The Token Minority Syndrome: A Story of Self-segregation at the British Workplace


By. Janani Chitra Rajendran



Two international students, A and B, supposedly good friends who bonded over cultural kinship and coursework, are looking for similar work opportunities. After a long application-rejection struggle, Friend A eventually gets a job. At her workplace, Friend A becomes aware of another opening at her new company that suits Friend B’s qualifications. However, this opportunity is kept secret from B by A. It did not become a part of their daily text messages, nightly phone calls or weekly dinners.


This situation is counterintuitive to what is generally assumed about kinship. Homophily, the natural tendency to seek out and promote individuals with whom we share a kinship, is what would have been naturally expected. Many would have expected that, in the absence of specific mitigating factors, Friend A would put out a helping hand to enhance Friend B’s chances, perhaps doing everything within their power to help them access the opportunity within their workplace. However, the reality can be quite different. As in this story and similar scenarios within competitive settings, many minority workers have tended to limit the chances of individuals of similar backgrounds by withholding information. 


There are three main reasons behind such anomaly: (Kirgios et al., 2020)

  1. It is easier to set oneself apart as a token minority.
  2. Desire to avoid relationship damage due to in-work conflicts with the friend. 
  3. Desire to avoid being pulled down in case of Friend B’s potential misbehaviour; assumptions of kinship similarities in work ethic, capability, and comprehension.


In this blog, I want to shine a spotlight on what diversity means in the current British workplace. Diversity brings about new ideas, perspectives and growth to an organisation. But when it is primarily judged as numbers, it gives way to tokenism, a skewed ratio between the minorities and the majority, leaning largely in favour of the latter, with only a symbolic representation of the former. Such token minority positions are often wildly competed for and lead to antagonism within homogenous groups of the same race, religion, or who speak the same language. 


Studies show that anti-homophily behaviour patterns exist within minority groups (Kirgios et al., 2020). This represents a step away from individual and group intrinsic desires for interconnectedness and interdependence. It breaks traditional decision-making patterns, like choosing courses or drawing up a career plan based on what family and friends do and applying for similar jobs in the same company. When a minority employee feels they may have been selected for a particular position in a non-diverse workplace, they tend not to want their token minority status diluted. Though desired, the effects of tokenism include poor mental health, poor job retention, and reduced intrinsic motivation. 


NIAS arranged a roundtable discussion at its offices in Holborn Circus, London. The session was attended by a selection of staff from workplaces in London, the most diverse city in the UK. Minority female audience members appeared to agree more with the underlying theory of the blog. After ten years at the same workplace, one participant still felt they had to prove their worth above and beyond their non-minority counterparts. Another acknowledged unconscious bias was present within their workplace, and they needed to significantly tone down their natural predispositions to fit in. 


Yes, there is a general sense of competitiveness and tension amongst all employees, whether they are a minority or majority. However, there is a different effect on one’s mental, physical and spiritual health when the individual is a minority (Rosette et al., 2018Smith & Griffiths, 2022DeCuire et al., 2016Hollis, 2018). 


In conclusion, we understood the need for further research and analysis of this syndrome. Diversity should be seen more than just as a game of numbers as this approach cannot mitigate many practical issues people face today (Casad & Bryant, 2016Wilton et al., 2020). 


Tokenism exists and its effects are layered with hypervisibility, microaggressions, intersectionality and identity shifts. It needs to change. Perhaps that would alleviate the irrational fears that Friend A has about providing information to Friend B.


In my next blog, I will explore the effects that tokenism within the workplace has on minority employees, the workplace, and hiring practices.