Workplace Diversity

6 Simple Actions Startups Can Take to Foster Diversity

Building a diverse team is all about getting out of your comfort zone.
6 Simple Actions Startups Can Take to Foster Diversity
Image credit: Luis Alvarez | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Chief Marketing Officer at Lever
9 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While ‘simple’ may be in the title, let’s start by getting one thing straight. Whether you find yourself at a startup or a Fortune 500 organization, building a diverse company is anything but simple. That said, in the course of working at Lever the last two years, where we’ve grown from 40 to 140 employees while reaching 50:50 gender balance and building a workforce that is 40 percent non-white, I’ve come to realize that relatively small actions can yield meaningful results. With that in mind, here are six suggestions where to start as you set about fostering diversity at your startup.

Get real about how diverse and inclusive your startup is or is not.

Over the last two or three years, the diversity conversation has broadened to encompass both diversity and inclusion. In fact, many now argue that inclusion -- creating the conditions in which employees of all backgrounds feel empowered to do their best work -- needs to come first if you want your efforts to be sustainable. Or, put another way, it’s virtually useless trying to recruit diverse talent into an environment in which they won’t feel like they belong.

Related: Why You Need to Focus on Diversity Before It's Too Late

To get your bearings in the conversation, answer the following questions as objectively as possible:

  • Make a list of your startup’s last five promotions. How diverse do you consider them in terms of gender, ethnicity, and background?
  • Now make a list of your startup’s last five hires, and ask the same question.
  • If you haven’t made enough recent promotions or hires to know, think about your last several all-hands meetings and whose efforts you’ve acknowledged. Or, consider the last handful of raises and bonuses you’ve distributed. Are you distributing rewards and recognition in a way that acknowledges a wide-ranging set of contributions?
  • Lastly, think about the last five people to leave your organization. Do you notice any commonality in their circumstances or background?
  • If you see patterns emerging, this gives you a better sense of your starting point and potential areas to prioritize.

Teach your team to interview candidates consistently and objectively.

It’s an ongoing source of astonishment to me that, given the widespread consensus that hiring is really important for success, startups spend comparatively little time, effort and resources training employees to make objective hiring decisions. That matters because -- whether we like it or not -- we’re all unconsciously biased about the world around us. Thoughtful guidelines can help minimize the impact of that bias, or at least make us more aware of it.

In the absence of such guidance, too many interviewers end up evaluating candidates in a way that stymies diversity. A prime example is choosing to reject a candidate because they don’t feel like a ‘culture fit’ for the organization, which is often code for ‘they didn’t really seem like us’ or ‘I wouldn’t enjoy hanging out with them.’ 

In selecting talent to join your team, by all means seek out candidates who align with your company’s values. But if all you do is select people ‘just like us,’ you’ll quickly find yourself in a monoculture, which can stifle your creativity and your ability to succeed as a business.

Instead, provide resources to help employees get better at interviewing. Insist that candidates for a specific role be evaluated in a consistent manner. If you use an applicant tracking system, interview kits will help greatly; if not, create questionnaires, give each interviewer a slightly different script, but make sure they stick to it. If you need inspiration around objective interviewing, Lou Adler, CEO and founder of The Adler Group and author of the Amazon best-seller, Hire With Your Head, frequently writes relevant articles on the topic and is well worth following on LinkedIn.

Help the outside world understand you genuinely care about diversity.

If you’ve already hired employees who may consider themselves in the minority (say, those who are parents, are in their forties and fifties, or are engineers who learned their craft at a coding bootcamp), ask them if they’re willing to be featured on your company blog, or share their positive experiences working for your organization in a post on a content site like Medium or LinkedIn. 

Related: The Future Of Hiring, According to LinkedIn

Lever’s early sales team was predominantly male until we started focusing on creating more balance, which led one female account executive to write an important piece, Why We Need More Women in Tech Sales.’ Eight months and several thousand views, likes and comments later, we had significantly expanded the team and grown the number of women on it from 21 to 42 percent. Moreover, 80 percent of new female sales hires said they’d been influenced by a Lever blog post either to applying or to accepting their offer.

If you don’t yet have minority employees who are willing to speak publicly and positively about their experiences at your startup, show your support for the community. Attend local meetups that address diversity, or arrange volunteer opportunities that expose you to diverse populations.

Also, make sure your website photography doesn’t showcase the same types of people. If you’re in the position of trying to shift from monoculture mode, profile customers and other members of your community who represent other groups.

Make diversity a topic that everyone participates in.

As companies grow, employee resource groups (ERGs) often form to provide underrepresented minorities with a place to network and trade ideas with peers. At Lever today, we have the Leverettes (our group for women at Lever), the LeverHues (our LGBTQ group), the Black Leveroo Coalition (our group for African American employees), Lever Parents, and so on.

While our ERGs do a good job of keeping the dialogue open and welcoming the involvement of others who don’t fall into that category, I struggle a bit with the ERG concept. Yes, they create a safe and welcoming space, but if done poorly they increase the risk that important conversations get siloed. Before you know it, your diverse employees are discussing critical topics with one another behind closed doors, when exploring them out in the open might result in a more empathetic and welcoming environment.

What’s powerful, if you can pull it off, is engaging in company-wide discussion that helps foster inclusion and celebrate employee differences. And it doesn’t have to be a loaded conversation; the goal is creating cross-functional empathy. I still think back fondly to a session one of our employees ran called ‘Soundtrack to a Life.’ Employees were encouraged to submit a song that was meaningful to them and to share a 90-second story about the song before we played it.

What emerged from a couple of hours over beers was a deliciously eclectic playlist, and a conversation that helped me learn truly surprising things about team members that I hadn’t yet interacted with. To me, the most successful inclusion activities are those that foster a mutual sense of belonging among everyone -- whether they are in the majority or minority. 

Aside from activities, even the language used in everyday communication at your startup can contribute to an inclusive environment, or detract from it. San Francisco Bay Area-based startup Buffer published a useful guide to inclusive language for startups and tech that provides important food for thought.

If diverse candidates aren’t coming to you, go find them.

Over the last ten years, it’s become increasingly common for companies to turn to proactive sourcing in order to recruit the best talent to their team. The numbers make it obvious why: LinkedIn claims only 30 percent of the workforce is actively looking for work at any given time, so your applicant pool is drawn from that 30 percent.

Related: How to Make the Mobile Job Application Experience Great for Candidates

The remaining 70 percent are described as ‘passive candidates’ -- individuals not actively looking but willing to engage in a conversation about a new role if approached with the right compelling pitch. If you receive 20 applicants for a technical role at your company and they’re all white or Asian millennial males, clearly you’re going to have to work a bit harder to build a more diverse slate of candidates for consideration.

There are various ways you can think about finding talent from minority groups -- but whatever you do, don’t approach them merely because they are ‘diverse talent,’ which will be a real turnoff to anyone who falls into that category. Nobody wants to be a token hire.

Don’t wait.

I know from experience that there are never enough hours in the day at a startup. In the face of other priorities -- revenue! product! fundraising! -- it can be tempting to hold off on devoting energy and resources to diversity and inclusion. Here’s the thing: the longer you wait, the harder it gets. There will literally never be a better time to lay the foundations for D&I than when you’re still just a handful of employees. Unless you’ve hired extraordinarily well off-the-bat, the vastness of the task ahead only mounts over time.

So get after it. Set small goals. Chip away at it. Make diversity central at your company, and make it come from an authentic place. And above all, commit for the long haul. We may have won accolades at Lever, but we’re still learning on a daily basis. We’ll never be “done” with diversity and inclusion, but we know our focus is well worth the effort.

Interested in exploring the topic in more depth? The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook chronicles many of the things we’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) in building a strong, diverse, inclusive organization at Lever. 

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