Nirmala Menon has helped corporate India work towards a policy of inclusion at the workplace
As a child, she loved to dance but didn't feel she was “pretty enough” to be a dancer. Today, as one of the pioneers of diversity management and inclusion solutions in corporate India, Nirmala Menon looks back at instances like these that have shaped her ability to connect and understand the tyranny of prejudices and their impact on people.
“We often don't take social conditioning seriously but it has a long-lasting impact,” says Nirmala, who works with organisations to help them create an inclusive and enabling environment for their diverse employees. “The challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce cannot be ignored. People want to feel valued everywhere and in return promise you commitment. If not, you will have employees who will come in and do just enough to get by, helping neither themselves nor their organisations,” adds Nirmala who applies the same rule in her personal and work life.
No one is blind to differences and certain personal attributes can automatically pull up socialised stereotypes, which then reflect in small, ordinary gestures, comments and behaviours that could make a person feel excluded or inadequate. At a cumulative level such instances can corrode any environment. “People carry these slights within them and it shows up in their work interpersonal relations and productivity,” she says.
Having spent 25 years in the Human Resources field, she knows that hiring people is easy – the money, the brand name and good policies can do the trick, but a long-term relationship solicits a truly inclusive work culture.
Nirmala today helps organisations and employees break free of self-imposed social shackles, to understand their responsibilities in ensuring a fair, safe and inclusive workplace, where all employees have equal access to growth and opportunity. “The era of nurturing only a ‘certain kind' of people is not sustainable anymore. The war for talent is intense and unless organisations are welcoming of and sensitive to the needs of a diverse workforce, its quest to attract and harness the right talent will not be successful,” she tells us.
Breaking free of social conditioning is something Nirmala has done most of her adult life. Coming from a typical traditional south Indian family, she was the first girl in her family who stepped out of home to study at the prestigious XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur. She went on from there to complete her masters from Temple University in Philadelphia — a decision she and her family had to defend when everyone her age was expected to get married and settle down.
It was at Temple University, where she first heard of ‘diversity', when a professor at the University invited her to be a part of his team working on ‘inclusion'. Her cultural background, gender and immigrant experience were interesting aspects that helped her gain a first-hand understanding of the value of diversity and inclusiveness. Later, as a part of India's growing IT corporate workforce at IBM, Nirmala had the chance to learn the tenets of diversity and inclusion.And all this was after she had taken a break to start a family. She values this experience tremendously, as the learning garnered helped her address the needs of the increasing number of women and returning mothers. Nirmala helps organisations become more inclusive and “enabling” for women. Men benefit just as much from these family friendly policies, she claims. “In fact, if we can encourage our men to participate and contribute more at their homes, it will free up some of the ‘socialised' pressures women feel in pursuing their careers. To get more women at work, we need more men to do more at home!”
From the business point of view, initiatives in diversity and inclusion are not going to be a choice but necessary and key differentiators. And why not, for 10 years ago, most organisations thought it was impossible for anyone to work from home — today, is it becoming a norm for organisations to offer flexibility. Change in corporate India is certainly here to stay and women like Nirmala are charting out new roads every day.