Years of identity-related activism and discourse have finally borne fruit with anti-sexual harassment policies, gender and racial diversity, and unconscious-bias trainings going mainstream and becoming a key part of modern workplaces. And the biggest proof of this encouraging turn of events is the growing prevalence of diversity and inclusion as a core part of corporate strategy, goals, and culture. Now referred to as diversity, equity & inclusion, DEI is a catchall term used to describe a workplace where people, irrespective of their backgrounds and social identities (such as gender, sexuality, caste, race etc), are treated with respect and given the right opportunities and support without any bias or discrimination. It is a workplace which responds proactively to the needs of those from marginalised groups rather than the other way round, because ‘merit’, as currently understood, is mostly an accident of unearned privileges. So, have organisations on the whole been able to prioritise DEI, and what does prioritising the same entail? Also, we give here a bird-eye’s view of how corporate India fares on DEI best practices.

While diversity is self-explanatory, an inclusive workplace is one where opportunities, contributions, and evaluations are untainted by discrimination of any kind. This brings one to the third pillar of DEI – equity. Conceptually, equality and equity are often mistaken for synonyms. However, while equality is about treating every person the same, equity takes into account the fact that some people have more disadvantages due to their social and economic locations and others have more privileges, and hence, equal treatment is often not enough to close already existing gaps. To use an example, a race between able-bodied individuals and someone who has a broken leg is unfair because the latter is already at a massive disadvantage. Equity means ensuring the barriers that people from marginalised groups face are recognised and suitably addressed. It’s not a handout, it is creating a level-playing field.

Why should organisations prioritise DEI?

Why is DEI important and why should organisations pursue it? The first reason is simple – it’s the right thing to do! The world is a complex, diverse place and no two individuals are the same. It rightfully follows that our workplaces should reflect that. And inclusivity and equity are ideals that every society and every organisation should strive for. After all, who doesn’t want a fair, equal and just world that works for everyone? And our workplaces are a critical part of building such a society. 

While the roots of diversity initiatives can be traced back to equal pay, employment discrimination acts, and various forms of affirmative actions (in India, this would be the constitutionally mandated reservations for SCs and STs), the rise of identity politics and movements and the increasing participation of women in the formal sector has precipitated the corporate mainstreaming of DEI trainings and initiatives. Countries like Norway, Finland and Spain have implemented various gender-related quotas and laws that have also fuelled the legitimating of these policies.

The economic case for diversity and inclusion is a succinct one: it improves profits, productivity, and innovation. Starting from evidence of higher revenues for companies with diverse management teams to better performance to happier employees and even a double-digit growth in world GDP if employment opportunities are equal for women, it could be considered borderline blasphemy to question this widespread consensus. Of course, like most data, the cause and effects of diversity can be a complicated knot to untangle. However, combined with the fact that both workers and consumers today, millennials and GenZ alike, view diverse organisations as a positive and a significant factor in their decision-making process, a company would ignore DEI at its own peril.

Then there’s the moral case already cited above: in a fair and just society, there should be no discrimination against an individual on the basis of their identities and everyone should have equal opportunities to realise their true potential. Few who support human rights and dignity would dispute that. It, then, necessarily follows that workplaces should have recruitment, retention, and rewards policies and programmes that are diverse, inclusive, and aim for equitable outcomes. 

It should be noted that though DEI is historically associated with gender diversity, it is equally important to be cognisant of ascriptive identities such as race, caste, class, sexuality, and disability. A truly equitable workplace is one that is aware of the socioeconomic dynamics of the societies in which they operate and accordingly work towards shaping their responses and processes to accommodate the local complexities and nuances. This isn’t to suggest that building such a culture is easy and like any other corporate project, it needs significant investment and leadership buy-in. But unlike other projects, it is a lifelong one.

DEI best practices 

There’s no dearth of experts, handbooks, articles, or pithy LinkedIn posts about best practices for DEI. As with anything that can be commodified, a whole industry around DEI has cropped up in recent years. A few best practices, though, are worth revisiting and the few companies who seem to be taking it seriously, worth investigating.

  • Leading by example: Like any workplace initiative, without the explicit commitment and enthusiastic support of top management, DEI is likely to remain consigned to PowerPoint slides. Leaders necessarily need to champion it and set examples by showcasing that their own decisions are guided by it. For example, BASF, a German multinational chemical company, is well-known for its focus on DEI and specifically for getting leaders onboard and accountable. In fact, a Talent/D&I dashboard tracks the impact of leaders’ behaviours and actions on D&I and talent performance. This helps monitor progress or, sometimes, the lack of. 
  • Meeting targets through integration: Collecting initial data to identify gaps is a critical first step in improving an organisation’s DEI practices, but equally important is setting time-bound targets—such as BASF’s goal to increase the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30% by 2030, or Accenture India’s to have a 50/50 gender-balanced workforce by 2025. However, be it for a successful product launch or higher sales, the only way to meet targets is to integrate them into workplace processes, practices, and cultures. And this, in turn, requires designing a suitable framework and relevant metrics. Practices could include deploying safe and alternate feedback and complaint mechanisms for underrepresented groups, while some useful metrics are tracking the turnover rate and representation in managerial positions for such employees.
  • Cultural customisation: While the underlying principles of DEI are immutable, societies, like people, have their own unique characteristics and histories and it is important to be aware of the local cultures and nuances when designing and implementing such initiatives. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to formulating DEI strategies. Leveraging local needs and insights ensures that the workforce embraces these changes for the long haul and for the right reasons. Messaging is key and what might work in one location isn’t necessarily applicable in another. For multinational corporations, this also helps in the exchange of information as well as knowledge transfer on best practices. A good example here is Johnson & Johnson which learnt this the hard way and organised a transatlantic conference to bridge the gap.
  • Involve people: Ultimately, workplaces are people-driven and a company is its human resource. It stands to reason that involving employees, especially managers, in designing DEI policies is a key success factor. This is different from organising employee resource groups or business resource groups which are employee networks to create a safe and welcoming environment for underrepresented groups and provide support, mentorship and networking opportunities. Getting managers onboard and actively seeking their inputs and participation makes such initiatives responsive to internal team dynamics while giving them a stake in the success. It also avoids a top-down, didactic approach where DEI and HR experts are telling them what to do rather than making them stakeholders in the quest for a better workplace environment. 

Needless to say, this list of best practices isn’t exhaustive. Aside from skills and talent, organisations are inherently about group dynamics, social behaviours, and human psychology, and so, implementing DEI at workplaces is going to be a lengthy process of trial, error, and hopefully learning. Openness, transparency and humility will be the key attributes towards making it a vital and entrenched part of organisational culture.

Assessing corporate India’s DEI performance

DEI in corporate India is yet to reach the not-so-lofty heights of the rest of the world. Though diversity and inclusion should be as central to a company’s functioning as marketing or sales, like any other ‘HR’ initiative it has been relegated to a tick-in-the-box with some well-meaning but haphazard programmes and a patchwork of policies that don’t add up to a holistic strategy. While paid maternity leaves, period leaves, and networking forums are welcome, there’s little evidence to suggest that corporations are investing the required amounts of time and work into creating a diverse workforce for the long term while facilitating an environment of inclusivity and ensuring equity. Companies like Nestle India that are considered the gold standard for DEI in the country have limited themselves to basic data on gender diversity progress, such as number of women employees. The less said about the rest, the better.

A review of diversity initiatives by India’s leading tech companies reveals their limitations in scope and ambition. Most are related to programmes that teach women and/or young girls to code. While this is certainly needed, owing to the lack of adequate female representation in STEM, it is one part of a complex solution. The same can be said about laudable efforts to offer career pathways to women who have taken a break due to motherhood or other reasons (it would be nice to get concrete data on this though, beyond just talking points). Questions abound whether there’s enough investment and outreach for other marginalised groups, hiring practices, opportunities for promotion and management roles, steps taken to actively foster an environment where minorities are made to feel welcome and their expertise sought and acknowledged, leadership accountability and data transparency, to name a few. 

It is important to assess and predict the intended and unintended consequences of DEI initiatives. For instance, at first glance, granting period leaves for menstruating women is a much-needed policy. However, if that results in women being shut out from important projects and meetings or if it engenders resentment towards them, then failing to plan for such contingencies will result in further degradation of the work environment. Anyone who’s ever worked in an office has made, heard, or been at the receiving end of crude jokes and complaints about ‘diversity hires’ and supposed incompetency because of social backgrounds. And ironically, in a country as diverse as India, such toxic remarks continue to remain par for the course.

Then there’s the fact that till the #MeToo movement, many companies in India did not have a semi-functioning ICC (internal complaints committee), as mandated by the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Act, so questions will be raised about their commitment towards DEI and underlying motivations. However, even as there is some noteworthy movement on the diversity front, it is on equity and inclusion that Indian companies appear to be clueless and/or uninterested. Inclusion seems to be interpreted as gender neutrality (which is necessary but is only a starting point) and equity initiatives, if at all existent, are relegated to mentorship programmes and occasional workshops and trainings. Some, like Godrej, seem to recognise the hard parts about fostering and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace. Unfortunately, solving the problem of what comes after that recognition is yet to be attempted by any major Indian company.

Understandably, corporations can only do so much in a society where sexism, racism, casteism, and all other discriminatory -isms are normalised to the point of being a desired feature and not an unwanted bug. Our workplaces reflect the world we live in and people are messy, complicated, and rife with conscious hypocrisies and unconscious biases. However, the workplace is also an ecosystem which can be controlled and manipulated, and hence it has the potential to be a place that, with the right kinds of intentions, efforts and incentives, is truly egalitarian and inclusive of all. Corporations wield tremendous influence in modern societies and have the ability to affect change and inform the existing discourse on what’s right—and within that, what’s possible. It would be a pity if they fail to use that power responsibly.