‘Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth’ – Jesse Jackson
The Indian Parliament has undertaken a number of diversity and inclusion related measures over the past couple of years, which include increasing the amount of maternity leave and maternity benefits that are provided to women, statutorily prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of a person’s gender, disability and HIV status, and requiring employers inter alia to implement anti-sexual harassment and equal opportunity policies.
Most organisations have welcomed such measures and have framed a number of diversity and inclusion related policies that go over and above those mandated by law. However, organisations are quickly realising that merely preparing such policies, which contain catchphrases such as ‘uplifting minorities’, ‘zero-tolerance to discriminatory practices’ and ‘fostering a culture of equal opportunity’, is insufficient to change an organisation’s culture. While implementing such policies ensures compliance with the applicable laws, there is still a long way to go to ensure that organisations imbibe the spirit and purpose of these statutes.
In this article, we seek to assess the gap between the objective of diversity and inclusion related statutes and their practical application and provide guidance on the practical measures that organisations can adopt to facilitate a diverse and inclusive workplace.
While statutes have been amended to afford more protection and benefits to women, transgender people and persons with disabilities, there are a number of cases in which such well-intentioned actions have had an adverse impact. For instance, the Maternity Benefits Act 1961, was amended in 2017 inter alia to increase the mandated period of maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks and to provide additional maternity benefits, such as maternity leave for adoption and creche facilities, etc. Although the aim of this amendment was to support working mothers, in many cases it has had a deterrent effect on the hiring of women. Simply put, organisations did not want to bear the brunt of the enhanced benefits provided to women. According to a survey by LocalCircles, in 2019-2020 close to 50 per cent of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups in India reported fewer female hires over the year following the amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act.
Similarly, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 (the ‘POSH Act’) was implemented to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace and to provide a framework for women to raise complaints of sexual harassment. However, in many cases employees have failed to grasp the objective or framework of this statute.
Overall, this situation is reflective of a thought process where diversity initiatives are thought of in terms of short-term costs, instead of being viewed as measures for industrial change which would have long-term benefits.
While there is no quick fix to guarantee a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, organisations could consider adopting some of the measures mentioned below in addition to their statutory obligations:
- focus on continuous training. In many cases biases have been unintentionally adopted due to the cultural and social surroundings and upbringing and it generally takes more than policies and an annual training session to rid people of such biases. Organisations that successfully imbibe a culture of diversity and inclusion typically invest in high quality, continuous, sensitivity training. Such training helps people to discover and question their biases and predispositions and helps organisations save costs by allowing them to access a much wider human resource talent pool, as well as minimise inter-employee issues;
- a culture of diversity and inclusion should be enforced at every level. It is common for organisations to only focus diversity and inclusion measures on a particular section of the workforce, whether it be senior managerial employees or rank and file employees. This leads to imbalances in the approaches that various sections of the workforce have towards diversity and inclusion measures. For instance, it is possible that while an organisation may have senior management that is keen on increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the oppositive view can exist elsewhere in the company due to a lack of training and sensitisation across the workforce, where hiring managers do not believe that diversity and inclusion are essential. This leads to biases in hiring that impairs a diverse and inclusive workplace;
- organisation specific policies. Organisations are different, and each organisation will have its own diversity and inclusivity requirements. Therefore, it is important for organisations to study their specific requirements before implementing policies and for them to avoid simply replicating the policies and measures of other organisations;
- invite input from stakeholders. Employee participation is key when formulating and implementing diversity and inclusion policies. It is important that such policies are efficacious and achieve their objectives. In many instances, it is common for organisations to take a top-down approach to diversity and inclusion policies. However, this approach does not always achieve its objectives, as it fails to take into consideration the needs of all the relevant stakeholders (ie, the people whom the policies seek to protect); and
- encourage and educate ally networks. To ensure that employees have a supportive working environment, it is necessary to encourage ally networks as there are a number of instances in which employees may be uncomfortable in approaching managers or formal grievance mechanisms in the first instance. By encouraging and training ally networks, employees have the ability to approach peers as a first resource and these peers are educated on grievance redressal mechanisms, so they can direct the aggrieved employee in an appropriate manner.
Real change requires trial and error and, most importantly, follow through. Given the minefield of sensitivities, opinions and biases that surround diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it can be challenging to measure the actual progress of inclusion in the workplace. It is imperative that organisations establish objective, sustainable and achievable goals and periodically evaluate progress through metrics, such as demographics across the organisation, retention rates across employee groups, employee turnover, candidate demographics, employee advancement/promotion rate, equal pay and pay equity, involvement in employee resource groups, and other initiative specific metrics. The potential and true value of diversity in the Indian workforce is yet to be unleashed and it is up to employers to harness the insight, experience and talents of all their employees and to embrace the diversity that exists.