YES HR Executive Thato Mmaditla has faced the trifecta of workplace discrimination “isms”

Thato is a strong believer in the adage that age is nothing but a number.

Youth Employment Service (YES) HR executive Thato Mmaditla is what many would call an old soul. She has been in tune with her life’s purpose from as early as she can remember. She knew she wanted to make a difference in the world and thus quickly changed from studying a BSc in computer science and mathematics to industrial psychology within months of her first year at university.

She held a full-time job at Nedbank as a systems trainer while also enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Johannesburg – and still graduated in record time. When she interviewed for her first HR role at Multichoice, the HR manager asked her where she saw herself in three years and she responded, “I see myself in your role.” Indeed, within three years, she had taken up that exact position within the company she had joined as an intern.

When she applied for her current role, she did not meet all the minimum requirements, which included having 15 years’ executive experience. “I sent my CV to the recruitment agency and they called me back to say they were impressed by my accomplishments in the HR field but that they didn’t think I would be able to get to the job because of my lack of experience. I told them to just put me in front of the interview panel and guaranteed that I would get the job. And that’s what I did.”

Workplace discrimination trifecta
As a young black female executive, Thato has faced all three of the common workplace discrimination “isms”. In addition to obstacles that come with her race and gender, she has also had to deal with colleagues undermining the value she brings to the table because of her age. It is something that she has always found very peculiar especially because HR, as a function, is meant to champion diversity, empowerment and transformation.

Asked how she has responded to people who undervalue her input, Thato says she has always reverted to data and uses it to demonstrate the impact of the changes she suggests and implements. She is also a natural leader who’s gifted in persuading and influencing at all levels. Her high EQ is also what makes her relatable to people from all walks of life.

“Because of my age, gender, and race I've had to work a lot harder than many of my peers, and sometimes that has been to the detriment of my own well-being. My experiences have led me to believe that we cannot succeed if the majority of us are held back, consequently I have decided to be more intentional about where and how I utilise my gifts.

“My current role at Youth Employment Service (YES) is aligned to my purpose, as it involves contributing towards the mandate of creating that first job experience for thousands of black youth, which could unlock a wealth of opportunities where anything is possible,” says Thato.

A strengths-based culture
As a qualified Gallup strengths coach, she understands the value of having a strengths-based culture where recruitment is based on traits and ability as opposed to years of experience and qualifications. A person who is an engineer by training will, for example, be appointed to drive ESG performance if that is the area in which they exhibit the most passion and competence.

As a result of this approach, which was adopted from the moment Thato joined the organisation, the talent management focus at YES has changed towards placing for purpose and strengths.

“Many of our middle managers and senior managers are youth. And we have recently appointed someone who is a millennial to the executive committee because they have demonstrated that they can do the job,” says Thato.

“It's really about changing mindsets when it comes to recruitment and talent management and the organisation's ideas around what makes an individual the right fit. At YES, we have decided that someone who is the right fit is someone with the potential to thrive in a role based on their natural strengths and aptitudes. Already, our people are more self-aware and, because of the way we promote others, they believe that anything is possible.”

Thato runs the internal coaching programme, which aims to help employees figure out what they're good at and passionate about. In cases where this is not aligned with their current roles, employees are shifted to functions and roles that are better suited two their abilities and interests.

“We should never be afraid to hire people with zero experience. Some of the most talented people I’ve come across have had no working experience and simply needed someone to give them a shot. I think we often forget, as leaders, that we were once unemployed when someone bet on us,” she concludes.