Are you championing Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in your organization? Do you want to know why a D&I initiative didn’t meet expectations? Are you keen to explore nonconventional sensitization methods? For insightful answers rooted in ground realities, Neelam Jain is the person to turn to.
Neelam is the founder of PeriFerry, a Bengaluru-based organization that helps LGBTQIA+ community members find jobs and earn a livelihood.
After a short professional stint with Goldman Sachs, Neelam launched PeriFerry three years ago to make a difference for the transgender community. While her core focus is on creating equal opportunities for transgenders in India, the work on sensitization extends to the entire LGBTQIA+ sector.
Neelam shares with me her views on what D&I encompasses, why investing in D&I makes social and business sense, the roadblocks that organizations face while implementing D&I initiatives and what it takes to sensitize the workplace.
D&I has become more prominent in the corporate sector in the last few years. What does it mean to you?
D&I really brings out the human part in business. It has done wonders for people across geographies, religions, age, gender and sexual orientation who were left out of the mainstream. Organizations are shifting their approach from “we want to recruit only graduates” to “let’s recruit people who can make a difference to the organization”. Senior leaders realize that the human potential value is sometimes beyond education and numbers.
D&I is good for the organization. One of our clients measured what happened before and after D&I recruitments. When they had only people coming from certain institutions, largely male professionals working in a particular department versus when they hired a mixed group including transgender, persons with disabilities and women who were not supported by their families, they saw a 40 percent increase in productivity. Isn’t that amazing?
Many corporates are taking concrete steps to develop their D&I policies. Your thoughts?
Although the policies are well-intentioned, Indian companies are just directly lifting them from the parent company overseas. That doesn’t work. For example, the LGBT community experiences in the US are very different from what happens in India. You have to get your teams here to understand the ground realities. This is why we tell companies to hold on to their change in paperwork. First explore it on field like a startup, observe what’s happening and then go back and apply it across the organization.
But because D&I is considered a special activity that you do apart from your day-to-day work, it becomes a roadblock. If I’m not allocated the time and money for localization, I’m not going to do it.
Could you share examples of challenges organizations face when implementing D&I projects?
Every organization’s challenges are different. For example, a corporate perceived D&I simply as numbers. For example, “this year’s agenda is to recruit 200 transgender people”. As a next step, they shared this information with the relevant teams but never instilled sensitivity about it among their managers and entry-level employees who had no idea why their leadership was recruiting transgender people. Obviously, things didn’t go the way the company expected because when people from a D&I initiative come into an environment that doesn’t holistically understand who they are, doesn’t call them by the right pronouns, isn’t even aware that they don’t have a home, then they drop out. And the company feels, “there’s no point in investing in this. This project is a failure. Let’s call it off.”
But it’s not a failure because of the community, it’s a failure because we put the numbers before the people.
The answer lies in solving that “why” across the organization. Why do we need to recruit 200 people from the trans community? How are we impacting them, how can each of us support them? Alongside, make visual cues, put up posters, banners, slogans to make the community feel valued and that their work matters. Also, you have to engage the workforce in volunteering activities with a body that works with the community. You need to keep learning about it on ground.
How do employees entering through a D&I initiative perceive the organization?
It’s a very difficult position for them. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They just hope it goes well. Because no matter how much anyone else tells them things like, “we’ll sensitize our people, we have policies in place, we have the right bathrooms for you,” they’ve lived through so much trauma that they just feel they are not going to be treated well.
So, we have to constantly reinforce: “You’re equal, not special.” It takes time, but you’ll see results. They’re the ones who didn’t have anything before, but when an organization gives them that respect and value, they’re so loyal and committed.
How does PeriFerry work with companies to recruit from the LGBTQIA+ community?
We identify, source and screen trans community members. Post screening, we offer residential training programs to give technical training in a changed environment. Then depending on their aspirations, we match them with jobs. Even a 30-40 percent match is fine. We sensitize the workplace, ensure that the closest team is aware and understands. Post placement follow up is the most crucial period.
For overall sensitization, apart from regular workshops, we create “experience zones”. It’s like a carnival for a day in the premises of a company. We put up stalls, theater programs, exhibitions on things we think are central to D&I. Everything is done in a fun, entertaining way so that people learn without really feeling like it’s something they’re obliged to learn. And honestly, people do want to learn and understand. A lot of them feel awkward about it when it is taught traditionally in a classroom. So, we put them with people from the community and make them play games together. There are no barriers then.
Apart from recruitment, which are some of the other ways organizations can engage with the LGBTQIA+ community?
There’s a lot of corporate social responsibility work they can do vis-a-vis LGBT communities. For example, there are hardly three to four shelter homes in the country for the trans community. Thousands of them are just living on the streets. Companies can make a big impact through funding them, giving food supplies, sending volunteers to these shelter homes, or helping set them up.
A message for senior leaders of leading organizations…
If you want D&I to become a part of your organizational DNA, then you need to think about it every day and start applying it in your work—whether it’s a call, a text or an e-mail. It has to be a habit. And once you have your plans in place, implement them quickly so that you achieve the desired outcomes.
This interview story was published at Accenture’s Vaahini platform.