Strive for a “better normal”

29 June, 2020

A case for why our new world should be more diverse, equitable and inclusive

Over the last few weeks, we have seen protests sweep across the world. Many companies too, have raised their voices to condemn racism. Some companies have changed the names of their products or dropped some products, like fairness creams, altogether. People are realising that there is more than one pandemic affecting us. It is clear that consumers and employees are looking for real actions and real changes in the workplace and beyond. Mere platitudes just won’t cut it anymore. We need to flatten many curves.

As we wrap up Pride month,  it is critical for us to have a comprehensive approach to forge diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m delighted that my dear friend and colleague, Parmesh Shahani has authored this week’s post. Parmesh, who heads the Godrej India Culture Lab, has played a key role in helping make not just Godrej, but India, more inclusive. His second book, Queeristan, LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, will be out in September this year. In this book, he will make a persuasive case that when you are inclusive, you are not doing a favour to LGBTQ people, you are actually doing a favour to your own selves.

Please read on…

I had a very different plan originally on how I would spend Pride Month 2020. It was going to be a month in which the revised edition of my first book Gay Bombay came out at the beginning, and then the month would end with the publication of my new book Queeristan. It was a month in which my plane travel was booked – I was going to fly from city to city across India, and also to other cities outside India, for this whirlwind tour.

All of this had to change – Gay Bombay did come out as an ebook, but we have now shifted Queeristan’s release to September. Instead of plane hopping, I have in the middle of all the multiple Gay Bombay Instagram lives, been pivoting the Culture Lab to an online-only space and doing the same with the Godrej Leadership Forum (GLF) conference. I have also spent a large part of this Pride Month having conversations within our Group and also doing webinars with companies who want to talk about LGBTQ issues. I want to share some of my thoughts with regards to these conversations.

The first thing I tell everyone is that it is vital that companies keep their eye on the inclusion ball in a post-COVID scenario. You tell me, what is going to help companies like our Godrej in a post-COVID world? Companies will have to learn how to be innovative, and innovative not just in the products or services that we will be offering, but also innovative in how we offer these products and services. We will also have to be innovative in being able to pivot if something is not working. Where is this innovation going to come from? From our people, right?

As I told People Matters in an interview, all the research says that companies that have more diverse and inclusive workforces are more innovative. So I think it’s more and more evident that if we want to be able to innovate in uncertain markets, we need to have a wide range of people. This holds true not just for companies but also for cities and countries at large. A recent World Economic Forum post notes, “a strong positive correlation exists between LGBT+ inclusion and economic resilience.”

It is LGBTQ Pride Month, and my interest is in queer inclusion, so this is something that I can speak about more confidently. Still, my argument would apply to every dimension of diversity – gender, age, caste, religious background, disability and so on. How can you innovate if everyone around the table looks and sounds the same as you? You won’t be able to know there is a market that is waiting to be served. If your team comprises only men, how will you know what the experience is like being a woman in a post-COVID world? If you are all straight, how will you know the difficulties of being a queer person at this time? If everyone in your team is able-bodied, how will you know how difficult is it for someone who is in a wheel-chair or visually challenged to access a Zoom call or a WebEx meeting in a world where every meeting is now happening online?

Who knows – maybe there are tremendous market opportunities for us at Godrej, which we do not even see because we may not have diverse enough teams?  Smart companies today are the ones realizing that they need a wide range of people, and they are upping their diversity and inclusion strategies. The future will belong to smart companies who will be able to use this moment to reimagine themselves and #emergestronger, as Nisa Godrej has been exhorting us to do. I believe that we cannot emerge stronger without having much more diverse teams across Godrej. So going forward, we will have to think of diversity as fundamental to our people strategy, and not just a nice cherry on the cake!

Since it is Pride Month, I want to emphasize that for companies like ours, who are committed to LGBTQ rights, it is not just gestures we make during Pride Month that count. It is a comprehensive set of things that we need to do all the time. From basic policies of non-discrimination to partner benefits to transition support, we already have all of these, and we should be talking about these all through the year. Employees value companies more when they commit to them for the long haul.

There are two other vital things. The first here is actual jobs. All our well-meaning measures are going to be of no use if it doesn’t translate into us actively going out to hiring more queer people. There are multiple ways to do so – whether from job fairs (now virtual instead of physical), or upfronting or signalling our queer friendliness in all our online job postings, but this is something we need to do. We simply need to hire more queer people and especially trans people who at this point are most affected by COVID 19, so making these hires would be good business sense as well as right from a social welfare perspective.  Progressive companies like McKinsey and the Lalit Group of Hotels have done this well, to their advantage. Otherwise, we will remain a company with good intentions but not so good crystallization of these intentions into practice. If you want to hire more queer people at Godrej, please do work with Shefali Kohli and her excellent diversity team, as well as me. We have all the resources and connections you will need to get you started.

The second is allyship – LGBTQ inclusion is not something that just LGBTQ employees need to get behind. It is something that matters to all of us at Godrej – including all the straight well-wishers. Vivek asking me to write this post is itself an act of allyship. Things like what Pride Circle have been doing with the 21DaysAllyChallenge are vital, building momentum around what it means to be a good supporter of LGBTQ issues. The challenge is almost over but please see the archive here – lots of useful resources to leverage.

I want to end this post with a simple message. Can we please stop calling this the ‘new normal’? I don’t want the new normal; quite frankly, I wouldn’t say I liked the old normal as it was. I wrote my upcoming book Queeristan because I didn’t like the old normal. Instead, I want to create an alternative, positive, better world, so maybe we can start thinking of it as a ‘better normal’ that we can all create?  To me, a better normal would be one which is more inclusive, and one which is more intersectional, in which one recognizes that our challenges are interconnected and that the solutions to these are also often interlinked.

It is evident that being more inclusive increases a company’s profitability, improves innovation, and helps society at large. So to me, it will be a better normal when all of us at Godrej recognize that win-win scenarios such as the one outlined above are indeed possible, and we commit ourselves to walking the inclusion talk, not just with goodwill gestures but with deep purposeful intent.

Many thanks to Parmesh for sharing his very thought provoking perspectives.

These conversations are particularly critical – and precious – at a time when across the globe, people are introspecting and recommitting to fundamental principles of equality and respect. Many of these shifts are coming generations too late, so we have a lot of catching up to do to build for our “better normal”, as Parmesh calls it. Companies like ours have the reach, resources and commitment to help make real change possible. And at Godrej, we owe it to our legacy of inclusion, to do so.

If you have any personal reflections to share, or suggestions, do write in and share them.


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