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How to Avoid Tokenism at Work

Have you ever entered a room and been immediately made aware of being the “only one” of your type in a group? To be an outlier can feel vulnerable and unsafe — the spotlight is on you, and not in a good way. There is increased risk and scrutiny of every step and misstep. The Britannica Dictionary defines tokenism as, “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.” Essentially, adopting a “one-and-done” performative philosophy of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) instead of implementing intentional, ongoing change. Tokenism isn’t just oppressive systemically- it’s directly harmful to individuals. There’s an unacceptable emotional labor that goes along with being the “only” within a group of people.

Tokenism has been the subject of many conversations for decades. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed this practice in an article he wrote for The New York Times in 1962. He referred to trends of allowing a handful of Black students to attend all-white schools and permitting one Black employee to a thousand white workers as intended to demonstrate a willingness to diversify white spaces, but only serving as performative and mildly symbolic at best.

Fast forward to 2022 and we’re still seeing employers tokenize staff from marginalized groups as a “check the box” for their DEI initiatives. While we’re seeing advances in the success of women and racial minorities, just 6% of Fortune 500 companies employed women CEOs in 2017, of which 0.4% were women of color. Research shows that this practice is incredibly harmful to the individual, who often deals with feelings of isolation, increased scrutiny as the lone representative of a particular group, and expectations of assimilation and speaking on behalf of everyone that shares a common social identity. While some people may feel hyper-visible, others may feel invisible if their achievements and contributions aren’t acknowledged. Tokenized employees are also more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, constantly questioning their ability to perform job functions and contribute meaningfully. This can result in anxiety, depression, and workplace dissatisfaction that often causes people from marginalized groups to change jobs more often. It’s worth remembering the financial cost as well – frequent turnover is expensive for companies, too.

Steps for Lasting Change

So how do we avoid tokenism at work? Here are our recommended steps for organizations that want to make lasting change:

Step 1: Start with a company-wide audit

Dig into the numbers first. What are your overall demographics? How do they change as you move up the ladder to leadership? Is a particular level homogeneous? Are all levels homogenous? Get to know the numerical data that clearly shows your company’s representation. Once you have baseline quantitative data, you can start to qualitatively assess what your employees think and feel. Anonymous polling and surveys can provide leadership with information that people may be less inclined to share if there are identifying factors like name, gender, race, orientation, etc. 

Step 2: Set new goals

Based on your findings, what will you do with that information? Will it sit on a hard drive, in a virtual folder, or tucked away in a cabinet? Or will it be the impetus for action and change? Start setting quarterly, semi-annual, and/or annual goals that are realistic and build in accountability for their implementation

Step 3: Take action

Revamp your sourcing and hiring practices, tie DEI initiatives to performance evaluations, examine your referral structure and who it benefits, increase representation at decision making levels, and so on. This might also mean bringing in an expert for consulting or to train your organization on inclusive recruiting and hiring.

Step 4: Focus on culture

Positive workplace culture takes time to cultivate, but it can be derailed by old ways of thinking and a collective unwillingness to change. That shouldn’t keep you from moving towards a culture that is inclusive and supportive of all employees. Tokenism, microaggressions, and discrimination are all rooted in workplace culture that values assimilation, passive-aggressiveness, and maintaining the status quo over potentially tough conversations, clear and concise communication, and being welcoming of diversity. 

Step 5: Seek help

As you dig deeper into this work, you may find that you have more questions than answers, and that’s ok! It’s helpful to have a neutral third party assist in the collection and analysis of data, as well as developing next steps. If you find yourself in need of some assistance, we’re here to help!

Moving Forward

While these steps are geared toward organizations that have existing buy-in to make long-term improvements, individuals aren’t helpless. Folks in leadership positions or those who are at organizations where it’s safe to discuss systemic issues can bring up the topic and recommended action steps at team meetings. We recognize that for tokenized employees or anyone at a toxic organization that isn’t open to these discussions, it may not be safe or possible to do this. If that’s your experience, it may be time to consider getting out. Tokenism of any employee on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identity is a symptom of larger issues. Lack of diversity, cultural awareness, and inclusive corporate culture are all driving factors of tokenism. While these take time to dismantle, the process isn’t impossible. It’s critical to ensure that everyone can show up to their workplace and be safe, included, valued, and heard regardless of their position or identity and without fear of being treated differently, unfairly, or as ‘the only’.


Are you ready to find out more about bringing our impactful workshops and facilitators to your workplace? Learn more about our workshops and how we can help your team. To see more videos about DEI in the workplace, follow us on YouTube!