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Feeding her soul

Ritu Bhasin’s career awakening inspires a revival in workplace authenticity

by Susanna Eayrs

Feeding her soul

Ritu Bhasin, LLB’00, saw law as a way to fight back.

Bullied as a child at school, culturally adrift between her Sikh upbringing and Canadian society, Bhasin started to doubt herself. “I started to believe there was something wrong with being brown. And I desperately wanted to fit in.”

Today, Bhasin is using her Western Law degree to reset the rules for others.

With Law degree in hand, she got “swept up into the Bay Street tide.” She landed a corporate law job practicing civil litigation and then spent seven years on the senior management team of a pre-eminent Canadian law firm as director of legal talent.

But even after a decade in the legal profession, something didn’t feel quite right.

“I now realize, with the benefit of hindsight, that I went to Bay Street for the money and the status. But it wasn’t feeding my soul.”

Working as a lawyer served her well, for a while. She was successful, doors opened and the experience gave her terrific training and connections. But she knew she was paying a heavy price for her success and was exhausted from her constant need to conform.

That awakening gave her the insight to help others be more connected to their “authentic self.”

In 2010, Bhasin founded bci consulting to help organizations become more diverse, inclusive, innovative and successful. Travelling globally speaking on inclusion and mindfulness, she published her thoughts and perspectives in The Authenticity Principle in 2017. The book combines research on neuroscience, mindfulness and diversity with insights from more than 50 leaders, as well as tips on how individuals can bring their “authentic cultural selves” to work.

Bhasin, who was awarded the Young Alumni Award of Merit by Western’s Alumni Association in 2013, has worked with almost every large Canadian law firm now. She has seen how the relentless pressure to conform to a rigid culture has created a lot of dissatisfaction.

Bhasin said there are issues in the way in which legal environments are structured.

“We say we value differences, but really what we’re doing, as a collective, is pushing conformity and in the long run, legal employers who don’t adapt will miss out,” she said. “Differences are what actually propel innovation and creativity, which is what propels the bottom line and profitability.”

According to Bhasin, everyone adopts behaviours to conform in a workplace – “but the more marginalized one is, the more you have to move away from yourself to fit those expectations. And people often feel an intense pressure to change who they are in order to fit in.”

She acknowledges a demographic shift. In Ontario, at least one out of four new calls to the Bar are racialized and more than 50 per cent of law school graduates are women. That has made cultural differences more the norm within legal environments. But the problem, according to Bhasin, is legal culture is not set up to leverage those differences. “The drive for efficiency encourages organizations to push for sameness through demanding behavioural conformity and masking authenticity,” she explained.

She argues there is tremendous value in cultivating an environment where people can bring their differences to the job and that those differences are embraced. “For those leaders who get it, and who are actively working on changing behaviour and celebrating differences, their cultures will shift and benefit.”

Bhasin said workplace legal culture is changing – slowly. “It’s a slow-asmolasses shift.”

Though real progress has been made with the retention and recruitment of women, there is a reticence and fear to talk about race. “It’s uncomfortable to tackle the issue of race. And, in particular, the experiences of black lawyers and Indigenous lawyers.”

When working with leaders, Bhasin looks to “call people in and not call them out.”

“We collectively need to work together. It’s important that’s done in a way that encourages and inspires behavioural shifts, rather than one that makes people shut down.”

Bhasin wrote The Authenticity Principle for two audiences: For people like herself who want to succeed on Bay Street or in corporate Canada but want to do it authentically and don’t know how. And for leaders who hold power and want to build more inclusive environments.

“Our society needs a new paradigm for how we treat each other based on our differences,” she said. “I hope The Authenticity Principle ignites a revolution.”

This article appeared in the Western Law 2018 Alumni Magazine.
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