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Essence: building multi-generational diversity in the workplace

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Diversity and inclusion in the workplace isn’t only about hiring diverse talents, it is also about ensuring that they feel empowered, say Essence’s Monica Bhatia and Doreen Chia.

One of the things that strikes you when speaking with Monica Bhatia, SVP, client partner, APAC, Essence and Doreen Chia, associate advertising operations director, APAC, Essence, about diversity and inclusion is their unwillingness to resort to easy answers. While others might be content with giving a number, or their endorsement in vague terms such as “raising awareness is important”, Bhatia and Chia aren’t afraid to delve into the complexities of defining diversity or to ask, is fulfilling a 50/50 gender diversity all we should be aiming for? For the two industry leaders, diversity and inclusion needs to begin at recruitment, and from there, filter down to onboarding, training and promotion.

We sit down with Bhatia, a past Women to Watch winner, and Chia, a finalist for Rising Star at the Women Leading Change Awards 2020, as they discuss the definition of diversity within an APAC context, the importance - and limitations - of KPIs, and taking an all-encompassing approach to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

To kick us off, what does diversity mean to you? 

Monica Bhatia (MB): Diversity and inclusion is about a workplace that encourages a balanced view of ideas. I think there are two aspects to it - first, ensuring we have diversity, but more importantly, an environment where inclusivity is critical. An inclusive workplace is one in which all individuals are treated fairly, have equal opportunities to contribute to the workplace, and feel safe and secure in doing that.

Doreen Chia (DC): To achieve diversity and inclusion in an organisation, we shouldn’t only look at people who can bring different backgrounds, talent and expertise into the organisation but also how to integrate these individuals into the organisation effectively. Some of the indicators include a proportion of men and women, and racial representation. But in today’s context, it really goes beyond gender and race, especially if you look at the context of diversity in APAC. You need to also look at the percentage of local versus foreign talent, percentage of staff from different countries, the representation of local talent in senior management, as well as the openness to hiring workers from alternative talent pools. 

How is APAC doing when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

MB: Progress has been made, but there are still lots to be done. As an industry, when we started off on this journey, the focus was on diversity, and at some point, it became about fulfilling diversity quotas, but there hadn’t been enough focus on creating environments that were inclusive. What happened with that is while organisations got people from diverse backgrounds, the culture often still wasn’t an environment where people felt equal.

DC: In the past few years, there’s been more focus on meritocracy-based hiring, which, while not being the same thing as diversity, is helping to push for more diverse workforces from an early stage.

What is the relationship between meritocracy-based hiring and diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

DC: Meritocracy is when we assess a potential hire based on tangible factors, such as skill set, competency and experience. However, we need to also consider intangible factors such as culture fit, and the willingness to share, learn and be a team player. That holistic assessment should be reflected in the different processes within an organisation, from hiring to role assessment, job rotation, and career advancement and development. When all that is achieved, you naturally have a diverse workforce.

Monica, given your experience across APAC, what benefits does diversity bring to different workplaces?

MB: We are in the business of advertising and media, and that is really about figuring out how brands connect with consumers - and as cliché as it may sound - our consumers are a diverse set, so it’s important that the people who are doing the strategising also come from diverse backgrounds. Kyoko Matsushita, our Global CEO, told me: hire smart people, people who complement you and your skills. Don’t hire people who are similar to you, as you can only go so far. It’s so true - just think about when you’re with a group of friends, it’s always more fun when you have people from different backgrounds. It adds colour to any engagement. The other bit, which Doreen raised, is about putting people in the right roles and tapping into their skill set. If you have diversity, but people are being put in the wrong roles, that’s not going to help anyone or the organisation.

Both of you put emphasis on diversity and inclusion being an approach - rather than a KPI that companies need to fulfil at a certain stage.

MB: For me, diversity and inclusion is an end-to-end experience - it starts off at the interview process, then into the onboarding process and day-to-day interaction. I’d like to give a personal example: I’m from India and have moved across five countries. Once, I was interviewing at a large organisation and the interview was going well - until towards the end, when I was asked, “you’ve moved around, with your husband, so it seems like you prioritise family over work”. It made me feel if I prioritise family over work, or if my family has equal space as work in my life, it wasn’t acceptable in that organisation. I didn’t accept the offer in the end. To build, retain and nurture talent, it’s important to have a culture that is conducive to diversity and inclusion.

The idea you need to choose between work and family - do you feel that is still prevalent in Asia?

MB: I think that’s where the culture is changing, making the environment conducive for all to co-exist. If anything, the one shift I’ve seen is in that family versus career dichotomy. People realise the two can coexist. With the pandemic, and many people working from home with their family around, making adjustments to take care of both family and work is becoming acceptable. For example, every day now, I go off from 11:30am to 12pm to pick up my son from daycare.

How does diversity and inclusion evolve as a company scales? After all, it’s much easier to keep track of KPIs for a 10-person team versus a 2,000-head company, which is what Essence is today.

DC: I believe if you build that culture as well as mindset, it can continue to hold true even as the company expands. In fact, there are more opportunities to drive diversity as we grow, as long as hiring is based on meritocracy and culture fit. I joined Essence as an intern with little background in ad tech back in 2013, when the agency opened its first office in APAC [in Singapore]. What I was - and still am - grateful for is the team of mentors from different backgrounds who guided me both in terms of technical skills and personal development. One thing I want to highlight is that Essence has always believed in hiring and developing local talent, and ensuring progression opportunities are transparent and available. The culture at Essence has empowered me to build and lead a team across the region by exposing me to numerous leadership opportunities and cross-team collaborations. Within a year of joining, I was involved in an employee resource group called Pirates that acts as a culture advocate and voice of the people, gathering feedback from staff and highlighting them to management to devise solutions together.

Why are these employee resource groups important to pushing for diversity and inclusion at Essence?

DC: They encourage people to talk candidly about feedback or problems they have. Nothing will be solved if people are hiding how they’re actually feeling. 

MB: Other than Pirates, as mentioned by Doreen, we have different employee resource groups such as [email protected] and [email protected] to ensure that policies, frameworks and the culture that is being developed take into account the voice of everyone.

It also appears that, to achieve diversity in the workplace, you need to have two things: institutionalised measures, and active participation from employees.

DC: Definitely. If the leadership comes up with some policies and says we need to follow a certain way of working, but people aren’t bought into it, it’s difficult to ensure that their experience within the organisation is inclusive.

To achieve long-term success, organisation-wide effort and commitment need to be coupled with an iterative review process where policies are periodically reviewed to identify areas for improvement and evaluate effectiveness.

Monica, you have watched Essence grown in the past three years. How should the company ensure everyone, from top-level management to fresh graduates, feel included?

MB: That’s why you have KPIs - to ensure you have the rigour to see that the culture the organisation started off with continues as the organisation scales. At Essence, we have KPIs of where we want to take diversity. Having checks and balances in place help ensure that everyone is heard. When you started, you probably had a good diversity ratio, so you need to check in on a regular basis - which KPI has scaled, which has declined? This helps maintain the ratio and is the reason why organisations, while having diversity as inherent to their culture, still need KPIs in place.

Focusing on gender diversity - where do you think APAC is, and what do you hope to see in five years’ time?

MB: We’ve definitely made progress. I’ve talked about the culture shift. The environments within organisations are being made more flexible, which is important for diversity to exist. Where can we do more? A colleague of mine once said, if we truly want to drive diversity, it needs to be reflected at the training stage - Doreen was given training in [ad] tech, which was an environment traditionally known to be dominated by males. When we build a diverse multi-generational workforce, there needs to be training opportunities at the grassroots level. So we don’t reach a stage where we don’t have diversity because we don’t have people with that skill set.

DC: One of the challenges companies face is female representation at the upper management and C-suite levels. This is an area that Essence is also focusing on. I think diversity and inclusion is still going to be a topic in five, or ten years’ time, as it is not only a topic related to companies, but also the society. In five years’ time, rather than talking about KPIs and ratios, I hope the discussion will have pivoted to “how do we get the most out of a diverse workforce”.

MB: It’s important to continue to build awareness - but it’s also time for solutions. We need to pivot towards a solution-oriented approach as we’re past the awareness phase.

What advice would you give to future female leaders?

MB: There are three things. First, don’t be afraid to speak, don’t be afraid to fail. Second, create your own definition of success - don’t try to fit into how men have defined success, and third, seek external and internal perspectives, and have mentors and allies. A large part of my success is owed to the people I surround myself with, both men and women, who genuinely care about my progress and give me candid feedback. At GroupM’s Walk the Talk programme, they say, you need to count on people as allies - people who’ll speak for you when you aren’t in the room.

DC: Find a company whose culture holds true to your own values. The interview process is a great time for you to find out about the company’s culture. Secondly, be open to new opportunities and embrace people from different backgrounds.

This article was originally published on Campaign Asia-Pacific. This is part of an article series for Women to Watch 2020, created in partnership with Campaign Asia-Pacific as part of Essence's diversity and inclusion initiatives.