The recent clamor for the entrenchment of Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity in the workplace is not without some inadequacies and unsavory practices being associated with some organization’s DEI strategies and programs. One of such practice is the idea of tokenism.  In this article, we intend to define tokenism, highlight the negative effects of tokenism and explain how organizations can avoid tokenism in its DEI efforts. So, let us explain what tokenism means.

Simply put, Tokenism in the workplace may be defined as a symbolic effort by a company to hire a small number of people who belong to a minority or underrepresented group, merely as a smokescreen to prevent criticism and give the public impression that they treat people equitably or justly.

It is worth noting that there is a huge difference between being diverse and working towards equity and inclusivity in an organization’s hiring process from seeming or appearing diverse. It is the latter that results in tokenism. Some organizations only make efforts to seem diverse to fit into the current DEI trend and check the diversity boxes. Some even go as far as having diversity strategies and programs mentioned only on the walls of their websites and the pictures splattered all over it, showing diverse employee groups and all, without imbibing diversity in its recruitment procedures and company programs.

The intention behind an organization’s DEI efforts is important in deciding whether the organization is engaging in tokenism or not. Most often than not, in instances where there is only one employee from an underserved or underrepresented minority within a group, it may be a case of tokenism. It may also reflect a company in the fledgling stage of its DEI efforts.

Tokenism has negative effects on employees and consequently also has far reaching implications for the organization too. One of the effects of tokenism is that the high visibility of token employees as compared to dominant employees often results in some sort of serious assumed or actual scrutiny. This leads to performance pressures on the token employee, which may cause imposter syndrome and the general anxiety or fear of making mistakes in the course of duty.

Another ill of tokenism is that token employees are often reported as feeling lonely and disconnected from the majority employees due to being from the numerical minority in the workplace. Watkins, Simmons and Umphress in a study reported that “Tokens are stereotyped by others and likely behave in stereotypical ways because they feel as though they need to act consistent with the assumptions that others have regarding their demographic background.”

On the whole, organizations can avoid tokenism in its DEI efforts by employing DEI strategies aimed at truly creating a diverse and inclusive workplace without paying mere lip-service to it. This can be achieved by ensuring that all hands are on deck within the organization to ensure that DEI efforts are effective and also create programs that allow progress to be measured from time to time. DEI initiatives must be such that all officials and employees are carried along. The Csuite cadre of the organization’s management will need to approve and be wholly involved in the company’s DEI efforts. Also, employees that represent the diversity of an organization should be given opportunities to be decision makers and not being merely made to be spokespersons for their underrepresented communities.

Tokenism can be avoided starting from the hiring process. This may be achieved by ensuring that the hiring process is inclusive, and the job descriptions appeal to diverse potential job candidates.