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The big-little steps of Inclusion at PhonePe

PhonePe Team|6 min read|18 August, 2022

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The journey to acceptance for who you are and what you stand for, is always hard. In my experience, whenever I have not had the pressure to conform or change and could be the ‘’real version of myself’’, I have felt a deep sense of inclusion. As someone who leads the D&I charter at PhonePe, I have seen the organization walk the talk and champion inclusion in the last 12 months. This post is all about that journey!

As PhonePe was growing, there was an increased understanding that we should have a workplace with people from different backgrounds, but if they didn’t feel included, none of the benefits of diverse perspectives and innovation would apply. This led to the firming up of our D&I charter with an intention to achieve real results.

When the D&I charter was launched last year, we had our work cut out. But what stood out for me personally was that the leadership here not only reinforced a business case for D&I, but also shared their personal beliefs and narratives around it. Hearing the CEO talk about the importance of D&I in townhalls, the CTO leading the session on breaking bias, and the Head of HR facilitating discussions with external experts, helped employees connect more closely to the cause.

Gradually through the course of the year, we find that this is no longer just an HR task- the D&I agenda is something employees across the org resonate with and it is being driven by the employees themselves.

Today, we are on a journey where an inclusive workplace is being intentionally designed. Our everyday efforts are directed to create an environment where people feel they can express their affirmations (and dissents), and it’s a matter of being not just heard — but also feeling valued.

Though inclusion cannot be limited to a framework, we began our journey with the three foundational pillars.

Nurturing an ecosystem: While working with the leadership team, I realized that D&I was not just a check the box exercise for us. We view this as a serious commitment to bring more women, People With Disabilities (PWD) and Gender and Sexual Minorities into mainstream work roles while removing systemic barriers for them to thrive.

A key component was making both representation and our commitment to inclusion very visible. To this end, when PhonePe began work on its new office building last year, the company committed to having its culture represented through artwork. I’ll never forget the experience of participating in PhonePe’s Aravani Art Project, a trans woman’s collective that was engaged to create murals across different floors.As they did their work, we all got to closely interact with members of the trans community. And this, I must admit, has been the most satisfying contribution in my personal and professional journey — the realization that everyone has a similar set of dreams, aspirations and values, irrespective of how they identify themselves.

This project was the starting point for us to cultivate a supportive work environment for transgender members. Since then, we have actively hired trans people in different roles in the company.

Our commitment to creating inclusion for People with Disabilities focused on both representation and inclusion. While we had org wide alignment on doing this, the initial opportunities were limited to a few peripheral roles. But as internal teams/employees started engaging with some of our early hires, we have seen the conversation changing towards a more inclusive mindset. In fact, I have started getting requests to help source candidates from the PWD pool. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction to know that I helped trigger this change.

To help increase representation of women, we started with an ambitious goal to get to 25% women in leadership. This helped to focus energies towards not just recruitment, but also internal changes that would make the company a more welcoming place for women. This included open conversations to discuss challenges and biases, simplifying life for young mothers, enabling mentoring support and stronger development support. A lot of what we did was about reviewing lived experiences of people and translating those into scalable mechanisms.

An example is the story of a young mother returning post maternity. As she rejoined the team, I could only see her passion for her work, and the ease with which she seemed to take on a larger and more complex role post return. It was only later, as I heard more about her experience, did I realize how worried and nervous she was and how important an enabling support system for her. She also penned down a very candid Linkedin post on journey back to work where she said, “I could openly discuss easing back into work, the flexibility I needed and so on. I was blessed to be able to stay with my parents while I resumed working remotely, as it eased the transition both for me and the little one. Like I had anticipated, it was hard to resume work, yet it was refreshing, for it reinstated my sense of familiarity, confidence to balance between ambitions and mommy duties, the joy to learn and grow.”

This experience led to establishing Mothers@PhonePe — a structured program to help new mothers plan for their gradual and seamless reintegration into their work life.

While we are still some distance from the 25% goal, representation of women in senior roles has increased from 7 to 17, while also creating a stronger mechanism for the growth of women in the organization. More than anything, this creates role models that are inspiring for all of us.

Social Listening: In the past few months, I found one action deeply institutionalized at PhonePe — We spend a lot of time listening to our people through different platforms, whether that’s virtual listening, surveys, or specific forums to really enable diversity and inclusion — in a genuine attempt to understand if our strategy is translating into everyday experiences. It is heart-warming to hear PhonePe-rs voice their appreciation, bring up concerns openly and trust that their inputs will be actioned.

Allyship: When diversity and inclusion is treated as a culture, and not an initiative, the difference is palpable. A key piece of incorporating this is encouraging allyship- the process of enabling the majority to actively support minority groups by understanding their lived experiences and advocating for change.

Since we began the work, we have had a small but passionate majority share their support, participate in actions and engage in learning. The primary focus for our efforts with sexual minorities is to enable awareness through formal and informal discussions that help PhonePe-rs understand the everyday experience of the LGBT colleagues. We know we are succeeding as the conversations are no longer limited to the structured sessions conducted centrally. We have employees reaching out with specific behaviors they see, and seeking help to have these addressed. Our education and awareness sessions have shifted to being employee driven, where people reach out for information so they can address the biases of their colleagues in every day conversations. Our annual survey has a higher number of employers willing to disclose their sexual orientation, more of them feeling safe disclosing their identity and a higher number of employees comfortable engaging with people from the community.

It helps that our policies are inclusive and provide the right insurance and parental support to same sex couples.

The journey of educating employees to consciously develop inclusive behavior is a unique experience, which has helped me shape my thought process and grow into a more empathetic person. It has also been an internal milestone for me to become a visible and vocal ally.

Building a place where everyone is respected and included is not an overnight journey — it’s an ongoing process requiring hard work, commitment and collaboration. We are sowing the seeds today and someday these will grow into vast forests wil deep roots and broad canopies.

I am truly enjoying my journey at PhonePe as I build this positive employee experience where D&I goes beyond programs, policies, headcount and buzzwords. It is a place where I ‘belong’. It is a place which has made me genuinely commit directly & indirectly that in my sphere of influence I will not make my colleagues feel excluded — and it’s a lofty goal to achieve.

About the author:

Akshaya Venkateswaran is part of the HR center of excellence team, she leads Diversity & Inclusion and Capabilities charters in PhonePe. Akshaya has worked across industries like BFSI, Pharma, Biotechnology, Manufacturing and Conglomerates. In her earlier stints, she has worked in Business partnering, Talent management, Leadership Development and Organizational Development roles.

Akshaya is driven by her passion for building a strong talent pipeline in the organization and shaping Inclusive & supportive cultures. She is particularly interested in helping organizations explore their full potential through adoption of right People practices in this ever changing dynamics of work-worker-workplace. Her other areas of interest include Business Partnering, Organization Development and Org effectiveness.

An Electronics engineering graduate, Akshaya has completed her Masters in Business Administration in Human Resources from Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. She believes in operating from ‘Growth Mindset,’ eager to continuously build on her academic foundations in HR and stay in tune with the emerging Talent trends across industries. Akshaya’s passion outside work includes travelling, keen interest in music and cooking.

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