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Nirmala Menon: Enabling Diverse Workplaces

Posted: June 20, 2011

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Nirmala Menon, CEO of Interweave Consulting helps the cause of diversity at Indian workplaces create an enabling environment for people of different gender, regional origin and communities.

While “Diversity” is a concept Indians understand instinctively, we know little about actively managing diversity at an organizational level. An experienced Human Resources professional, Nirmala Menon is the Founder and CEO of Interweave Consulting , a diversity management solutions firm. Here, Nirmala tells us more about diversity management in India, the rise of new, flexible work environments , the issues that different employees, especially women face , and how actively dealing with these issues can help.

Interview by Aparna V. Singh

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): How and why did Interweave and the idea of offering diversity management support in India come about?

Nirmala Menon (NM): After a long career with ONGC, I had gone to the U.S for an additional Masters degree; while in the U.S, I worked with a Small Business Centre. This was the time when a report called Workforce 2001 was making big waves there, on how U.S workforce demographics were changing, and businesses had to change accordingly.

I returned to ONGC but quit later to start a family. I stayed home for 6 years, and although I was doing small assignments at my own pace, when I wanted to come back to work, I had the experience of nobody wanting to touch me with a bargepole!

Later on, I joined IBM and did a lot of work on managing diversity, in countries as different as Japan, Ireland and Mexico. I took a break again, to stay home with my teenage daughter. I had not actually planned to start a company. I thought I’d get in and see what was needed – however, it was such a fascinating, compelling subject that having got in, I felt I had to do justice to it. Interweave was registered as a company in end 2007, although I started exploring work in this area in 2006.

AVS: When it comes to companies in India, what specifically are the challenges in managing a diverse workforce?

NM: Diversity in India is very different from that in the U.S where a lot of it is about race. Here it is about many other things including gender and region. I went in first to educate myself on the issues, and stumbled right on to the issue of sexual harassment.

While there are many more women at work, people are not sure of how to behave in mixed gender environments. Women end up feeling uncomfortable, since sexual harassment is seen as purely physical. Non-verbal harassment and uncomfortable behaviour like men staring at a female colleague’s chest is not taken seriously. One of the first tasks in diversity management is to generate the understanding that harassment need not necessarily be sexual, and sexual harassment not necessarily physical.

One of the first tasks in diversity management is to generate the understanding that harassment need not necessarily be sexual, and sexual harassment not necessarily physical.

AVS: In your experience, how are companies in India dealing with the issue of sexual harassment?

NM: Firstly, there is the question of compliance with the Vishakha guidelines, so it cannot be wished away. It is not that companies don’t want to do something about it, but they are uncomfortable in dealing with the issue. They have a policy but it is hidden away somewhere in the Intranet or policy manual. It is not communicated; hence, the application is inconsistent. Our role is to ensure that the policy is communicated and understood well.

Many instances of harassment are never reported – there are many reasons for this. There may be lack of family support. If a woman brings up the issue, her family may suspect her role in it. Many such incidents happen off-site or at parties or during travel, when many are not sure whether the norms of office space apply.

We work to create awareness and greater responsibility first among managers, so that they can deal consistently with such issues. There is also e-learning for all other employees, on how to recognize and report a case.

AVS: Besides creating welcoming spaces for women, what other areas do you help companies with?

NM: We talk to people about diversity being a business imperative today – it is not about “helping women”. Companies need to enable diversity in its entirety, not just women, and this means inclusion of sexual orientation, regions of the country as well as disability.

It is also about creating more enabling policies for everyone such as flexible hours and family-friendly policies. Today, our work is not just in creating these; the harder part is in getting people to use alternative work arrangements responsibly. For managers, it is about learning how to manage people not in front of you and for employees, it is about how to deliver on time and how to stay networked.

Some organizations such as IBM where I worked, started using such policies early on, and both men and women adopted it with no big fuss. I also know companies where they have a flexible work policy but it’s not used because anyone who uses it is seen as not serious about their career.

I also know companies where they have a flexible work policy but it’s not used because anyone who uses it is seen as not serious about their career.

AVS: What about religion and caste, is that an issue in India?

NM: It is, but being a politically sensitive subject, organizations don’t want to talk about it. Companies don’t collect that kind of information. Right now, active conversation is on about making it mandatory. People from disadvantaged communities are often seen as not deserving of the promotions they receive – I know this from my experience with ONGC. This is similar to perceptions women have to face; these perceptions have to be managed.

AVS: Finally, what next for Interweave?

NM: We have begun working to help female employees break out of socialized constraints. The Indian culture of how we raise girls comes in the way of success at work. We help women with challenges such as asking for what you want/deserve, being firm in decisions, handling guilt and increasing their visibility in the workplace.

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