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How To Build Safe And ‘PROUD’ Workplaces – A Personal Story

“Alignment begins with a constituency of one. These are the individuals whose substance is real, pure and nonnegotiable. They share their vulnerabilities and fears in complement to their strengths. They are comfortable weaving all parts of their lives together in an integrated way. Our level of effectiveness, contribution, and integrity of work and life are in direct correlation with our level of integration, self-actualization and total alignment of body, mind and spirit.”

From ‘Is This Seat Taken?: Random Encounters That Change Your Life’ by Kristin S. Kaufman

 

 

We have always been taught that we need to keep our work and personal lives separate. Switch off and switch on as needed. To a certain extent, that bifurcation of personal and professional is welcome. However, when it comes at the cost of having to hide our true selves, then maybe we need to reconsider if we are really building workplaces that provide ‘total alignment of body, mind, and spirit’ to our teams.

I have a unique insight into this problem. Early on in my career in the HR industry, I didn’t think it was important for me to come out at work. At that time, I don’t think I paid too much attention to why I felt that way. It is what we have been taught, right? Or perhaps, it was the strictly heteronormative structure of the workplaces that made me step back.

I let it pass for a long time, believing that it wasn’t crucial. Only later did I realize how much more productive I could have been if I didn’t constantly have to operate with a boundary between who I was and what I projected to the world.

Looking back, I now know exactly what I lacked at these workplaces.

 

As a conscious employee, I always made sure to join companies that had a D&I charter in place; with documented policies and growth metrics. In all of these places, however, the environment didn’t feel naturally inclusive, nor was the workplace even visibly that diverse to make someone from an underrepresented group feel comfortable to be themselves. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important to feel included – a reflection of our own selves in the environment around us.

 

Here are the few things that I think these places did wrong: 

  • The language used was never inclusive and had generally heteronormative preferences. There was no effort to make the workforce aware about the use of gender pronouns for example, and the ‘color’ of most water cooler conversation followed the same gender-binary boxes.
  • A few of the company charters lacked any mention of LGBTQ+ under the D&I umbrella. Then there was the other extreme consisting of a few global companies that had formulated policies for LGBTQ+ inclusion but didn’t actually follow this up with on-ground practices.
  • In terms of ‘inclusion’ there was focus only on gender diversity, and on employing women for certain roles. At one of the companies, where I led the D&I charter for my business unit, I tried to introduce the theme of LGBTQ+ inclusion by proposing to run an education and sensitization session for employees. When I ran a proposal past the top management team (incidentally, all men), I was asked –  what are the symptoms towards this?

At all these places, I saw firsthand what the lack of education and sensitization can create. Thankfully, I was also privy to the other side of the rainbow. A global company I worked at allowed me the opportunity to work very closely with the team in the UK, and that’s where I had my first real taste of inclusion. I led the D&I charter for India at this company, but I also could see how the role models we had in our UK team affected morale and workplace quality. I started coming out to a few people in the UK team, but I was still uncomfortable being out and proud with my Indian colleagues.

That’s when I decided that the next place I work at wouldn’t be the same.

 

With everything that I had learnt about myself at work, and in my personal journeys, I made my decision to come out at work, and lead from the front. When I joined HackerEarth in 2018, I was ready to champion the cause for LGBTQ+ inclusion from the front – as someone who belonged to the community and knew intimately the issues faced by us.

I wanted people to see people from the LGBTQ+ community as not being the one in ten, but as the one standing right next to them, talking to them about it. The one being me. I feel change happens faster when people hear the word ‘I / this is my story’ rather than when they are told that this is ‘their story’.

And this brings us to June, 2019.

 

In June 2019, during Pride Month, I felt like writing an email to our people, wishing them  on the occasion. It also felt like the right time to tell everyone that I belonged to the community and share my story with my work family. Our ‘My Story’ sessions started that way. With my story. Today, we use these sessions as an internal platform for everyone to share their stories, and open up to the bigger community.

D&I - HackerEarth - Pride Month
Snapshot from one of our recent internal Pride Month awareness sessions.

While it was a personal decision to come out at work, I know there were many other factors that contributed to me feeling comfortable doing it.

Let me enumerate them for you:

  • HackerEarth has an inherently non-judgmental culture. I think it comes from being a startup with young blood, but to me it felt like a big blanket of safety. Safe space is a big, big thing for people who come from marginalized communities, and want to put their voice forth.
  • Inclusion is at the heart of everything that we did as a company – from our product, to our HR policies, to our day-to-day. Inclusion is not set on the outside as a separate vertical, or mere metrics on a dashboard. The company approached D&I as an inherent part of its culture, allowing me to fit in and build it up inside-out, not outside-in. Of course, this is a bold, difficult approach, where you choose to go beyond just closing targets or quotas, or focus on numbers on your D&I dashboard. It is also the most impactful approach to solve the diversity hiring conundrum.
  • At HackerEarth, D&I is not just a good to-do, it is a must have. Non-negotiable. It’s not something we do as a one-off on special days – we believe in keeping the dialogue going, and in continuous investment. We invest in giving our people the correct language to use, in them what is ok, what is not. We ask them to call out behaviors that are not ok, and educate and sensitize others towards these behaviors. We believe in spending time, having a dialogue, educating people on ‘ally-ship’ and support – and not educating them only on the marginalized groups. In this company, Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility – not just a mandate for HRs, or the top management.
  • We also believe that inclusion is ‘personal’ ,and start the conversation from there. So that our people can understand their unconscious biases, be aware of it, and then learn how to manage these biases.

When you work at a company that has respect as one of its basic tenets, it’s easy to expand that umbrella to include aspects that we have been long taught to keep hidden. Knowing I would not be judged or ridiculed for my personal choices made it easier for me to come out at work, and bring my whole self to a job I absolutely enjoy doing.

 

In conclusion.

 

Having played that ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ game for a long time, I can tell you that it’s much easier when you don’t have to conceal your identity only to fit in. In order for that to happen, workplaces around the world – and in particular in countries like India where the conversation about gender norms is just beginning to bear fruit – need to become the safe spaces that employees are looking for. 

There is no one size fits all solution.

I can’t tell you to use a cookie-cutter mold and bake yourself a flawless D&I policy. As an HR professional, you need to find solutions that work for your team and in your particular context. I can, however, tell you that it begins with respect and acceptance, and grows with education and sensitization. With my experience, I can tell you that it is possible to build these workplaces, but it needs heart. And a lot of effort. 

The good thing is, what you get in return is so much more. You’re creating happy, accepting workplaces where employees can come in and feel welcome for being who they are. The more they are able to bring their whole selves to work, the happier they will be, and the more productive your company will be in return. 

That’s worth the effort, isn’t it?

Others

'Cultural transformation' and 'Inclusion' are a few of Swetha's favourite topics to talk about. Her personal style and approach come from the interest and passion that she shares for art and various forms of mind-body expression. She strongly believes in challenging the status quo, whether it is by standing on her head once every day (read yoga), or by leading an LBTQ+ support group in Bangalore (India) for the past 10+ years.

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