Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) programs have seen a rise in corporate budget allocations in the past two years but remains a sensitive, sometimes divisive, topic in tech. I was compelled to attend an event on August 10 when Anna Binder, Head of People Operations at Asana, announced that Ellen Pao would be moderating a panel called Real Talk: The Uncomfortable Truths of D&I that featured these tech D&I leaders:

  • Sean Cervera, Senior Manager, Inclusion & Diversity at Twilio
  • Adrianna De Battista, Tech Recruiting at Lyft
  • Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Asana

The organizers declared the event a “safe space” so that the panel could speak openly and freely. They specifically asked people to not live tweet as they did not want specific sound bites attributed to individuals. Instead,  I summarized the main points, actionable advice, and takeaways.

It’s important to recognize that the best may not look like you.

Key Points

Define what it means to hire the best and what success in the role looks like. If you are creating a great product, you need to hire the best.

1. It’s important to recognize that the best may not look like you. “Imagine a world that is only comprised of Java.” This exercise effectively demonstrates to engineering teams that a single technology is not the most efficient nor effective and impinges on their ability to solve problems and innovate.

2. The back end needs to look like the front end. For example, many ride-hailing drivers are international and Latinx. This means the engineering and UX team of the drivers’ app needs to be comprised of people who can build and communicate for the relevant target audience.

3. Consider stripping the job’s definition of what success looks like. Recruiters are familiar with working with hiring managers who are looking for 10 years of experience for a technology that is only 8 years old. Experienced engineering managers, especially those in emerging technologies like blockchain, understand that you find a smart person whose learning- and decision-making process aligns with or is better than your’s. Those candidates will be able to stay updated on the most current and relevant technologies.

Quotas can create undesireable results.

Instead, setting goals and quantitative targets help evaluate overall success and discover areas that need improvements.

The Rooney Rule – from the National Football League’s policy that requires teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for head coaching and senior footbal operations jobs – is a controversial topic since most of the panel did not like quotas. Still, they expressed that the rule is a helpful guideline for recruiters to maintain a diverse network pool of candidates for requisition jobs, like engineers, that are constantly hiring.

There is implicit bias in the recruiting and hiring process so be self-aware.

For example, employee referral programs stiffle diversity and creates a corporate culture of very similar people because recruiting is sourced from the same network pool. This point spoke to me because I have worked for several companies that prided themselves on their referral programs. They would say “the best employees know the best candidates” while offering generous cash referrals bonuses and trips to Hawaii. These were typical homogenous Silicon Valley corporate cultures.

The “lowering the bar” excuse assumes that the status quo is free of bias and full of meritocracy.

Common arguments against D&I initiatives.

“D&I recruiting lowers the bar of the job candidates.” The “lowering the bar” excuse assumes that the status quo is free of bias and full of meritocracy. Additionally, there is a pipeline problem into senior roles. People have progressed in their careers via different routes. While there is a preference in tech for candidates to have worked at Google, that definitely does not create a diverse workforce. Afterall, Google’s last annual D&I report shows that they still have a lot of work to do.

“We don’t have the budget.” A common excuse for not doing a diversity program is money. Early stage startups are quick to say that D&I requires a lot money and therefore they cannot justify. However, companies like Slack [and Buffer and now-defunct Clef], have demonstrated that D&I can be a priority at any budget and any stage. Recruiter might have to be creative or different in holding inexpensive recruiting events such as a pizza/ice cream social recruiting sessions. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ideas.

Actionable Items

1. Define the goals of management and match the research data that supports you case for D&I.

2. Fill your recruiting funnel with under-represented talent so that when the appropriate role comes up, you already have a diverse pool to source from.

3. Track data, make a case study of your situation, and see where the gaps are.

4. Talk to every candidate about the company’s diversity value.

Ask someone to practice with you on how to talk to candidates. Since D&I can be a controversial topic, it’s helpful to verbalize what you are going to say. The panelists suggest practicing with colleagues to test the most effective way to approach and communicate this value.

5. Boolean searches on specific under-represented groups combined with skillsets will generate thousands of results. The panelists specified that this practice is not illegal in the U.S., but advised to check with your legal team on whether there is a corporate policy.

6. D&I is a series of small wins and fatigue is real.  The panelists suggest having a network of supportive people from different companies to come together to discuss the challenges, sort of like an Empathy Session.

Final Takeaways

Inclusion comes first and diversity follows. The panelists suggest that if you prioritize inclusion in the corporate culture, diversity will be a pleasant by-product.

In order for D&I to work, it takes everyone’s involvement. As the CEO of the event host, Dustin Moscovitz said a few words at the beginning of the event, outlining Asana’s diversity values. He said, “As white man, I know I have a role to play” [in accelerating diversity]. D&I may be a difficult conversation with people who are not marginalized. Most people don’t think they can benefit from these conversations. But when you discover your allies, these issues become about “Us” instead of “Us versus Them.”

Finally, no one is against D&I, they just don’t understand it. Again, imagine a world that is just Java. There is so much more potential and innovation to create and profit from that requires more than Java.

Other Resources

Research data proves that diverse teams and companies outperform. Are you looking for data about D&I programs, suggestions, open-sourced projects? I’ve done a round-up here:  Diversity and Inclusion Resource Roundup