"Biggest Resistance Is In In Mind"

No one should feel discriminated against in any organisation based on gender, age, geography or ability, believes Suhas Athma, CHRO, EV Motors India.


A leader in human resource management, change-maker and multiple award-winning professional, Suhas Athma shares what steps have had visible and lasting impact on strengthening belongingness in companies and what is the way forward to ensure that inherent biases are shunned. Excerpts: 

What have been some of the novel initiatives in your organisation to ensure diversity and inclusion?

In any organisation, there should be a sense of belongingness for people across gender, age group, geographic location or ability. To reach this aim, we need better working conditions. We identify safe diversity zones in our organisation where everyone can talk about their problems, share concerns and build a network without any judgement.  

Besides, we look for leaders who have successfully challenged the status quo to address the HR department with inspirational stories. For example, we can have a top corporate leader who identifies as nonbinary to talk about their story. We have had specially-able IAS/IPS officers who have excelled in their fields to talk about their journey. 

Further, we launched monetary rewards when someone referred a candidate who could add to diversity. We were mindful of the same during campus hiring. 

We also launched the initiative ‘your baby not billability’ for women employees wherein we tied up with childcare centres and facilitated childcare allowance. Our ‘win-back’ policy was for women to join us after marriage, pregnancy or change of location wherein we gave them flexibility to work from home, hours, pick and drop facility. 

There is also a lateral movement policy for employees: giving them experience in other functions so that they get faster growth. 

What specific problem areas and challenges did you identify, like biases, that needed to be addressed?

Problems arise when people do not realise they are being offensive or prejudiced against their colleagues merely because of their sexual orientation/body type or race. To address this, we got on board Inner Katha Interventions, an alternative experiential learning company with a strong expertise in theatre-based corporate training and gender sensitisation. They worked with top management so that the changes could percolate top-down.  

Can you describe some of the policies and sensitisation programmes in this regard?

We want our people to bring their whole selves to work and not feel that there is a part of them they must hide. We recognised that a diverse partner pool can differentiate a company from competitors and also help capture new clients. 

We ensured that the identified talent has a designed career progression path and is exposed to senior executives who spend significant time advising and mentoring them. In a unique HR policy, 20 per cent of the bonus KPI is linked to diversity hires.

There are intense sensitisation campaigns for leadership teams. Following them, there is no tolerance for snide comments or judgement based on appearance, sexual orientation, race or age. Comments like “you are as old as my father/mother” or “you will not be able to participate in this activity due to your age” are taken very seriously.

Did you meet resistance at any level?  

The resistance is only in our mind. We don’t want to recognise our subconscious bias. A positive change in the mindset is the biggest support we can get and a refusal to break biases is the biggest resistance. 

The management promptly supported all training programmes for employees. We also have annual networking events where people from other parts of the world share their experiences and we see the kind of inclusivity that comes naturally to another part of the world.

What has been the impact of the initiative/s taken?  

Strengthening the pillars of diversity—infrastructure, networking and empowerment—is a continuous process. We need regular initiatives like targeted training, leadership development, and workshops to maintain the impact. 

Our goal is to increase representation of diverse categories in our workforce across all levels, especially in business functions. 

From 2-3 per cent diversity hires in senior management to 15 per cent in one year, the impact of these initiatives has been incredible. In middle and junior management, the surge has been tremendous from 2-5 per cent to 48 per cent over the same period. 

In the telecom industry, we saw a rise in the number of women entrepreneurs because of our drive to promote them.

What is the way forward for more diverse and inclusive workplaces?  

The responsibility of companies does not stop at hiring women or the specially-able or people from the LGBT communities to meet their diversity, equity and inclusion numbers. They need to build career paths for such talent. There should be leadership programmes for employees on business acumen and internal management development programmes. 

To attract the best global talent, we need to design inclusion policies specifically as recruitment and retention tools, helping to broaden the pool of talent and also helping to build an employment brand that is seen as fully inclusive.

(The interview appeared in the August issue of BW People publication)

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