Tokenism in the workplace: How to Avoid It

It’s no secret that diversity is an important and positive thing to have within businesses. Studies have consistently shown that diverse teams bring about more productivity, boost innovation, and make up for a happier workforce. However, when businesses want to have that ripple effect that diverse teams can have in terms of higher profit margins and employee retention, they can be doing more harm than good with their DEI efforts if they’re not thought out well. This is where tokenism may come into play.

So what is tokenism?

Tokenism is a concept that refers to the phenomena of taking actions just to superficially present an organisation as being a diverse, equal and equitable workplace in order to prevent outside criticism or simply to meet a diversity quota. This usually manifests itself through hiring small numbers of diverse talent simply to give the false perception that diversity is present across the business, or publishing images of employees in marketing or web collateral that is not an accurate reflection of the workforce demographics, or even inviting certain employees or employee to client pitches to represent certain groups.

There is a very big difference between being committed to diverse hiring and only seeming to be committed to diverse hiring efforts. If your business is simply appearing diverse to deflect criticism, this will lead to tokenism and employees that are frustrated because they feel like they’ve only been hired to check a diversity box in a DEI exercise.

Effects of tokenism

Tokenism can have several negative consequences in an organisation. Tokenised employees will notice that they’re the only person representing their group in the workplace and as such will feel stronger pressure to perform in ways that improve the perception of that demographic. It can have severe effects on employees from underrepresented groups, causing them to develop imposter syndrome. They can start to feel like they aren’t actually talented or skilled, and that they were simply brought onboard because they were a diverse candidate. Employees that develop imposter syndrome can be severely demotivated and develop lack of confidence in developing their skills or taking initiative within their roles or business.

Not only that, but token employees are also far more visible within a business as they are the “only” person like them in the room. This can stop them from being themselves from fear of how their words, actions, or ideas will be seen by colleagues. They may not even ask questions or participate in important discussion through feeling of insecurity.

Furthermore if employees are asked to participate in projects or certain important meeting they may become frustrated if they believe they are tokenised or that they only play a superficial role. Businesses can miss out on serious talent and performance if they undervalue their employees like this.  

Token employees also have more serious health and safety concerns than their colleagues. They face far higher levels of stress and depression, and are also more dissatisfied and less committed to their work than their peers. Sexual harassment or discrimination is reported at far higher levels by token women and racial minorities, compared to the same underrepresented groups in more balanced workplaces.

These aren’t the only dangers, however. Tokenism doesn’t just stop at affecting employees, but also the wider business. It is terrible for employee retention, and also when it comes to building an environment where workers trust you. And it isn’t just token employees that will have these perceptions and feelings, if your other workers see tokenism happening in their workplace they won’t just sit back and let it happen. Your work culture can be destroyed by tokenism.

Steps to take to avoid tokenism

  1. Diversity isn’t just a quota

What you need to remember, is that diversity isn’t simply a box ticking exercise. While diversity efforts are important and so are statistics, try not too focus too much on them. Don’t simply focus on hiring talent from underrepresented groups, but instead take a step back and see how you can make the entire hiring process more inclusive from the start. Ensure your job descriptions are inclusive and attractive to a diverse candidate pool, implement anti-bias hiring tools, and introduce a system that reduces bias when sifting through resumes.

2. Assess what your demographics currently look like in the workplace

While statistics shouldn’t the main focus, it’s important you understand where your organisation currently stands in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. You have to take a step back and assess what the demographics look like within your business before going full steam ahead. How do the demographics change as you move up the leadership ladder? Are all levels homogeneous, or are certain levels more homogenous than others? Understand the data and then assess what your employees think and feel. You can send out anonymous surveys that can give you information which people will be may less inclined to share if there are identifying factors.

3. Diverse Employees should be allowed to be decision-makers

Minorities are clearly underrepresented in leadership roles. This means that they aren’t usually present when decision are made, so if you give diverse talent at the table you’ll be including them in the conversation. Be mindful however of letting them be part of the whole decision making process, not simply be present when decision are made. If you include them in the conversation, you’ll be avoiding tokenism.

4. Employees should be forced to speak for their communities

In businesses that suffer from the tokenism phenomena, token employees are often forced into becoming spokespeople for underrepresented groups that they are part of. What your business needs to make sure its aware of, is that your employees are individuals first and foremost. The lived experience of one employee will not always reflect the experience of the group they are part of as whole. Make sure that you listen carefully to insights and employees from your employees and always avoid expressing negative or positive stereotypes attached to their underrepresented group. And most importantly, always ensure that a particular employee wants to be a spokesperson and feels comfortable doing so.

5. Don’t fake diversity

If your business isn’t as diverse as you would like it to be, it’s ok to acknowledge that. Displaying and publishing images that hint at diverse teams on social media channels and website when your teams don’t reflect that, is one of the worst things you can do. Being transparent about your DEI efforts will go a long way, while doing the opposite and positioning yourself as a diverse workplace will bring about backlash and contribute towards tokenism. Your diverse new hires will feel as though you lied to them during the hiring and onboarding process, which will have detrimental effects on your long-term working relationship with them.

What else can be done to avoid tokenism? Let us know in the comments.

Read more: 8 Reasons: Why Diversity and Inclusion is Key To The Success of Your Business (