With changing work dynamics, Indian corporations are now prioritising diversity and inclusion. However, according to Sonica Aron, founder and MD of Marching Sheep, inclusion is about much more than just creating a more diverse workplace.

Research by Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) revealed that one out of 4 people dreaded going to work in India. Reason being they don’t feel respected regarding diversity and inclusion. Further the study also found that firms have lost $223 billion from their turnovers due to culture-related issues in over five years.

However, in recent years, the HR policies have placed a greater emphasis on workforce diversity and inclusion. Taking this into consideration, Sonica Aron founded Marching Sheep, an HR consulting firm, in 2013. “Intent is to make a tangible difference to peoples’ lives and careers and to drive respect and equality for all,” she says. Her firm is one of the few agencies in India to drive LGBTQ inclusions and policy frameworks with different companies.

Aron strongly emphasises that diversity at the workplace is good for business and its growth. “But it took a lot of conversations, research, dialogue for organisations to realise the need for Inclusion and equity,” she adds as she discusses various aspects of diversity, equality and inclusion at the workforce in a discussion with SME Futures.

Edited excerpts  

Gender issues have been debated for so long. Yet they are there, what’s your take.

In my last two decades in the industry, I have seen the narrative around gender inclusion evolve. When I had joined the industry, there was no active intentional con`versation around it. While there were women working in the workforce and getting hired, even in the best of organisations and multinationals, there was no strategy or plan or policies or processes to drive the agenda.

POSH did not exist back then, Vishakha guidelines did…but hardly anyone was aware about them. There were no awareness sessions, like we have now. Then, slowly, came the realisation that having women in the workforce makes business sense and many companies received top-down targets to recruit women.

Seen as an HR target, recruitment teams got into action, specific roles got identified in the organisations which were perceived to be women friendly as per gender norms and recruitment started. There was no effort to establish a culture that was inclusive, a culture where a diverse workforce could thrive and grow. And that’s why, despite all the efforts, you still find that there are few women at the leadership levels. The question to ask is- where did all those women who were recruited from 2005/2006 onwards go?

What did happen though, this agenda which should have been a business agenda, got slotted as an HR agenda, and was seen as something good to do, with female employees often type casted as ‘diversity candidates’.

It took time, a lot of conversations, research, dialogue for organisations to realise the need for Inclusion and equity and a more holistic approach toward driving gender inclusion.

Today many organisations have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) embedded in their business strategy and are addressing it from a cultural and mindset perspective, policy and process perspective, as well as a number of women in the workforce perspective but not in is type casted roles. Today women are being seen in all kinds of industries and roles- be it sales, manufacturing, infrastructure, finance, operations and other hitherto typically male dominated roles.

The progress has been slow and there have been setbacks. The pandemic, the lockdown, the added burden of managing household and work from home did see a lot of women take a back seat. This in itself is an eye opener that all responsibility does not lie with the organisations. a lot has to be done at the societal end as well. We need to change the way husbands, mothers-in law, fathers-in law think and expect from a woman and we need to enable our employees to be able to handle both ends of the world.

So, the journey needs to continue, dialogue, conversations for change need to continue. Every step forward is progress. We can lament about how little has changed or switch gears and accelerate change where we can.

As an advocate of diversity in workplaces, what are the issues that workplaces often ignore, but in the long run they can have impacts?

Often organisations believe that driving DEI is HR responsibility and can be driven through policies. On the contrary, it is simple and small things that make big impact and Managers play a critical role. Building managerial capability to build inclusion is something which will be critical factor for success in 2022 for all organisations, big or small.

It is important to know your people. And here every manager plays a critical role. Every manager needs to have authentic conversations with their team members to understand how they are unique, not just by gender, but by work experience, though processes, way of working, life stage, career aspirations and so on. Based on this understanding, a manager can plan work allocation, how to give feedback, plan career growth journeys and ensure every individual feels valued and included irrespective of differences.

Small actions, like inviting a quite person to speak in team meetings, encouraging them to speak each time till they get comfortable, making sure that no one in the team gets left out on Fridays after office parties, making sure lunch table conversations are neutral and do not isolate any one…. These need to be done with intent and consistently. Such allyship behaviours need to be embedded in the organisation.

Thirdly, organisations need to remember that all employees, irrespective of gender have parallel lives- professional and personal and both need to be taken care of. Stages like menopause, caregiving of an elderly parent, caregiving of disabled child, all of these need to find place in the companies’ policies so that employees feel supported and enabled while going through these times. Organisations that stand by their employees in tough times will have employees stand by them.

What are the newer concepts that your company has curated? Can you share a case study of a complex issue that Marching Sheep has resolved?

All our interventions are contextualised and curated as per clients’ requirements and needs. In 2021, we acquired a global client (Name withheld). They wanted to drive inclusion across all dimensions of diversity- women inclusion, LGBTQIA+ community, Persons with Disability, People of colour, cultural diversity, generational diversity, inclusion of veterans. Present in multiple countries across the globe, they needed to drive inclusion at a global level, as well as drive conversations and best practices that were meaningful for countries locally.

Each country is different, culturally, demographically, has different laws and statutes. Out of 195 countries across the globe, only 30 countries recognise LGBTQIA rights. Every country recognises different disabilities and has different acts governing their inclusion and rights. We carried out extensive research to come up with country wise papers on best practices along the employee life cycle- from entry to exit, across different dimensions of diversity, keeping in mind the cultural nuances and statutory landscape of each country.

The country wise information was further distilled to create a holistic regional and global recommendation that became a ready reckoner for managers and leaders across the globe to refer to.

This assignment was both complex and gratifying. It was complex given the vastness of scope and amount of information that had to be collated and distilled. It was gratifying given the amount of learning and exposure we all got as a team. For the client, it was getting a repertoire of meaningful criterion, best practices, recommendations that were ready to implement at different stages- by country, region, diversity dimension, life stage/ issue to be addressed.

On a separate note, Marching Sheep has continued to evolve from day one with the evolving times. In the last 9 years, we have seen multiple challenges. Demonetisation, Rollout of GST and more recently the pandemic. Each one of these pulled the attention of clients from HR interventions to business continuity and recovery.

We had to reinvent ourselves and adapt to meet the needs of the clients in these turbulent times. Based on extensive research, one-to-one client connects, panel discussions with industry leaders, we culled out the requirements and curated cutting-edge programs revolving around emotionally resilient workforce, psychological safety, building strategic HR partnering capability in organisations and more recently a holistic DEI certification.

Your firm is one of the few agencies in India to drive LGBTQ inclusions. How India is progressing and secondly how has been the experiences so far, on the responses you get?

Truth be told, conversations around LGBTQIA inclusion are still in the nascent stage.

You might find a lot of posts on social media, but these organisations are few in comparison to the potential that exists.

It is not that organisations do not want to do it, it’s just that they do not know where to start. Many of them feel that they have still not succeeded yet with their goals on women inclusion and they are not yet ready to start another chapter.

Fact is that inclusion is inclusion- irrespective of differences. If an organisation drives a culture of inclusion, it does not matter what dimension of diversity enters the organisation. Yes, there will be need for sensitisation, need for gender neural policies, infrastructure etc but those are easy wins. The more difficult one is driving an inclusion culture and mindset.

Our clientele is as diverse as it can get. From a start up with 15 employees to a global MNC with nearly 300,000 employees across the globe. We have clients from industries FMCG, FMCD, Healthcare- Pharma and diagnostics, IT and ITeS, Infrastructure, automotive, Financial services, manufacturing, BPO/KPO, consulting, music, media, the works.

Interesting small businesses or emerging organisations are realising the importance of HR early on. From having streamlined and scalable HR policies and processes, laying down the foundations of strong values and culture in the organisation as they scale up, building second level and frontline managerial capability so that the founder/ co-founder and top management bandwidth is not caught up in day to day issues are some of the things they are looking at.

What more strategies or measures are needed to make workplaces equal?

Employees experience an organisation not through HR, not through policy manuals, not through leadership, but through day to day interactions with their managers and peers. We can drive inclusion in its true sense only if every manager can build an inclusive environment in the team. Building this capability in managers and holding managers accountable is key.

How social media is intervening in carving out HR strategies, does it add or subtracts.

I think social media platforms are playing a pivotal role is helping drive open discussions, exchange of information, sharing of best practices and learning from each other. It is a platform where organisations are able to share their best practices, progressive policies and achievements. Some of them can be eye openers for others. Opinions are exchanged. Conversations take place. Organisational brands can build or destroyed on social media. Employees have a voice on social media. So yes, social media is playing a positive role is influencing HR strategies indirectly.