In recent times, conversations in India around Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) have been strengthened by the explosion of social media, increased awareness of global events, policy initiatives, efforts by advocacy and consultancy organizations and some progressive judgments from the Indian judiciary. During the ongoing Pride Month, several India Inc. members came forward to discuss the importance of D&I and the measures they have put in place to ensure a more supportive and collaborative work environment.
Building a workplace culture that is truly diverse and inclusive, especially in a country that is fraught with multiple divisions and prejudices, is not for the faint hearted. What is inspiring however are the persistent efforts made by various stakeholders, especially those from the marginalized communities themselves, who are vocal about their experiences and are unafraid to challenge the status quo.
WHY DO WE NEED D&I AT THE WORKPLACE?
This question is important given that there is no specific legislative obligation. India also does not have a comprehensive and standalone antidiscrimination legislation in place. However, there are legislations like the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 (and its successor, the Code on Wages, 2019), the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which include some anti-discrimination provisions. Although these legislations are effective law, awareness of their scope and obligations is still work in progress.
One can argue that employers must look beyond legislation to create a workplace that is both diverse (i.e., where work opportunities are provided to individuals of different backgrounds, be it religious, gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic) and inclusive (i.e., where differences are valued and systemic barriers to participation are removed). There are several studies being conducted by B-schools and top consulting firms which conclude that there is a clear positive correlation between D&I indices and the financial performance of an organization (the efforts to rebrand Victoria's Secret is a recent example). Further, D&I rankings like the 'Great Place to Work' (https://www. greatplacetowork.in/) are increasingly being taken into account for ESG evaluation and are also seen as a significant measure to attract talent, promote employee engagement and brand value.
The need for implementing D&I practices is now greater than ever - for one, the pandemic has forced multiple organizations to prioritize employee welfare measures and has provided an opportunity to bring about lasting changes. Also, as the economy recovers from the impact of Covid-19, it could result in underrepresented groups being pushed further to the fringes of the formal employment sector (the ILO and the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy have already warned that the pandemic will increase gender disparity in paid employment) - conscious and targeted efforts in this regard could very well prevent the chasm from further widening.
DEVELOPING A D&I STRATEGY
Some of the key D&I measures that India Inc. has currently adopted include appointing D&I officers to oversee and implement best practices, conducting sensitization workshops, partnering in recruitment drives conducted by advocacy organizations, and providing reasonable accommodation measures such as flexible work hours and additional paid leaves.
While developing any D&I strategy, organizations would do well to ensure that: (1) the strategy is relevant in India and is appropriate for the nature and size of the organization; and (2) it is broad enough to cover a maximum number of underrepresented categories but also has sufficient depth to take their specific needs into account. Some of the considerations that employers may consider are:
Identify core organizational values:
If an employer wishes to underscore that it is an equal opportunity employer, it could undertake efforts to widen its recruitment drive. Partnering with specialist organizations such as Pride Circle (https://www.thepridecircle.com/jobs/ for hiring from the LGBTQIA+ community) and Equiv (https:// equiv.in/) are popular examples.
Data collection and assessment:
The employer could conduct an audit of its practices from a D&I standpoint. It could also collect personal data from its employee pool (e.g. gender, number of children, domicile, age, marital status, position within the organization, sexual orientation, etc.) and examine the data to understand whether they reveal any patterns. For example, if the data reveals that women workforce participation drops between ages 30 and 40, then the organization could consider childcare and flexible work policies, increasing paternity leave and/or encouraging hiring of women who wish to return after a career break.
Draft and implement a plan document:
Once an actionable goal is identified and there is requisite data to substantiate the requirement, a detailed plan must be explored. Such a document would identify the problems and various challenges involved, specify an implementation roadmap and incorporate feedback from all concerned stakeholders.
Legal compliances, internal policies and a support system:
While better hiring practices can of course promote diversity, inclusive strategies usually ensure that underrepresented communities are integrated at the workplace. Organizations must draft clear internal policies that outline the support provided - this could cover structural changes (separate washrooms, for instance), creating group specific ERGs, mentoring, soft skills coaching, scholarships, standalone trainings, nomination for leadership trainings, specially designed work tools and software, access to credit, hotlines, appointment of a liaison/ grievance redressal officer, access to mental health professionals and support groups, legal assistance (in case of any violence or harassment) etc. These internal policies must be drafted in accordance with applicable law and must also be widely publicized internally.
Conduct creative sensitization workshops:
This is one of the most crucial aspects of any D&I strategy - periodic training invariably ensures that (conscious and unconscious) biases and prejudices are examined and employees from underrepresented communities do not feel stigmatized or fear impediments to their career growth. These trainings can take several forms and can encompass short videos, quizzes, podcasts, movie screenings, plays staged by members of the community and informal discussion groups wherein experts could be invited. Participation of top management in such programs is often a necessity.
Any measures taken must be periodically evaluated to understand and iron out any gaps in the transition from design to execution.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?
One of the most common criticisms levied against corporate D&I initiatives is that they do not extend beyond tokenism and that several organizations do not 'walk the talk'. Some of this feedback, justified or otherwise, can be addressed by making the right hires in the form of D&I officers, partnering with grassroots level organizations, encouraging / incentivizing employee volunteers to design and manage specific initiatives and being open and genuinely receptive to different perspectives.
D&I strategies cannot and should not be designed or implemented in a vacuum. Ultimately, they are reflection of the organization and the society at large. However, they do offer that marvelous opportunity of a rare intersection wherein corporate executives, policy experts, lawyers, activists and academics can come together and be at the forefront of change. If employer responses to the second Covid-19 wave is any indication, then India Inc. is well and truly up to the task.
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