Paying Lip Service to Diversity Doesn't Work -- Here's What Does
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When Slack publicly pledged a future built on diversity in 2014, its desire to embrace more of a 21st century-style workforce was widely praised. Three years later, the company openly admitted via its diversity report card that committing to diversity had been a bigger challenge than it had anticipated.
That September of 2015, when Slack first released its diversity and inclusion data, fully 89 percent of its engineers were white or Asian. By contrast, in 2016, African-Americans filled just 4.3 percent of the company's technical roles. Fast-forward to 2017: That figure has inched up only half a percentage point.
Why was investing in diversity so hard? In a nutshell, Slack realized that while setting and announcing diversity goals may have been commendable, actual implementation couldn't happen without deep changes to an entrenched Silicon Valley culture that hinges on a relatively homogeneous workforce.
Startups and small businesses can learn a lot from Slack's initiative and the obstacles the company faced. Without changes to human resources practices and a commitment from leaders to look beyond particular attributes and the same, familiar places for candidates, diversity will always remain a goal -- but never an actuality.
The elusiveness of workplace diversity
While much hyped in business today, diversity too often is a sound bite with little bearing on the physical makeup of the workplace. This fact becomes especially apparent when we examine the distribution of work roles in a given organization. According to a report from Bloomberg, even a company as vaunted as Facebook has few people of color employed in engineering roles; those in leadership positions are still predominantly white and male.
A 2016 First Round poll of venture-backed entrepreneurs illustrates this problem's pervasiveness: According to the poll results, only 17 percent of founders and/or CEOs in startups surveyed were female; 84 percent of organizational boards were made up of all or mostly male members; and only 14 percent of startups had a concrete plan for diversity implementation and inclusion.
While startups have the benefit of operating without engrained legacy systems, it's still apparent that establishing a basis of diversity needs to be a larger part of these companies' strategies.
Building diversity into your startup's foundation
Often, homogeneity happens unintentionally. When launching companies, entrepreneurs tend to focus on a limited number of priorities -- such as profits, investor relationships or product innovation -- that can initially overshadow the priority of diversity. In this way, these entrepreneurs inadvertently engrain a monolithic culture. And most startups aren't putting measures in place to reverse this pattern.
Fortunately, there are at least three methods startups can use to focus more proactively on implementing diversity:
1. Change your recruitment funnel to enlarge your talent pool and eliminate implicit biases. Hiring managers typically look at skill sets alone when filling positions. Organizations need to begin assessing candidates through a different lens, by restructuring their recruitment funnel and prioritizing individual potential and talent.
Like a sales funnel, a recruitment funnel will continue to produce the same results if you never revise it. Consequently, if your company seems to be headed toward a nondiverse workforce, you'll need to alter your hiring channels in order to get different kinds of people to walk through your door.
Consider posting jobs on sites that prioritize diversity, such as Jopwell or Diversity.com. Also change how you interview candidates, to eliminate implicit biases. Slack, for instance, replaced the standard whiteboard exercise in its engineering interviews with a skills test that identified expert code regardless of an individual's background.
Once you've hired diverse talent, you can then work toward nurturing these individuals by fostering individual growth and creating a collaborative culture that allows employees to develop new skills and insights.
2. Create an environment where everyone has a voice. Without equal access to opportunity or the ability to move into major decision-making or change-instigating roles, employees who "bring diversity" to a startup will do so via numbers only.
Team trust and openness are essential for diversity to thrive. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information indicated that even if you have women on your team, they'll be discouraged from contributing if their opinions are consistently squelched. Not only will your startup lose potential opportunities to evolve and will suffer higher turnover, but you'll also create a culture where inclusion is only skin deep.
As a leader, share your desire for a diverse team with internal and external stakeholders and solicit feedback on the best way to manifest these changes in your company's culture. This feedback can take many forms, from in-person review sessions, to anonymous surveys, to casual conversations during team-building sessions or companywide lunches.
The sooner you seek these insights and bring them on board as part of your recruitment process, the sooner your startup will begin to benefit from diverse perspectives, approaches and experiences.
3. Encourage diverse populations to become advocates for diversity. Minority employees with leadership roles must be empowered to help peers or potential employees achieve similar results, but this doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.
Currently, just 23 of the Fortune 500's CEOs are women, according to data from the World Economic Forum. That's a shockingly small number. But the more that underrepresented individuals reach out and serve as an example or gateway to others, the more they can bolster workforce diversity and help others overcome issues related to career advancement. Particularly for startups,a smaller-size organization creates more opportunities for outreach and individual attention.
In sum, while shouting "diversity!" from the rooftops is a good first step, startups need to take a comprehensive approach to upending their practices and making diversity more than a buzzword. Evolving hiring practices, creating an inclusive work culture and advocating for greater change will not only manifest a more positive working atmosphere, but will foster success by appealing to diverse customers and clients.
So ask yourself: What will my company look like tomorrow?