community, are finding ways to effect the changes we truly believe will create safer workplaces. We are all learning and sharing.

Also read: India’s Pride should remember its cultural context

Swetha Harikrishnan is the human resource director of HackerEarth.



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