What is tokenism in the workplace?

Last updated:
October 19, 2022
November 28, 2022
min read
Gem Siocon
tokenism in the workplace
Table of contents

Numerous studies have been conducted about the benefits of inclusivity in organizations like enhanced creativity and higher employee engagement and retention.  But if an organization is not intentional and genuine in its diversity goals, efforts could go astray, resulting in tokenism. 

Tokenism is the result of doing the bare minimum in DEI initiatives. Tokenism occurs when a company makes a purely symbolic effort of “keeping up appearances” to show support for diversity to avoid criticism.  In short, it's false DEI. 

Left unchecked, tokenism in the workplace can lead to the wrong hiring decisions or achieving diversity targets without engaging your organization's diverse employees. 

What is tokenism in the workplace?

Diversity in the workplace is about accepting everybody’s differences and fostering an inclusive work environment.

It covers the range of similarities and differences each person brings to the organization, like language, race, color, ability/disability, gender, age, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. 

An organization may employ diverse candidates, but they're guilty of tokenism if the work environment isn’t inclusive. 

Tokenism is discrimination that occurs when companies make diversity and inclusion mistakes. It can manifest in the workplace in a couple of ways, like: 

  • Hiring a small number of diverse applicants to show they are an inclusive organization
  • The organization's website features images of a diverse workforce which does not accurately depict the company’s employee population
  • There are significantly fewer Asian, black, or Latine employees compared to the overall company population
  • Token minority are not getting the same work perks or opportunities in training or career advancement
  • People from diverse backgrounds are being placed in essential or executive positions but not given the corresponding authority, influence, or team members.

Why is tokenism harmful? 

Tokenism poses risks not only to the individual but also to the whole organization. 

It creates imposter syndrome in some staff from underrepresented groups. If they feel that they were only hired because they were a diverse candidate, they may think that they’re really not adequately skilled or qualified to perform their roles.

As a result, they feel constant pressure to do well at all times due to perceived scrutiny from the majority groups. It can affect a person’s mental health because they feel anxious they’ll make mistakes when doing their job. 

Another risk is the increased visibility women employees experience concerning an organization's leadership roles. 

In the research Tokenism Revisited: When Organizational Culture Challenges Masculine Norms, the Experience of Token by Laurence Romani, women promoted to management positions suffer performance pressures to prove that they deserve their career advancement while not trying to outshine their male counterparts.

It can lead to female employees' expectations when confronted and trapped with stereotypes like a limitation to doing specific roles only and the types of work they perform. When they're not involved in making big business decisions or significant contributions to the company, their promotion seems purely symbolic and does not indicate progress towards inclusion.


Want to know more about gender inequality's effect in the workplace and how to tackle it?

Read more here

Moreover, tokenism prevents organizational growth. When tokenized employees are not allowed to be actively involved in business strategies, they often feel unmotivated and ‘voiceless’. The company misses the chance to benefit from diverse employees' unique strengths and skills. 

6 ways to avoid tokenism in the workplace

Now that we’ve explained the characteristics and dangers of tokenism in the workplace, let’s discuss the ways to avoid them in your organization: 

1. Don’t hire to tick boxes or ‘fit a quota’ 

Setting diversity goals is essential but don’t focus too much on reaching specific statistics or figures.  

Instead of targeting to hire a specific number of female managers, ‘organically’ attract more diverse candidates by employing bias-free recruitment strategies

• Raise awareness about unconscious biases in recruitment.

The HR team should know and understand recruitment prejudices and how they happen.  Recruitment managers must educate and train recruiters and hiring managers about unconscious biases and learn how it affects the recruiting process of new staff: prejudices on gender, age, race, and educational background. 

• Write job descriptions that appeal to diverse candidates. Avoid exclusionary language in your job postings. 

• Try new recruitment channels. Aside from using LinkedIn, try using niche job boards that cater to certain underrepresented groups. Reach out to applicants via text messaging, in addition to emails. 

• Use pre-employment assessments to accurately measure a person’s skills and abilities, not their background. One example is the Situational Judgement Test. It permits employers to screen candidates for job fit while giving them a glimpse of critical work situations like handling irate customers (for call center and retail staff)

• Perform structured job interviews with a diverse team within your company. Structured interviews eliminate prejudices by highlighting applicant’s qualities directly related to the role instead of first impressions or their identity

• Participate in job fairs and networking events catering to diverse people. Connect with a larger number of applicants from different backgrounds. 

• Consider having a diversity employee referral program. Tap your existing employee resource groups and diversity councils to refer candidates to the company’s open jobs.

It's important to communicate that such an initiative is not tokenizing but part of the organization’s desire to support its diversity goals.  

2. Understand and implement intersectionality

According to civil rights activist and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is defined as

"The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage." It is about people having mixed identities. 

For example, let’s consider a Hispanic female employee with a high school diploma: 


Useful tip:

Useful tip:

People aren’t one-dimensional, so having a good grasp of intersectionality in the workplace is critical for a good inclusion program.

Here’s how you can create intersectionality in your company: 

  • Look at demographic details like how many Hispanic employees you have and how many of them only have high school diplomas. From there, check how many employees are at the intersection of both identities. 
  • Provide company-wide training on intersectionality and inclusion to address the diversity of each member in your company’s employee resource groups (ERGs). 

For example, in your company’s Hispanic ERG, everyone makes decisions regardless of educational status, whether they are college graduates or only have high school diplomas. 

3. Bring in consultants or guest speakers (have an external viewpoint)

Invite guest speakers or DEI experts to help educate your organization about diversity, inclusion, and equality

Contact relevant professional society chapters representing affinity groups like Black female scientists, LGBTQ engineers, veterans who own small business associations, etc.). 

Look for companies or businesses owned by people from historically underrepresented groups, with diverse employees, or those who have successfully implemented DEI strategies. 

Diverse perspectives and backgrounds make better speakers. A wide variety of perspectives and voices provide fresh insights, generating more dynamic and engaging discussions with less repetition of the same ideas. 

4. Don’t pressure people to be spokespeople for their communities

Token employees are usually chosen to speak on behalf of their underrepresented groups. 

Don’t put the responsibility of one individual to educate others within the company about their race, culture, or points of view as representative of the whole group.




One person's experience is uniquely his own and does not reflect others.
Instead, encourage them to share their journeys and success.
Engaging community members without burdening them to ‘resolve’ relevant issues in an organization is essential.  

Avoid expressing any stereotypes associated with an employee’s minority group. And make sure that the employee wants to be a spokesperson and is comfortable doing so. 

5. Develop a clear and transparent promotion process 

Promoting employees from minority groups even if they aren’t qualified for the higher position is an example of tokenism. It makes the individual doubt their abilities and question their promotion. 

A fair and transparent promotion process ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to advance their careers, leading to more diversity in the company. 

To start, establish clear guidelines for promotions and pay decisions. Publish required guidelines for pay grades, job titles, and minimum qualifications for internal openings. 

Identify candidates who meet the requirements or at least show tremendous potential. Develop a list of these candidates that you can submit to the HR team and hiring managers for assessment. Make this list anonymous to eliminate favoritism and guarantee that every candidate is considered. 

Finally, ensure the HR and managers comply with the guidelines to identify and promote the best candidates. 

6. Consider a ‘choose your benefits’ employee package

It's a tradition to offer work perks like Christmas and Good Friday public holidays. But what about the needs of employees from other cultures?

If your company is genuinely committed to making DEI work, you need to consider diverse candidates' needs, like their parental responsibilities, health issues, and cultural celebrations. 

You can address those needs by providing a comprehensive selection of “choose your benefits,” where people can select benefits and perks that matter to them most and fit their lifestyles. 

Some of the most famous work perks include: 

1. Floating holidays

Allow employees to celebrate holidays specific to their culture or beliefs like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha for Muslims, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah for Jewish folks, Diwali and Navrati for Indian nationals and Chinese New Year for Chinese people. 

2. Parental leaves

Permit new parents (women, men, gender non-binary) to take care of their new borns. It should also cover parents of newly-adopted children. 

It’s a good tactic if you want to retain employees after having their children. Spotify provides a 6-months fully paid parental leave for all new parents. 

3. Unlimited PTO

Allow individuals needing time to attend to personal errands for short term or take time off when suffering from injuries or work burnout for long-term.

As long as the employee's work meet their manager’s expectations and they arranged their leave with colleagues to ensure that their absence does not affect their work, they are free to enjoy this perk.

For example, Netflix, Oracle, LinkedIn and Salesforce give unlimited vacation days to their staff. 

4. Flexible work schedule/Remote work

With flexible work, people can vary the time  they start and end their work while remote work permits people to work anywhere .

Both work arrangements are feasible as long as employers meet their manager’s expectations or daily productivity targets. Tech companies like Dell, DuckDuck Go, Github and Invision allow their employees to do remote work. 

5. Tuition or financial education assistance

An estimated 81% of Hispanic-Americans and 74% of Black Americans 25 years and older don’t have a four-year degree.  

Education benefits are a plus for undderepresented candidates, helping them overcome higher education barriers. For college degree holders,  offering help to pay down their students loans is a big perk.

General Motors offers tuition assistance and student loan refinancing. PwC also has Student Loan Paydown which pays up to $1,200  a year towards student loans for their early career employees. 

6. Gender-affirming benefits

If you want to attract talented transgender individuals to your company, start with healthcare benefits. Gender affirmation benefits include a range of medical and behavioral health benefits like gender reassignment surgery, hormone replacement therapy, and counseling services.

Employers can also assist employees in making necessary changes to personal and legal documents. AirBnB gives comprehensive health benefits for trans and transitioning staff which follows the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) standards of care.

Meanwhile, PwC increased its lifetime maximum for trans-related procedures and healthcare coverage from $25,000 to $75,000. 


Learn 10 ways to create an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace

Read more here


It's easy to fall into the trap of tokenism if organizations are not careful with their DEI strategies, like hiring too many diverse employees just to meet certain diversity statistics. 

But with careful and intentional thought, combined with the best practices on avoiding tokenism outlined in this article, your organization will be on the right track to achieving its goal of being a truly inclusive workplace.

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