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Preventing Tokenism in the Workplace

Tokenism is the practice of making a symbolic effort to do what’s right, especially in a workforce, by hiring or recruiting candidates from underrepresented backgrounds to create a facade of sexual or racial equality. Janice Gassam Asare, Ph.D., founder of BWG Business Solutions and author of “Dirty Diversity” and “The Pink Elephant,” recently wrote an article about ways companies tokenize employees from historically underrepresented groups. Dr. Asare lists four ways organizations knowingly and unknowingly tokenize their employees:

  1. Company marketing and branding
  2. Symbolic diversity
  3. Lack of support
  4. Being the representative for your community.

Dr. Asare firstly listed that companies use marketing and branding within the workplace to tokenize employees. She said that a common tactic is having diversity on the website that doesn’t reflect the homogeneous makeup of the organization. Companies use this tactic to gain DEI clout. To combat this, Dr. Asare recommends reworking the hiring and selection processes to encourage diversity.

Symbolic diversity does not benefit historically underrepresented groups. It hinders the progression and liberation of these groups. Dr. Asare addressed the importance of children seeing people that look like them in positions of power, but emphasized that it can be harmful because people in those positions are “not immune to the lure of status and notoriety. She said that companies all too often hire individuals into these roles to “check the box.”

On top of symbolic diversity, some individuals that are hired into advanced roles just to portray diversity and equality inside an organization may not be ready for the position. The lack of support that often comes from check-the-box diversity can leave individuals of underrepresented groups out to dry. This can result in companies pulling back on DEI efforts because of the perceived failure of these individuals. Dr. Asare asked readers, “Are we giving employees the tools to not just liberate themselves but liberate others?”

Dr. Asare then mentions the tokenizing tactic of being the representative for your community. She urges us to see employees as more than their identified race and see them for their unique identities. Dr. Asare explains that not every individual from marginalized or underrepresented communities wants to take on the extra (and often unpaid) work of being the sole spokesperson for their respective communities. Asking these employees if they’re willing to take on this responsibility and considering if it will impact their career growth with the amount of time and energy it will take are two ways we can combat this form of tokenism.

Read Dr. Asare’s full article to better understand how companies tokenize underrepresented employees and ways to prevent it in the workplace. And to read more about how to be an ally, check out our recent blog on the subject.