group of people sitting on chair in front of brown wooden table

Tokenism is a band-aid attempting to conceal a vast, gaping wound. It’s a start, but if we truly want to heal what is ailing society today, it will take more than slapping on a symbolic gesture and getting back to business. To truly advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, every leader must do their part to disrupt history and take actionable steps to effect authentic and positive change.

This begins by embarking on a journey of understanding. 

Understanding how diversity and inclusion in the workplace are much deeper than simple tokenism. Understanding how fostering an inclusive workplace can lead to sustainable success. Understanding who is affected by transformative DEI initiatives. And, most importantly, understanding how to spark meaningful change. 

This is where a DEI consultant comes in. An expert consultant can guide leaders through crafting and deploying effective diversity and inclusion policies that transcend tokenism in the workplace and build authentic and sustainable organizational transformation.

What is Tokenism in the Workplace and Why Isn’t it Working?

The first step on the journey toward overcoming tokenism in the workplace is to gain a deeper understanding of what tokenism is and isn’t. 

Tokenism describes symbolic gestures or superficial efforts toward advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) rather than committing to authoritative, meaningful change. Tokenism in the workplace may involve hiring or promoting a small number of employees who are either minorities or members of an underrepresented group. 

In essence, it serves to improve the organization’s public image or comply with legal requirements rather than truly advancing DEI efforts. This is a travesty because, while tokenism may appear to be a step in the right direction, it actually fails to address the root causes of systemic disparities and marginalization. Although it may increase the visible representation of groups typically passed over or ignored, it also perpetuates the harmful stereotype that a token promotion or hire is somehow less competent or deserving, regardless of their qualifications and abilities.

It is important for leaders to recognize tokenism for what it is — an inadequate approach to creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. No matter what its original intent was, the devastating truth is that tokenism fails to address the deep-rooted issues plaguing workplaces (and society). If we don’t dig deeper, we will remain powerless to create significant change. 

The Devastating Toll of Tokenism on Employee Well-Being 

As a leader, you have made the conscious decision to embark on a journey toward advancing DEI in the workplace. It’s important to acknowledge the significant weight of that decision because organizational transformation begins at the top. Your efforts and the behaviors you demonstrate going forward will inspire your team as, together, you build meaningful change, one moment, decision and individual at a time. 

Now the real work begins.  

Before diving into the practical strategies you can deploy to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, it’s important to understand why tokenism is a travesty.

Individualization, Not Isolation

Token employees are not blind to the reasons why they were promoted or hired. Rather than feeling proud of the unique talents and perspectives they bring to the table, they are viewed as someone hired or promoted simply to “check a box” or prove that DEI efforts have been initiated.

This sense of being chosen for who they represent rather than who they are can construct invisible barriers. It is incredibly challenging to overcome these feelings, especially when someone doesn’t look or think like their peers. Often, this leads to feelings of self-doubt, isolation and disconnection. 

Skewed Standards and Heightened Expectations

When an employee has been chosen to represent an entire group, it intensifies the pressure to perform to the highest standards, oftentimes unfairly and unjustly. A token employee is under constant scrutiny, and it’s inevitable that the bright spotlight will ultimately dim their abilities and perspectives that would shine through in other circumstances. It may also unfairly illuminate human error as a perceived failure resulting from their status as a minority or member of an underrepresented group.

Regardless of how they are viewed, a token employee’s goal was simply to follow their passion and succeed in their chosen career. The additional burden of embodying diversity for the organization is one they should not be expected to bear. 

Breaking through Stereotypes and Prejudices

The challenge of navigating unfair expectations and inaccurate stereotypes can seem insurmountable when an employee is selected solely based on the group they represent. They face preconceived notions that are hard to shake, regardless if they are based on fact or fiction. 

Tokenism can play out in many ways. An employee may be assigned tasks based on assumptions rather than abilities. Often, their expertise or competence is called into question or doubted, for no other reason than prejudiced expectations. A unique perspective may be challenged without a factual basis simply because it goes against the norm.

The DEI industrial complex often fails to address these deeply ingrained biases. Tragically, this negatively impacts the morale and performance of token employees, which ultimately halts growth for the entire organization.

5 Strategies to Authentically Advance DEI in the Workplace

Now that you’ve gained a deeper understanding of why tokenism is a travesty in the workplace, it’s time to implement DEI initiatives that will create meaningful change. 

Following are five key strategies for advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace that have been successfully deployed by leaders worldwide. These techniques for combating tokenism in the workplace have worked for them, and they will work for you, too.

1. A Shift in Mindset Sparks Culture Change

It is overwhelmingly difficult for individuals to initiate change if they do not understand why it is essential and how it will affect others. In order to move beyond tokenism, DEI efforts must begin within. Speak from the heart as you foster widespread awareness of the existence of tokenism and its negative impact.

Engage with your employees and educate them on the importance of DEI in the workplace. Demonstrate why it is intrinsically good and how making strident efforts in this area will positively impact the entire organization. When you spark belief in others, it will become contagious, quickly spreading to coworkers, clients and the surrounding community. 

Guide your team into exploring the moral and social importance of diversity. Rather than focusing solely on the business case for eliminating tokenism, it is vital to encourage a genuine commitment to equity and inclusion across the board. 

It is an incredible feeling to notice a shift in the mindsets of employees as you raise awareness of the ethical implications of tokenistic practices and promote the inherent value of diversity. Before you know it, you will have created diversity and inclusion policies that prioritize sustainable and successful DEI transformation.

2. Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace Begins at the Top

Leading by example is the most effective way to create real and lasting change. When an organization’s leadership is committed to sourcing and developing talent from diverse backgrounds, it sets the stage for a culture of inclusivity. Your dedication as a trailblazer in authentic DEI efforts that go far beyond simple tokenism will inspire your team to follow your lead. It is crucial to actively participate in initiatives, establish clear diversity and inclusion policies, goals and objectives and hold yourself and your team accountable for progress.

By prioritizing DEI and crafting permanent structures for change, you demonstrate to your team that advancing diversity and inclusivity in the workplace is an important part of your strategic plan and integral to the organization’s success. 

Disrupt systemic inequities that have been the status quo for far too long. This level of transformation doesn’t happen overnight but with commitment, heart, and resolve, you can initiate meaningful change that will contribute to a more inclusive and equitable environment.

3. Build Inclusivity from the Ground Up

Leaders who wholeheartedly believe in diversity’s moral and social importance and are committed to advancing DEI efforts in the workplace foster a culture where every employee feels valued and respected. This deep commitment will inspire employees and may even carry over into their values and actions outside of work.  

You can demonstrate your dedication by developing diversity and inclusion policies and nurture a sense of belonging for everyone, regardless of their background. It is also important to open the lines of communication and invite profound conversations around biases and stereotypes. If an issue that hinders DEI efforts arises, address it fairly and expeditiously.  

Lastly, ensure that you have an overarching DEI strategy in place. It should be well-documented, thoughtful and more comprehensive than what is required to comply with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws. As part of this strategy, institute organizational standards that make DEI integral to its structure and hold leaders, employees and yourself accountable.

Your targeted and genuine focus on DEI initiatives will build the strong foundation needed to initiate lasting change and cultivate an inclusive environment where every employee is celebrated for who they are, not what they represent.

4. Hire for Expansion not Obligation

A significant area of DEI focus for leaders should be the hiring process. By creating comprehensive and equitable recruitment policies that organically attract diverse talent, leaders can begin to effect real change. Transitioning from fitting a quota to “culture-add” will eliminate tokenism and emphasize the value of each individual’s unique perspectives.

Increasing diversity within your team will increase opportunities for innovation, and you and your employees will be able to expand your horizons as you learn from each other’s experiences. 

5. Transcend Tokenism with an Expert DEI Consultant and Keynote Speaker

The greatest leaders recognize that they can’t do it alone. When striving to transcend tokenism and create authentic diversity in the workplace, engaging the support and guidance of a DEI consultant or keynote speaker is the right choice. An expert can offer varied perspectives and conduct engaging sessions to educate and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in the workplace.

Bringing in a consultant allows you to maximize your efforts and resources and achieve the best possible outcome. A DEI expert can identify areas where, despite your best intentions, tokenism is occurring and provide suggestions for building a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

It is critical to demonstrate to employees that you do not condone racism in any form and that you are taking actionable steps to eliminate any instance of it from your organization. Every possible chance you can be an ally, take it. This includes not letting any employee (or client) get away with off-color jokes and supporting BIPOC team members by ensuring they have a voice and a seat at the table. 

As a leader, your strident efforts will cultivate an inclusive culture of learning and activism where every employee is treated equitably. 

The Future of Work is Diverse and Inclusive

You have the ultimate and incredible responsibility to build your organization’s culture into one that values DEI in the workplace. When you make the thoughtful decision to honor the unique perspectives and experiences that diverse employees bring to the table, you will craft an environment where every unique ability, background and individual is celebrated.

Be the trailblazing leader your team needs and deserves. 

By engaging the guidance and support of an expert DEI consultant and following the strategies outlined above, you can create growth and sustainable success for your organization and contribute to worldwide change.