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Opinion

Cultivating An Inclusive Workplace: Why Embracing Identity Matters

Vishnu Karthik

This is the fourth piece in a four-part series exploring how race and identity affect feelings of belonging at work, and how employers can respond and support their diverse workforce. This series is based on qualitative research from The YES Project which demonstrates that young employees feel that their identities play an important role in how they enter into, navigate, and advance within the world of work. Below, nonprofit professional Vishnu shares about his experiences navigating prejudice and bigotry in the workplace. Check out part one, two, and three of the Race, Identity, and Belonging series


Upon being accepted to one of my dream jobs at a tech firm, it never occurred to me that before I could tackle the work ahead, I’d first have to overcome the prejudice caused by the color of my skin. The drive to work each day was an anxiety-laden process. As I pulled up to the security gate ready to scan my card, I sat wondering if I was going to get searched...again.

Over a two-month period, I was stopped and searched at the gate five times. Each time, they instructed me to get out of the car so they could pat me down and inspect the interior, engine bay, and trunk of my vehicle. All of this occurred in the very front of the facility for everyone in the area to see. To put this into perspective, I was the only one out of the group of twelve interns to be stopped even once, and, coincidentally, I was the only brown intern that year.

Unlike myself, the prejudice wasn’t stopped at the entry gate. 

Whenever I walked in or out of the building, I was constantly tailed by security vehicles. I vividly remember walking into the building one day after lunch, only to be stopped by a supervisor who looked at me and said: “Gotta make sure you’re not a terrorist; I’ve never seen you before”—seemingly trying to make a joke.

These encounters and comments made me painfully self-aware and it fed into my feelings of misplacement. I felt that people judged me as a brown guy with a beard rather than a hard worker. I found myself carefully scrutinizing my self-image in an attempt to make myself look less “suspicious.” Because of this, I found myself subconsciously trying to adapt to the traditional norms by wearing certain clothes and talking a certain way to make those around me more comfortable, because being brown came with the unspoken burden that required me to work extra hard to overcome implicit biases in order to gain the trust of my colleagues.

Though my experience working there was rather extreme, it’s not an isolated one. Many people face similar issues in the workplace every single day and most don’t know where to go when such issues arise.

This bleak reality can be curbed by weaving a tightly-knit social fabric within the workplace. Here’s how:

Employers should include anti-bias training for all of their employees. The first step to inclusion and belonging is to make sure everyone understands how to approach one another without their preconceived biases getting in the way. An example of one of these biases is the “model minority” narrative that is forced on Asians, which uses the perceived success of the collective group to uphold unrealistic expectations on the individuals within it, oftentimes leading to false stereotypes and hate. Asians are often collectively labelled as being good at math, bad drivers, and, in extreme cases, being called a terrorist or the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak. Reducing people to a single characteristic based on biases can lead to people being targeted, as seen today with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Additionally, these biases cultivate an extremely toxic work environment where those who don’t fit under the traditionally “dominant” norms feel excluded.

On top of this, employers should cultivate an environment where it’s acceptable for employees to fully embrace their individuality—including all aspects of their identities.   Proactively acknowledging holidays such as Hanukkah or Diwali, or offering language services to non-native English speakers, are ways to establish a welcoming workplace culture that embraces diversity in a meaningful way.

DEI policies should be strictly enforced, and be informed by the voices of the employees these policies intend to help, instead of just higher leadership. Just because no one has brought up a problem doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Many people are scared to report things or expect the people around them to, so problematic behavior or norms can still slip through the cracks. One way to combat this is through an anonymous tip service that allows employees to report such incidents without fear of being reprimanded. Furthermore, it’s just as important for employers to review workplace culture as it is to review performance, as it ensures that the policies in place work properly and exhibits the company’s commitment to having a safe environment.

Many employers claim they are committed to diversity, but do not proactively enforce measures that maintain an inclusive environmentEmployers that fail to put their teeth behind DEI policies cultivate an environment that stifles creativity and drives away hard-working employees.

Simply put, our identities matter. We should strive for a future where no one has to worry about how they dress or talk when coming to work. Because I don’t want a future where my little brother is anxious when he drives into work every morning.

This series was generously supported through a grant from State Farm.