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How Much Diversity at Work Is Needed to Avoid Tokenism?

Diversity without inclusion will result in tokenism. Read our blog to learn what it means, why it is harmful for organizations, and how to avoid it.

Diversity has become the term of the century. Every company is working hard to improve diversity within the organization in hopes of a more favorable public image. Attracting top talent from different backgrounds and ethnicity is assumed to be the best way for a company to be considered a diverse workplace.

If a firm hires enough people of color and/or women, they solve the diversity concern in the company. The solution to the issue seems to be establishing and achieving a quota, or a numeric target of how many percentages certain underrepresented groups should be hired and retained in the company. However, a diversity quota is just that – a quota. It is a symbolic effort that does not mean a lot if inclusion is not involved, and without inclusion, it just generates another issue: Tokenism.

Tokenism vs Inclusion

There is a fine line between diversity and tokenism. This year we have witnessed so many racially motivated incidents and uprisings. A particularly prominent one is the movement surrounding George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter – this was such a defining moment that social media was almost entirely dominated by the Blackout Tuesday hashtags.

With these happenings, it is only natural that the topic of diversity has reached the spotlight within our workforce discussions once again; but what everyone seems to forget is that creating a diverse team is not enough. This is where inclusion enters the stage to play its role.

Inclusion is a continuous process that must last – long after these employees are hired, because when it is absent, that is when tokenism reigns.

Tokenism is a forced form of diversity that creates a superficial appearance of equality without truly achieving it. It lacks the inclusive behaviors that matter. The concept of inclusion is involving a wide range of workers in the decision-making process in the company instead of just having them present as mere representatives.

Tokenism is the practice of making a symbolic action by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to create an appearance of racial or gender equality within the workplace.

Inclusion is never about ensuring that 10% of your employees are women or non-white; it is about giving that 10% a voice to be heard, including them in important meetings, and empowering them to be their best in your company. Because ultimately, diversity is not about only focusing on race, sexual preference, disabilities, skin color, and gender — it is about gathering varying ideas from different employees, regardless of their beliefs and ethnicity. And as a leader in your team, take a step back and ask yourself, have you let your employees from different backgrounds, gender, and ethnicity collaborate and create a meaningful impact in the organization together?

If the answer is no or not much, then that is a sign that tokenism is happening in your organization.

The Danger of Tokenism at Work

The practice of tokenism is not only harmful to the individuals, but it can also negatively influence the whole organization. Let’s delve into some real risks it can pose:

#1 – It conceals inertness. Giving 10% of leadership seats to women candidates seems like progress. But again, this only talks about statistics. When they are not driving big decisions nor having major contributions, they are simply figureheads and that is not a progressive improvement.

#2 – It creates an inaccurate sense of security to leadership. Since the underrepresented person may not have enough voice to express their dissatisfaction, the leadership may not be aware that they may feel excluded. And with this false impression of security, it is easy to maintain the status quo and not make any positive change.

#3 – It negatively affects mental health. Being a token is frustrating; individuals may feel the extra pressure to represent the outnumbered group. They may also feel a sense of isolation, especially when their contribution may go unacknowledged or when they do not have somebody to support them if any microaggressions happen.

#4 – It hinders business performance and growth. When the tokenized employees are not given a chance to get actively engaged in the organization, they can often feel unmotivated to perform at the best of their capacity. The company will then miss out on an opportunity for success.

Being a token is frustrating; individuals may feel the extra pressure to represent the outnumbered group.

How to Avoid Tokenism

To prevent tokenism, there must be an integration of diversity and inclusion. Diversity is numbers; inclusion is culture. One cannot go well without the others. Managers and team leaders must create an environment where everyone feels connected and included. Encourage cross-cultural collaborations in all levels and business units. Most importantly, hire talents not based on their gender or ethnicity, or merely to improve your diversity statistics, but hire them based on their capabilities and what they can bring to the table.

Now we are back to the burning question: Just how much diversity is needed to avoid tokenism? The answer is no matter how much diversity you try to bring, if it is not accompanied by inclusion, you will always fall into the tokenism trap.

We should not even have to determine how many percentages of each BIPOC, women, and other underrepresented groups should be included in the organization from the start. Attract and retain the right candidates for the roles, not because of where they are from or what race they belong to. Let’s not make our diversity effort be a mere token, instead let’s truly embed it in our organizational culture because together, we can make an impact.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help you build a diverse and inclusive talent acquisition and talent management program.

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Sabrina Wijaya

Sabrina has many years of experience in marketing communication and has worked on various projects revolving around content strategy, digital marketing consultancy, social media management, and SEO copywriting. She holds a master's degree in Digital Marketing from the University of Amsterdam. She brings her expertise to develop SHL's digital content and brand strategy globally. She is enthusiastic about people, content creation, and organizational culture.

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