Swetha Harikrishnan talks about Diversity and Inclusion: I identify as bisexual in my personal life. In the initial stages of my career, I never actively went out of my way to quell any doubts about my sexual orientation. I also didn’t actively venture to correct colleagues when they used binary-specific pronouns, or said something off-colour.
Let’s get started with two examples!
Example 1: While working as an HR Lead at an MNC, I decided to create a women-only group to discuss diversity and inclusion policies. Sometime later, we invited men to the group because excluding them from the conversation didn’t feel right. Immediately, I saw the women recoil and take a backseat. What was once a safe space, had become another example of marginalisation.
Example 2: At one of the companies where I headed the D&I division, I asked my superiors for permission to include LGBTQ-friendly policies in our charter. The response I received was, “We don’t see any symptoms of this among our employees. We don’t need this.” Symptoms! As if I was talking of a disease. Of course this was pre-377 being abrogated and I did expect some amount of resistance. However, for leaders of a global company to spout such wisdom was beyond my comprehension.
The above examples clearly epitomize what the word ‘inclusion’ means to me
In the last fifteen years of my career in the HR industry, I have seen first-hand how the understanding of ‘inclusion’ has changed in India. We started with the notion that inclusion and diversity meant only having a higher percentage of women in our workforce. An inclusive workforce makes space for more than just the gender binary workforce, though.
Inclusion to me means being respectful of cultural, ethnic, racial, political, and gender differences. (I could add more to that list, but let’s work with this for now!). It also means allowing for difference of thought and opinion, and creating safe spaces for everyone to have a voice. See example 1.
An inclusive workforce makes space for more than just the gender binary workforce, though.
My work as an HR leader has hinged upon these two principles. D&I has always been a topic close to my heart, and creating safer, inclusive workplaces has been the prime agenda of my career.
The road wasn’t always easy though
I identify as bisexual in my personal life. In the initial stages of my career, I never actively went out of my way to quell any doubts about my sexual orientation. I also didn’t actively venture to correct colleagues when they used binary-specific pronouns, or said something off-colour. Looking back, I realise how the highly heteronormative culture at these organisations stopped me from opening a dialogue around gender inclusion. See example 2.
It wasn’t just me though. I noticed how this ‘traditional’ work culture negated innovation. Employees were often afraid of voicing opinions and not toeing the line. It was only when I started working with a UK-based telecom company, that I realised it was okay to bring my whole self to work, every single day. That while it’s healthy to differentiate your personal from your professional, it does not mean you should have to hide your identity, or your thoughts, just to fit in.
It was only when I started working with a UK-based telecom company, that I realised it was okay to bring my whole self to work, every single day.
Working at this company gave me the confidence to start coming out to small, trusted groups of people. As an HR Lead, I volunteered to amplify the D&I policies for our business, and started the company’s LGBTQIA+ charter for India. I also decided then that wherever I went next, I would begin with a clean slate and not hide my identity anymore.
That’s when I found HackerEarth
Walking into the HackerEarth office in Bangalore, I saw a sign that read “Don’t Be An Asshole”. One of HackerEarth’s core mantras is this – we accept and respect you for who you are, and not just because you ‘confirm’ to tradition. My gut told me that this was somewhere I could fit in, and be my authentic self.
I decided to come out to my colleagues in June of 2019, during Pride Month. I typed up a heartfelt email titled ‘My Story’ and sent it to the whole org, also making sure that anyone who wanted to come out, or know more about the community knew they could reach out to me. The email started a new trend within the company. We now hold regular ‘My Story’ sessions where we talk about allyship, gender pronouns, the ‘binary’ buckets, and related topics.
My tenets for diversity and inclusion
As I have said before, diversity and inclusion comes from respecting, and allowing for differences. In my personal capacity, I always endeavour to:
- Hold conversations with BU leaders to ensure cognizance and removal of unconscious biases.
- Foster a top-down approach towards D&I in the workplace. I believe inclusion depends on the senior leaders of the company and I encourage hiring managers to choose teammates that are smarter than them, so they can work outside of our similarity biases.
- Approach situations from a ‘human-first’ principle. This comes from acknowledging that everyone is different – in their opinions, preferences, and their personal definitions of success.
- Ensure that I, and my team, don’t fall into the trap of inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Metrics can be restrictive, so we are always aware of how they impact the larger cultural changes we set out to create.
- Make sure that I don’t exclude anyone by becoming too ‘inclusive’. I would like more representation from the LGBTQIA+ community, but not to the point where I become blind to others. HR leaders who think diversity is only about filling up the ‘women-only’ quota should rethink if their narrow focus on a certain segment is alienating other sections of the workforce.
HR leaders who think diversity is only about filling up the ‘women-only’ quota should rethink if their narrow focus on a certain segment is alienating other sections of the workforce.
At the end, it all boils down to Respect
I make mistakes using neutral pronouns for non-binary friends, sometimes. I hope they know it wasn’t intentional, and that I’m always trying to learn and grow.
Culture, diversity, inclusion – my approach to these subjects is influenced by my personal journey, but I have learnt that one doesn’t necessarily have to go through the same path in order to create a safe workplace. As long as you have respect and have empathy for the person across the table from you, and a willingness to address your own shortcomings, you can work from there and create a happier and safer work environment for your team.
Swetha Harikrishnan, HR Director at HackerEarth. The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of SheThePeople.