Can PR help companies in India push the envelope on diversity?
Two events in the month of September sharply brought home the point that diversity in the workforce matters more than ever today. In the middle of September, Tech Mahindra fired its chief diversity officer, Richa Gautam, ironically for discriminating against an employee for his sexual orientation. And last week, at the mega-gathering of India's PR professionals at #PRAXIS7, transgender rights activist Gauri Sawant spoke strongly to the PR fraternity about going back from #PRAXIS7 with the intention of hiring more transgender professionals at their workplace. Sawant is also a Vicks #TouchofCare mom, who helped challenge the notion of what is a "typical family".
The speed with which the Mahindra group acted once the complaint was made public, and the personal intervention of Anand Mahindra, showed that diversity is quickly evolving into a key requirement for today's employees.
However, Anu Koshy, global head for diversity and inclusion, UST Global, points out that, "The state of affairs in India is very complex and nuanced. People, even diversity program leaders, are not always open. Socio-cultural milieu adds to the complexity."
Koshy adds that "The UST Global way has been to emphasize the equality and social justice facets of inclusion which inherently resonates with people, and use that platform to gradually introduce ideas and programs that drive engagement. Foundational to this success has been the clarity of vision and support from our senior leadership team."
While diversity hiring for the sake of it doesn't work, Koshy says it's important to clearly communicate the value diversity brings and then chose the best candidate. Firms in India cannot afford to be left behind in this.
Senior corporate communications professional, Melissa Arulappan says bluntly that, "I believe ‘diversity & inclusion’ is a much used and abused word. There are very few organisations that embrace the term in its entirety. More often than not, it’s euphemistic for gender diversity and within that, male and female gender. So I think the first thing that needs to be done is broaden the understanding and scope of what a diverse and inclusive environment really means."
Arulappan adds that "Communication on its own cannot weave a magic wand – a diverse and inclusive work environments needs policies and processes, needs internal champions, needs at times special infrastructure support (like washrooms) and needs perhaps an ombudsman or appellate mechanism in the short term."
Koshy agrees saying that "Myriad, yet consistent, communication channels are needed to engage and empower employees. Newsletters, Facebook workplace, roundtables, all hands meetings, Ask Me Anything sessions and the mobile platforms are some of the communication mechanisms we have. We have several councils to deal with issues pertaining to diversity justice such as NotHere, location-wise Internal Complaints Committees and Ethics point at UST Global. My Mitr counselling service and hotline numbers are available for associates as well."
Koshy warns that " The future is already here. #workplacediversity, #genderpaygap elimination, #workplaceequality are Millennial/Gen Z expectations, so if a company's talent acquisition and talent assimilation strategies and communication don’t reflect that, that’s definitely a red flag."
Senior communications consultant Radha Radhakrishnan agrees with this statement, saying "A few years ago, diversity and inclusion were good to have policies in India. Now they are becoming a must-have policy. Millennials want this as a basic working environment. It is a no longer a perk. The challenge for communications is to ensure that messaging on diversity and inclusion is clearly understood and appreciated without making it sound like a key differentiator. It has to be powerful yet subtle."
Taking the discussion forward Arulappan says, " One thing I believe organisations should not do is fall into the trap of reducing their diversity to a targeted percentage as many have done with regard to gender diversity. It is important to have a diverse workforce but that should be a factor of an employee’s competency and not of an employee’s affiliation, gender or otherwise. Much like with any other ‘nice to have policy’ it is important that communication around it should be done well and judiciously."
Properly structured, PR can play a big role in helping the sensitisation of employees and a true openness to diversity in the workplace.
As Koshy says, "The most important diversity evangelist is the person in the next cubicle."