Well-intentioned or not: the impact of tokenism

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Well-intentioned or not: the impact of tokenism

Asking a select few people to speak on behalf of a whole demographic is called tokenizing. It can be well-intentioned, but is also deeply damaging.

Zachary Nunn

January 4, 2022 | 4 min read

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When George Floyd was murdered, my employer at the time reached out to me and a few of the other well-known Black employees, asking us whether we could lead support groups, answer questions, or sit on panels to talk about what had happened and what it meant for our community. We collectively declined.Throughout my career, I’ve experienced similar situations, asking me to go above and beyond, without thought about the cost to my own wellbeing.

Their stated intent was to provide a diverse perspective to worried employees and prompt an important discussion. However, their request demanded a level of emotional vulnerability that was inappropriate considering the lack of psychological safety of our work culture. Directly stated, the endeavor smacked of trauma tourism and was insulting.

Asking a select few people to speak on behalf of a whole demographic is tokenizing. Tokenism can often take the form of a misguided attempt to do something good (like consider things from the point of view of a marginalized group). It can also be a lazy tactic to avoid doing deeper research or to superficially “tick a box.” Either way, the end result is one person being asked to single handedly represent a whole, diverse group.

Tokenism is problematic because it simultaneously puts responsibility on the disempowered while letting those with power off the hook. Companies might hire a single person of color or LGBTQ+ person and pat themselves on the back, but that attitude stalls real progress toward equity and puts a huge strain on those employees to “represent” their group(s). 

Dr. Aneika Simmons of Sam Houston State University recently published an analysis of over 80 studies in the past 25 years on the effects of tokenism. She discovered that people who are in the minority at their workplace faced heavier scrutiny from both their managers and their peers. Unsurprisingly, they were also more likely to get burned out and be unhappy at work.

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How to avoid tokenism in the workplace

If your company isn’t as diverse as you’d like it to be and you want to bring diverse viewpoints to the forefront without risking tokenism, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Never think in terms of ticked boxes. If you’re aiming to hire more diversely and you hire some people of color or women, that doesn’t mean that you should shift your focus or relax your goals. In fact, you shouldn’t change your strategy at all. When companies fall into this mindset, they lose sight of the ultimate goal: being an equitable employer. That means keeping a growth mindset. It also means that new hires can focus completely on doing their job, without the pressure and disrespect that comes from being viewed as part of a quota.

Compensate people who do DEI work. On the other hand, sometimes employees do want to be involved in DEI work, or are at least open to it. They might get involved in mentorship, running employee resource groups or other internal programs, or putting on employee events. All of this is above and beyond the normal course of their work, yet many people who do put in the time are unrewarded.

According to LeanIn.Org’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, fewer than 25% of companies recognize DEI work with performance reviews, advancement, or compensation—despite 70% claiming to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Public recognition, financial benefits, and other incentives should all be standard practice for people who are putting in the extra time to make their workplace more inclusive. 

Look outside the company for diverse viewpoints. Bringing in guest speakers or expert consultants can help educate your team and broaden your company’s thinking without asking employees to go above and beyond. It’s also an effective way to live your diversity values.

In 2020, Momentive (called SurveyMonkey at the time), led a pledge from a group of tech companies to require diversity, equity, and inclusion from our biggest vendors. Companies who want to avoid tokenism should consider doing the same. Look for businesses owned by people from a historically marginalized group, with diverse employees, or with clear values of equity and inclusion.

Teach intersectionality. No one is one thing and one thing only. I am Black. I am a man. I’m straight. I’m neurodivergent. I’m a father. None of these things define me completely, but all of them are a real part of who I am. That’s what intersectionality means: understanding that everyone has layers to their identity and that you can’t assume that everyone from a specific group will have the same preferences, needs, or tendencies. Developing that mindset within the workplace by integrating the concept into professional development programs can help combat the tendency to tokenize.

As our CEO Zander Lurie has said on matters of organizational equity, “We need to fundamentally reimagine systems” to create a present and future of work where everyone is heard, understood, and belongs. That work rests on executive leaders, not those on the margins.

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