Updated: Jun 12
Tokenism may start well intentioned for promoting a more diverse workplace, but it often generates destructive consequences. Employers must take extra care to hire and manage employees from historically excluded and underrepresented groups with sensitivity and practical approaches to ensure they function productively and benefit emotionally in the office environment.
Who is a token?
Almost anyone can be a token hire on some level. In theory, social science researchers define a token as an employee in a historically excluded and underrepresented group that constitutes less than 15% of the entire population in a particular workplace. Organizations might select from a wide spectrum of diverse backgrounds, ranging from age, culture, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity to gender, sexual orientation and disabilities.
Tokens can be introduced in various contexts, such as education, corporate boards or cultural and media productions. Think of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the first female tenured law professor at Columbia in 1972 — although she protested, "I know I am not just a token … I will be the first of many women professors the law school will have." Elsewhere, ABC News Australia reported that in 2020, there was only one Indigenous senior manager in that country's TV news industry.
Tokenism manifests when organizations focus on a new hire's identity to be able to fulfill diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) expectations. A homogeneous operation may also try to appear inclusive by promoting one or two representatives from historically excluded and underrepresented groups. It may take those initiatives to present itself as equitable, to deflect criticism or simply to meet a diversity quota. The core of the problem is that without actual inclusion, diversity becomes a superficial solution. Frequently, those in high executive positions may still lack a voice or wield any influence.
The pain of tokenism
A tokenized employee is vulnerable to misbegotten effects. They may experience heightened attention from colleagues and business associates, which translates into unwelcome pressures. Before long, they feel more isolated than ever, separated and distant from the group. That group meanwhile goes on to associate the lone token with unfortunate stereotypes.
The psychological strain of representing a certain identity, such as race or gender, may become uncomfortable. It is a heavy responsibility to represent one's race or culture. As a result, the employee may grow more defensive. The concept of intersectionality teaches us that everybody's identity is composed of various layers; individuals from the same historically excluded or underrepresented group normally have quite different needs and preferences.
All this negative fallout risks imposter syndrome. Tokenized employees start to believe their success has not been legitimately earned, which is demotivating. Therefore, it is key for employers to leverage diversity efforts with inclusivity so all workers feel respected and valued.
Stereotyping prompts inappropriate behaviors. For example, in a male work group that includes only one woman, the men might even expect this sole woman to graciously take notes, bring in little snacks or give time to plan celebrations and events.
A host of emotional symptoms, including depression, stress, and depersonalization verging on burnout can afflict token employees. The burden falls on the disempowered token, who feels unfairly helpless, while the empowered employer is earning virtue points for effort.
A starting game plan
Overcoming tokenism is a difficult challenge. Ironically, it might be misperceived, depending on the employer's intention, and may signal emerging DEI initiatives rather than a lapse. Diversity hiring per se may not be the whole answer. It's better to stay alert to all broad options encompassing diversity in finding the ideal job candidate. Ask critical questions about how your diverse hires are contributing. Big ideas? Compelling presentations? New initiatives? Provide them with a real seat at the table to elevate them beyond figurehead status.
Collect feedback with the help of FIC Human Resource Partners' Nuance Culture Surveys, run seminars and workshops with the help of FIC Human Resource Partners' Nuance Culture Academy, and encourage your tokenized employees to build relationships across the organization. Compensate them for the extra time spent on DEI activities like employee resource groups. Managers set the tone to guide the whole team to engaging in inclusive behavior.
Reach out to the FIC Human Resource Partners' Nuance Culture Consulting team for assistance planning culture improvement initiatives around inclusive and equitable hiring processes.