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A few years ago, my mother was submitting an online job application and mentioned to me that one of the questions asked whether the applicant was a visible minority. She told me that she left the answer blank so that she wouldn’t be used as a “token” to “check a box” – literally and figuratively. She said that if she did receive an interview, she wanted to feel like she’d earned it, and she did not want to be perceived otherwise.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve heard countless references to “tokenism” in my practice, and stories about the negative impacts of tokenism from diverse employees in workplaces.
Tokenism is characterized by performative efforts to include members of marginalized groups, as it relates to matters such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, to give the appearance of equity. This can occur in recruitment and other workplace practices and can look like:
- False branding – for example, by having diverse employees appear in organizational videos or promotional materials, when this doesn’t accurately reflect the demographic in their workplace.
- A company using diverse employees to sit in on employment interviews, speak at panels, or appear in client facing meetings, when the employees are not generally involved in the work being discussed.
- Placing diverse individuals in high-ranking visible positions or equity, diversity, and inclusion (“EDI”) roles, without canvassing the employees’ interest in it or their qualifications for it.
- Hiring diverse members to “be diverse,” without providing the employees with the support, team, or budget that would allow them to be successful.
It’s no surprise that being regarded as a token by colleagues – or fearing that you are one – can have long-term repercussions for an employee’s mental health, including having higher levels of depression and stress. The results of a 2019 study conducted by Aneika Simmons, Professor of Management, and her colleagues, revealed that those who found themselves to be solo minorities or one of very few in a workplace were unfairly viewed as a representative of their entire minority group and faced heavier scrutiny from both higher ups and their peers.1
So how can organizations take EDI initiatives without tokenizing and causing further harm to marginalized groups in the workplace?
Be Genuine and Consistent
Intention is important in determining whether tokenism is at play – does the organization want to be equitable, or want to look equitable?
It is key that an organization genuinely cares and that there is buy-in from all levels – including the executive. It is also important that there is consistent messaging and continuous work as it relates to EDI initiatives.
A Financial Post article reported findings that nearly 60% of the Chief Diversity officers working in 2018 have since left the job, 2 many because their positions are underfunded and come with unrealistic deadlines from companies that are eager to show change or progress immediately.3 Many times companies invest or create roles in the wake of social movements, such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter, when they feel compelled to do something, but then long-term initiatives and funding slow.
While social movements certainly raise awareness and can prompt EDI initiatives, genuine work takes time and should be ongoing, as opposed to being reactive and temporary.
It’s necessary to question one’s own intentions and have open communication with diverse employees about their interests, needs, and goals, as opposed to making assumptions and doing what one thinks they “should” do.
Communication and Education
A good way to combat the tokenism that takes place through ignorance or inadvertence is to educate people. Tell employees why EDI is important and provide opportunities for discussion. The hope is that education will work to prevent unsavory practices, stereotypical and discriminatory views, and any anticipated pushback to diverse hiring in the workplace.
Investing in effective EDI training sends a message to employees that the organization is committed and that everyone needs to be “on board.” This training also helps those in the office learn the skills needed to create an environment where everyone feels welcomed, supported, and valued. The purpose of this type of training is to broaden perspectives and appreciate the value that diversity brings, through education and dialogue.
Policy and Processes
The organization can also review their policies and practices that may be hindering diverse representation. This would include a review of the hiring and promotion practices in an organization, to ensure that genuine, fair, and transparent processes are in place (as opposed to performative). The processes should involve establishing the required criteria for the position and be structured to avoid both bias and unconscious bias, such as having a panel of interviewers and/or cluster interviewing.
EDI should be embedded throughout the employee experience as it relates to hiring, promotion, and working arrangements. If diverse employees feel like they are at work to “check-the-box,” the diversity is not sustainable and will not lead to any real progression within the organization. What is necessary are also equity and inclusion initiatives, to both recruit and retain individuals from marginalized groups.
1 Zulekha Nathoo, “Why diverse hires can’t always escape tokenism,” online: BBC, September 2, 2021 <https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220505-the-regional-accentism-that-secretly-affects-job-prospects>
2 Consulting firm Russell Reynolds made this finding, as outlined in: Tara Deschamps, “Corporate diversity roles fraught with retention issues, emotional toll,” online: Financial Post <https://financialpost.com/pmn/business-pmn/corporate-diversity-roles-fraught-with-retention-issues-emotional-toll>
3 Note 2.
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