Tokenism In The Workplace

By: Talisa Lavarry (She/Her)

Tokenism in the Workplace

The recent clamors for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) have become even more pronounced after episodes of events like the murder of George Floyd and the hashtag trend ‘Black Lives Matter.’ However, such DEI strategies are not without unsavory practices; tokenism is one such practice.

What is tokenism?

Tokenism is doing something to portray that you are following rules & regulations or doing what is expected and seems fair in a society. Tokenism in the workplace involves including minority groups like women or people belonging to a specific racial or ethnic group in a company or organization. It is done not because of their inherent value but to give a false impression of equality.

How to determine tokenism in the workplace?

It is important to note that there is a difference between authentic diversity at a workplace and a company’s DEI strategies that allow them to  appear diverse. Many companies paste pictures on the walls of their websites showing people from diverse backgrounds. Such organizations do not imbibe the idea of diversity in its true essence. They adopt DEI strategies to appear just and fair in front of the world. Thus, it is essential to determine an organization’s intentions behind DEI policies to decide whether an organization is involved in tokenism. Tokenism can be found in the following ways;

  • If a company is recruiting only a small number of diverse individuals
  • If there are only a few people belonging to a minority group – like Asians, Africans, and women- in an organization
  • If crucial posts in a company are not occupied by people of diverse backgrounds
  • If diverse people are there in an organization, but they do not enjoy the same privileges and perks in their career advancement
  • If people from diverse backgrounds are allocated to executive positions, but they do not get correspondence, authority, or a vibrant team

If a company has any one of the signs mentioned above, it’s more than likely tokenism is practiced there.

What causes tokenism in the workplace?

Companies adopt tokenism and fake DEI policies to avoid criticism and peer pressure. It may result from general bias towards a particular racial or ethnic group. Unchecked institutions may develop a high level of tokenism.

Effects of tokenism in the workplace

Tokenism in the workplace may lead to mental disorders and anxiety for members of diverse backgrounds. They may suffer from imposter syndrome because they feel they have only been hired because of their diversity and not their caliber. Resultantly, they have pressure to perform well all the time. It leads to a constant burden on people and, thus, mental disorders. Hence, the quality of their work diminishes because a person can perform well when he can function independently without any fear or pressure from society.

 Moreover, people from diverse backgrounds may feel neglected because of their limited organizational interaction and fewer chances of growth. It creates biases within an organization and society as well. Consequently, tokenism prevents overall organizational progress.

Effective ways to avoid tokenism in the workplace

The most effective ways to prevent tokenism in the workplace are;

  • Promote a just and fair recruitment process in an organization
  • Raise awareness among all members of a company about unconscious biases
  • Giving equal chances of growth, promotion, and the same perks to all members of an organization, irrespective of their background
  • Encourage diverse candidates to apply for a job post and avoid using exclusionary language. Introduce a quota system (women or minority quota) in the recruitment process to motivate them
  • Keep a constant check on the demographic details of employees in an organization. If there is less diversity, then recruitment teams should take significant measures to ensure diversity in the workplace
  • Allow members to perform their vital rituals at the workplace. For example, allowing Muslim members to offer their prayers during job hours can give them a sense of inclusion
  • Allow employees to celebrate their cultural or religious events by giving them a day off. For example, Hindu or Muslim employees should be allowed to celebrate Eid or Holi by giving them a holiday
  • Give adequate maternity leaves to women. For instance, Spotify gives 6 months of maternity leaves to new parents. It is an excellent step to increase the retention rate of an organization

In a nutshell, tokenism can undermine a company’s progress and promote societal bias if it remains unchecked. Therefore, taking careful measures can eliminate it quickly and promote a healthy workplace environment.

Lastly, I couldn’t write this entry without mentioning my book Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague. This book gives you an inside look at my own struggles with tokenism.

Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague

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