For companies, irrespective of size and field, the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is overwhelming. For all Sri Lankans too, especially today, it is a vital moral cause to value everyone, to be empathetic, fair, respectful and inclusive; encouraging focus on what we have in common and what unites us as a nation moving towards mutual benefit and dignity.
Sysco LABS Sri Lanka, the innovation arm of Sysco, the world’s global food service leader, hosted a vibrant thought-provoking panel discussion on ‘Diversity in Motion – A diversity, inclusion and equity panel ‘recently exploring diversity and inclusion in Sri Lankan workplaces, the challenges and scrutiny faced by individuals belonging to these groups and the importance placed on organizations to foster a more inclusive environment for everyone that goes beyond the optics.
In discussion with Kushani Kalpage, Director Marketing at Sysco LABS, the panellists articulated significant talking and action points highlighting the current contexts and shifts necessary to weed out deeply rooted biases, create lasting systemic changes beneficial for all citizens thus transforming their potential contributing to a more open, diverse, and inclusive society, especially as the need of the hour.
Q: What are some of the ethnicity and religion related social inclusion issues facing Sri Lanka at present?
Prashan De Visser, President and Founder, Sri Lanka Unites and Global Unites: We have found reasons to divide, mistrust one another, reasons to embrace prejudice against each other and as a result we have hurt our own potential as a country.
In 72 years of Independence, we have lost half a million people due to senseless violence, half a million people in less than a century of independence have died untimely deaths because we could not learn to live with each other. Over three million Sri Lankans have left our country for economic reasons, due to the instability of the country or the fact that this was not an inclusive place. They are now contributing to other GDPs and other countries when they could have been contributing to us.
At the same time every year we have had cycles of violence. No one can deny that we go through it like clockwork. Every time Sri Lanka takes five steps forward, we take ten steps back. We have not been able to embrace our diversity, not been able to intelligently discuss our issues and non-violently solve them.
Q: What are the issues faced by the LGBTIQ+ community in Sri Lanka?
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera Executive Director and Founder, EQUAL GROUND: In Sri Lanka, these Individuals are marginalized because of who they are and what they are. Sri Lanka has created a lot of issues for the LGBTIQ community and that has had far wider implications than the actual law itself. Because years and years of marginalization and discrimination does something to your psyche. You are scared, constantly looking over your shoulder, thinking that they are not going to like me because I am what I am.
It is interesting to note that most people do not even reveal their sexuality at work because they are too scared that they are going to get fired, get harassed and will not be promoted despite performing well in their role. I think knowledge is the key; knowledge and education can inspire change in this country.
Q: How can corporates get involved and what role can they can play as employers in fostering diversity?
Prashan: As Sri Lankans we have a responsibility to ensure we do not make the same mistakes as in the past. Albert Einstein once said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.” It seems we are doing the same thing over and over again and not learning a lesson from our past so we must be clinically insane.
If we have learned from the past, it is important that we speak up in the workplace as well. If we feel that somebody is discriminated based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability, are we going stand by and silently endorse it?
Your silence is one of the most compelling endorsements of evil and we have to speak against that and change the culture in the workplace. We need to really talk about our differences, similarities, grievances, the hurts, the pains, fears, aspirations and goals while advocating for each other.
Corporates can ensure that in next generation Sri Lanka, no one feels like a second-class citizen, has the opportunity to embrace our diversity and never allow anybody to be treated differently – merely because they are different.
Q: What can corporates do to support persons with disabilities and truly be an equal employer
Janitha Rukmal, Co-founder at Enable Lanka Foundation: We first need to consider unlearning some things. Usually when we associate or reflect on our own thoughts, we perceive disability in the light of a kind of condition that requires care and charity. That is why a lot of corporates have highlighted disability inclusion in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
But times have changed, and society has evolved in such a way that now the persons with disabilities are no longer the kind of community which always needs money for consolation and survival. That is not the case any longer. Now persons with disabilities also have access to inclusive education and various resources through which they are already improving their soft skills.
I believe corporates should be more flexible in their recruitment policies when it comes to persons with disabilities and that does not mean recruiting a person with disabilities as CSR. They have their own set of skills, and are willing to work for your organization. That is why they are applying for the position and thus the organization should create an inclusive and supportive environment.
Being an equal opportunity employer holistically means that there is access for persons with disabilities in the company and also at the same time we have to consider, once they are recruited, are they going to perform well in the company. Just like anybody else, a person with disability will also be eager to receive promotions, make his/her own way up the proverbial ladder. By creating an enabling environment, persons with disabilities will lead the way.
Q: Can you share with us some steps corporates in Sri Lanka have taken to lobby for change for the LGBTIQ plus community?
Rosanna: The Sri Lanka I grew up in was so much more inclusive and embracing and kind. Today the nation has become people hating, basically trying to make divisions, trying to disqualify people from being within the circle.
Businesses have said to me, ‘We will lose business if we start accepting these policies and changing our policies.’ Another thing put forward is ‘Oh it is against the law so we might get into trouble with the government for hiring LGBTIQ persons.’
The excuses need to stop now. It is crucial as we go forward and try to get out of this whole pandemic situation and the economic hole that we have dug ourselves into, that every single person who is eligible to work should be allowed to work and brought into work regardless of who they are as long as they can do the job and the LGBTIQ community most definitely can do the job.
Q: Do share with us some examples that made a difference for females in the workplace?
Bani Chandrasena, Vice President, Diversity Collective Lanka: I think it starts with giving everyone a voice. We call it networks or creating safe spaces for like-minded people, allies to come together and start talking about ideas, suggestions. When it comes to companies, creating that safe space so that these ideas can come out to the forefront it vital, but you also need to make sure these ideas are heard by management and brought into policy change etc. The whole idea is raising all these points, celebrating collectively, trying to figure out what can be done.
Also holding everybody accountable to inclusive behaviour becomes really important. To me, diversity does not mean much unless we change our behaviour towards accepting and celebrating and wanting to work together. It must be two-pronged. Leadership has to be held accountable, training needs to be given because in my experience, people are afraid sometimes especially when it comes to dealing with people with disability or with women. You do not want to offend, so you end up playing it safe and not getting them involved.
If you are intentionally looking for change you have to create that career path – it is recruitment related, training related and will involve investment into coaching and development mentoring programs. Corporates intentionally do need to hold themselves accountable when starting these programs.
I think one of the main things as companies and as communities we need to address is; when we are talking about empowerment is not just empowering that particular minority group. You have to bring the whole population together and make sure that they are of the same mindset and on the same page about what inclusion really means.
What we can do as corporates is to take our recruitment practices, take our CSR engagement activities into those communities so that you can actually show the way and actually start changing and impacting society at large not just your workplace.