Diversity and inclusion have taken on greater prominence for companies in India in recent years, with more firms wanting to build an equitable workplace.
Experts at the recent SHRM India Annual Conference 2021 discussed how the scenario has evolved and shared tips for using a “bottoms-up approach” to help organizations become more diverse. The speakers stressed the need to build a culture in which people from different backgrounds receive equal opportunities and feel included.
“Organizations should be asking themselves, ‘How can we by default be inclusive?’ Not by process or policy,” said Satish Rajarathnam, senior vice president and global head of strategic resourcing at Mphasis, an information technology firm in Chennai.
Tooba Modassir, senior vice president and head of learning, performance, talent management, diversity and inclusion at Citi South Asia, echoed this.
“Diversity is a fact. Every individual is different,” she said. “Are you creating platforms that create equity and equitable opportunities?”
Panelists agreed that while many organizations have long intended to be more diverse, some have recently started actually working toward achieving that goal.
“There used to be a lot of debate on ‘why diversity?’ ” Modassir said. But research has settled those queries, she said. Now, the focus is on the actions that need to be taken.
Recent research from SHRM found that 1 out of 4 people said they dread going to work and don’t feel respected and valued with regard to diversity and inclusion, said Archana Jerath, director of operations for SHRM in India, Asia Pacific, Middle East and North Africa. Organizations have lost $223 billion from workplace turnover due to culture-related challenges in the last five years, Jerath said. “There are huge costs involved.”
Many Types of Diversity
In India, where the 1.4 billion-strong population speaks more than 450 languages, diversity not only means having more female workers, but also hiring employees from different cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds; of different
sexual orientations; and with different physical abilities.
Abhijit Bhaduri, founder of consulting firm Abhijit Bhaduri & Associates in Bengaluru, asked which one of these diverse backgrounds organizations should prioritize.
“This is a false dilemma,” responded Hari T.N., CHRO of online grocer BigBasket.
Rather than having a single priority, Hari said each organization should seek to become more open to different points of view.
“If you aim for gender diversity, then you would end up ticking a few check boxes, but you would not achieve the fundamental objective of creating real diversity of thought,” he said.
Having said that, companies in India are still falling short on the most common diversity metric: gender. BigBasket, Hari said, has no women at the senior leadership or chief experience officer (CXO) level. At Mphasis, though 38 percent of all employees are female, only 2 percent of the CXOs are female, Rajarathnam said.
“We still have a long way to go to be in a place where it’s an equal world,” said Mamta Sharma, vice president and HR head at Fiserv Global Services, a technology solutions provider where women make up 31 percent of the total workforce but only 15 percent of the CXO suite.
Building a Critical Mass
Diversity makes business sense because it opens up access to new talent pools, experts said. BigBasket, for instance, has hired 1,000 workers with disabilities.
“Their retention, their values … [are] just better than everybody else,” Hari said.
But simply having a policy of diversity isn’t enough. “Merely being inclusive is not going to encourage either women or differently abled people to come and join,” Hari said.
Instead, these workers want to see others in the organization like them.
“It’s important for a company to create a critical mass of that category [of workers] for others to believe that you’re sincere about it,” Hari said.
Bottoms-Up Approach to Inclusion
It’s also not enough that companies hire employees from diverse backgrounds; these workers must also feel welcome and included, said Anurag Bansal, chief sales officer at technology training firm TalentSprint in Hyderabad.
Bansal cited a case study to explain how an organization can ensure that diverse workers fit in. TalentSprint has a partnership with Google in which it selects 200 female engineers in India from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. These women are trained for two years in technology as well as in soft skills such as communications and how to behave in a corporation so that they are prepared to join the workforce.
“They are fully equipped to be part of the organization, and they don’t feel that they are a separate group or they have been taken into the organization as a special initiative,” Bansal said. “That is the bottoms-up approach” to inclusion, he said.
Removing Bias, Giving a Voice
To be more inclusive, organizations need to listen to their employees more and build a culture in which each employee has a voice, experts said.
“Invite them into decision-making and involve them in multiple projects, in multiple initiatives,” said Venka Reddy, global HR business partner at Infosys, an IT services firm in Hyderabad.
To drive this agenda, experts stressed the need for organizations to appoint a chief diversity and inclusion officer.
“You need to set a culture,” said Pratyusha Sharma, assistant vice president of HR, talent development and transformation at Cognizant, an IT firm in the greater Hyderabad area. There’s also a need to educate employees across all levels, addressing any biases they may have toward others who are not like them.
Organizations should get the perspectives of their employees to understand what biases they typically face in order to address them.
“You may think you understand what the challenges are, but you don’t really know,” Bhaduri said.
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.