HR should play the role of enabler of diversity

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Companies today are all aiming to be diverse and inclusive. However, what this truly means, what it entails, and how to achieve diversity in the workplace by overcoming the associated challenges, were some of the topics discussed at the third edition of the CII HR Crystal Ball, 2019.

The panel of eminent guests included P. Dwarkanath, director, GlaxoSmithKline, who also acted as the moderator; Ravi Parmeshwar, CHRO, ReNew Power; Nipun Malhotra, co-founder and CEO at Nipman Foundation; Subir Bikas Mitra, executive director (law and HR), GAIL; Dr. Shubnum Singh, director-medical education, medical research, advisor- healthcare framework, Max Healthcare; and Prachi Rastogi a diversity and inclusion leader and group manager-HR, IBM.

Dwarkanath began by opening the discussion on the challenges of diversity and inclusion, and the many forms of diversity at the workplace. He expressed his belief that working towards these challenges can enable organisations to provide a great service to the society. He went on to say that it is important to recognise that HR is only the facilitator, and it is the responsibility of the management to bring about a change in the culture of the company.

It is easy to exclude people through language or physical disabilities because we all possess an unconscious bias within us. Moreover, because of this unconscious bias exclusion can creep in in various ways.

Prachi Rastogi

“At IBM, we ensure that business leaders in the company have their own targets on diversity and inclusion. They have to answer for the failures or unattained targets. Once they were given this responsibility, we started seeing results”

On the topic of unconscious bias, Prachi Rastogi shared her own experience working at IBM. During a sexual orientation workshop held at the company, one of the employees stood up and asked why it was important to know the sexual orientation of the workers since it did not have anything to do with productivity or work. She said, “Whenever there is talk of going on a vacation, or of love, or of partners among the heterosexual employees, a queer person tends to feel left out on account of being unable to express her/his own experiences. That person will end up constantly hiding something, which could lead to stress and unproductivity. Understanding these issues is the way to bring about a more lasting change in an organisation.” She went on to add that policies, such as healthcare, vacation packages, and parental leaves should be equal for all genders. She stressed on the issue of pronouns saying that it is the prerogative of individuals themselves to decide which pronoun they should be addressed with. Along with this, it is the duty of the HR to ask the question.

Nipun Malhotra, who runs his own foundation that works in the area of health and advocacy for persons with disabilities (PwDs), said, “Disabled people are often forgotten in India. They constitute one of the biggest minorities in the world. As a disabled person myself, I have faced, first hand, the challenges that disability brings. After obtaining a master’s from the Delhi School of Economics I went to a lot of interviews and found the HR department quite insensitive to the disabled. I believe there are three basic challenges that every disabled person faces. I like to call them the three As. The first is ‘attitude’, which can be in the form of a lack of etiquette while dealing with a disabled person or ignorance of the way to communicate with them. It can also be expressed in the form of sheer negligence to see that such people can make decisions and work like any other normal being. The second is ‘accessibility’. This can include physical infrastructure and technological infrastructure. The third is ‘affordability’. The cost of living is much higher for Pwds and it is seldom recognised.”

Nipun Malhotra

“There is a business case for hiring PwDs and diversity programmes need to work on that road”

 

Malhotra cited interesting examples of companies which have built their business models around PwDs and cited these business models as a way towards diversity and inclusion in the true sense. He gave the example of Mirakle Couriers, a Mumbai-based firm, which employs deaf people to deliver couriers. The idea behind this was that since courier-delivery personnel do not need to interact much with the customers, deaf people would be able to perform the job as well as any person without any hearing problem. He went on to give the example of Coca-Cola, which employs deaf people in the manufacturing plants, where the noise does not hinder their work. “There is a business case for hiring PwDs and diversity programmes need to work on that road,” concluded Malhotra.

With over 40 years of experience in the healthcare business, Dr. Singh shared some intriguing examples too. According to her, while diversifying across geographies, companies should take care to hire people from those specific places in which they are expanding business. “Sometimes, patients only believe doctors from their own villages. So, we realised that if we need to expand into different geographies, we need to have people in those places too!” she explained. “Language is another barrier. In healthcare, people come from everywhere and if somebody speaks a different language, then it is important to have interpreters who can facilitate smoother experiences for these customers.” Irrespective of the company, it is the mindset of the people that matters. When we grow personally, the company also grows.

From a PSU background, Subir Mitra shared an interesting fact with the audience. He said that before there were policies on gender, the women constituted 10-12 per cent of the workforce in GAIL. However, after the policies were introduced, the numbers went down drastically with the expansion of the organisation. He added that merely having a diversity and inclusion policy is not the solution. The diverse workforce should support the company.

An audience member pointed out that companies sometimes do not have the correct policy or infrastructure required to hire PwDs, and therefore, it becomes difficult for Pwds to find employment. So what is the solution?

In response to the question, Prachi agreed that most of the time, diversity is a paid lip service. She cited examples from IBM, which has contributed towards diversity and inclusion at the workplace. “At IBM, we ensure that business leaders in the company have their own targets on diversity and inclusion. They have to answer for the failures or unattained targets. Once they were given this responsibility, we started seeing results. Also, it took the headache away from HR. Another practice that has helped us immensely is mindfulness and meditation. Meditation helps to become more aware and inclusive. Unless we are inclusive of ourselves, we cannot include the person beside us.”

Shubnum Singh

“Sometimes, patients only believe doctors from their own villages. So, we realised that if we need to expand into different geographies, we need to have people in those places too”

Ravi Parmeshwar came forward with a new angle. He said, “Diversity is not a problem at the top level. Usually leaders have well-defined policies and the correct attitude. However, sourcing is also a major issue for organisations. It is difficult to find people with such diverse natures. It has gone to such an extent that I hear male employees fear that there may be a positive bias in favour of women in some companies!”

Coming to the sourcing problem, Malhotra proposed, “One of the ways this can be solved would be to collaborate with NGOs to discover disabled people and people at a disadvantage, and to try to upskill them to work at different organisations.” He cited the example of Lemon Tree hotels, which has a policy to recruit 25 per cent people from disadvantaged sections.

Towards the end, Dr. Singh remaked, “Diversity should not become a noose around the management’s neck but rather they should go with the flow. It is important to have an open and inclusive mind and have the right attitude to welcome diverse people. Such an attitude has to be displayed by the business leaders. Only then can a positive culture start forming and slowly go on to become the default mindset.”

Ravi Parmeshwar

“Diversity is not a problem at the top level. Usually leaders have well-defined policies and the correct attitude. However, sourcing is also a major issue for organisations. It is difficult to find people with such diverse natures”

Dwarkanath concluded the session by reminding everyone of the changes HR has seen and the changes HR must be willing to adapt to. It is true that the role of HR has undergone tremendous change. It has evolved from firefighting to building and adding value to an organisation. The pivotal change is that has become a business partner. It now uses technology to play the role of an enabler and help diversity practices advance. It is the responsibility of not just HR but all sections of management.

(HRKatha is the digital media partner for this event.)

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