Starting Up With Diversity

Posted on by in Culture, Startups

Why care about diversity early?

You’re not even sure if you’ll be around in a year. You need to figure out your market, your financing, your OKRs, etc; why should you even care about diversity and equity in hiring? It is not in your MVP and those issues can be solved later, amiright?

When companies put off focusing on diversity and accidentally perpetuate the same mistakes the rest of the industry makes when hiring, they’re creating a problem and then trying to fix it at a later date. Unfortunately, by creating the problem in the first place, it’s now that much harder to fix.

My friend once talked to me about his startup with nine software engineers who were all men (and like, maybe one machine learning intern who was a woman). They hadn’t focused on the issue and he was having trouble hiring the qualified senior software engineers he knew who were women. “It can’t really already be unfixable, can it?” he asked. It’s not… but goodness, who wants to be the first woman on that team when they have other options?

Any experienced and qualified individual who is part of an underrepresented group in tech has already had the experience being the “only” on their team, and it might not have been a positive experience. Even under good circumstances, being an “only” requires a lot of mental work in addition to the regular job they’re hired for.

I trust my friend, but did his team have some culture problems? Probably. Even a very non-toxic homogenous team with a good culture likely has subtle problems that won’t come to light until someone from an underrepresented group joins their team. That means the “first” has a lot of work to do and it’s a bigger risk to them, both in the job working out and in their career growth within the company. It also means there are likely hidden issues that are already affecting the overall retention and happiness of all employees. As you can see, it was also affecting this company’s pipeline, because a source of employees was mostly cut off from them. Not having a diverse team from the get go affects a company’s ability to hire and retain.

By not having women, people of color (POC), and LGBTQ people early, a company is also giving up a valuable pipeline for future candidates from underrepresented groups. There are whisper networks for bad companies, but there are also whisper networks for good ones. If someone’s happy in their company, they’re likely to tell others, “Hey, I found an awesome company here and I’d love the chance to finally work with you.”

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Why care about diversity at all?

But let’s take a step back and just check in, why care about diversity at all with a company? In short, profit. The longer answer is that of course you obviously shouldn’t let biases and systemic inequality interfere with your ability to hire a qualified person. But yes, it also does, in the end, benefit any company that’s serious about “making it.”

There is a whole body of research and many articles that articulate this better than I will. But essentially, diversity will make your product better, it will make your work culture better, it will make your company more likely to succeed, and, bottom line, it will mean better profits, especially if you have diversity at the top. McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Boston Consulting Group, and so many other major players have all have done significant research on the profit margins of diverse companies and the data is strongly pro. How pro? Boston Consulting Group reported that 19% higher revenue from diverse companies. McKinsey reports that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have better financial returns.

A diverse team will make a product that will appeal to more people, and that’s just good business. They will also make better decisions, be more innovative, and will be more focused on understanding the data in front of them, all of which are wildly important for companies getting off the ground. If you’re a startup, you’re looking for every competitive edge you can get, so don’t just give this advantage to your competitors. Instead, make inclusion your “unfair advantage.”

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How to start thinking about diversity

Now that we’ve talked of some of the “why,” let’s talk about the “how.” Diversity isn’t a single action. It’s a lifecycle from looking for the right person to evolving your company into a place people want to stay.

The following is some best practice advice and resources attached to that advice, but note that this is a snapshot in time. Every day we’re learning new ways of being more inclusive, just as we’re learning more pitfalls to avoid.  

Write a job posting that doesn’t turn off good candidates

Are you looking for a “Rockstar, 10x programmer”? That sounds like you’re hiring for “confidence” not “competence”, and individuality over collaboration.   

Job postings are not neutral. They contain a lot of information and they’re your first face forward. Make sure you’ve got one that accurately captures your values and actually targets the qualities you want to attract. Plenty of employers have found if they try to post their job application to a platform targeting women, they have to rewrite it. You can run the ads by multiple people and there are also sites online that can help identify language that is not inclusive.

Make sure the qualifications you list are actually things you require. I remember a famous job posting asking for 10+ years of experience in iOS development because they wanted the best! Unfortunately, the Apple phone had only been around for 3 years at that point. Make a distinction between nice-to-haves and must-haves. Would a bootcamp grad with JavaScript experience be sufficient? This is especially important as people who have had to historically work harder to be recognized for the same work typically won’t apply unless they meet all the minimum requirements. A study showed that women will on average only apply if they meet 100% of the qualifications, while men will on average apply with only a fraction of the qualifications. Confidence in and of itself is not an indication of skill and can be influenced by biases, cultural factors as well as lack of self-awareness.

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Focus on posting in networks that reach a well-rounded target audience

OK, so you put your job description on ten different sites, but who is your post actually reaching? Quantity is not quality when you’re trying to target the right people for the job. I’ll note when I last looked for a job, I didn’t actually read any job listings on websites. Instead, I mostly applied through my network, which was heavily skewed towards women.

In addition to your ten different sites, consider posting to sites or within networks that are targeting specific groups, for instance: jopwell.com, which focuses on POC. Some people only look through these sites, especially if they’re already gainfully employed and aren’t actively looking. Even for people who may have already seen your ad on a generic site, this can signal to them that your company is serious about being an inclusive environment.

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Have a good interview process

You want the best candidate for the job and the right person to round out your team. Full stop. Even aside from an emphasis on diversity, spending a lot of time getting your interview process right is very worthwhile. Focus on eliminating biases in the selection of candidates. This can be done multiple ways, though no strategy is perfect.

  1. Be aware of cognitive biases when reading through resumes, which can influence your selection choices. The most common biases that can influence your opinion on resumes are gender, race, and alma mater.
  2. Discuss requirements for the job and “nice to have”s before you see candidates. This allows you to reduce the cognitive bias of the decision-makers but also relieves the mental load of trying to come up with criteria after seeing a candidate.
  3. Ensure your interviewing team is diverse by including employees from underrepresented groups in your regular rotation of interviewers. Interviewers who belong to an underrepresented group may see different things in a candidate, including positive traits, contextual interactions, as well as cultural flags not apparent to others. An interviewee from an underrepresented group may also feel more at ease when the interviewing team is diverse and therefore more likely to do well.
  4. Have rubrics that you review before the interview, e.g. Rails, JavaScript, Front-end Frameworks, Self-awareness, Product understanding
  5. Focus on coming up with a good list of potential questions with different levels and experiences in mind. Beware of extremely specific “quiz” style questions or very difficult questions that seem inappropriate to the level the candidate might be interviewing for. Some of the best questions are those which start off easy and can slowly be built upon with more complex follow-up questions.
  6. Keep interviews targeted to skills needed for the job. Don’t have interview questions about red-black trees when what you need to know is if someone can write a good class in Ruby.
  7. First feedback about a candidate should be unbiased by “groupthink”. One suggestion in overcoming bias is to have interviewers write up feedback right after a meeting and to not discuss the interview with anyone until they have. Another is a firstpass up or down, in order to gauge feelings before discussing strengths and weakness of a candidate.

Make sure you’re also putting your best foot forward. Be proactive about providing and communicating available accommodations to candidates in your interview invites. Those accommodations can include a range of things from including instructions on how to enter the office for people with physical disabilities, to providing a potential pumping room that doesn’t have uncovered windows, to explicitly communicating that you will provide accommodations for people who are not neurotypical. Make sure you’re getting a candidate’s pronouns correct. Make it clear as a team to all the interviewers, what level they should be interviewing the candidate for.

Be sure to iterate your interview process over time. New ideas come out on this all the time and in some cases, the candidates who have gone through it can be the greatest resource. A recruiter (not someone on the interviewing team) can reach out after the candidate receives the decision, and can ask for feedback on the interview process. It’s good to do this for candidates that receive and don’t receive offers.

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Sell your company to the candidate

Make sure that you’re selling your company in a way that is targeting a variety of people in every way, starting from the marketing and careers page, to the benefits you’re offering, to the career advancement opportunities you promise are there for the future.  

Make sure that your offer is competitive externally and consistent internally with others who have the same years of experience. Of course, it’s still reasonable to make an accommodation for different skill sets that may be more valuable to the company, such as mobile, experience speaking at conferences or blogging, exceptional project management or people skills, experience with certain technologies with a high learning curve, etc. If you’re not sure what to offer, there are resources that can show you salaries, such as Glassdoor. When a candidate is evaluating your offer, they will take in the whole of their experiences with you, how the interview felt from their end, the offer you’ve made, and how you’re presenting your company to them.

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Keep the pressure on

You’ve hired one person from an underrepresented group for a small team, and that’s great! They may be 1-in-5, and you compare it to the industry average, and you’re like, hey that’s not a bad ratio! But remember that’s the average. There are plenty of companies that end up with a 3-in-5 or even a 4-in-5 ratio, and there are plenty of companies that end up with a 0-out-of-20 ratio.

And also, remember there are so many ways to make a team that is truly representative. If you’re succeeding on one metric of diversity (e.g. gender), but not on others (e.g. race, age, LGBTQ), then there are ways to improve the process. Don’t just think along just one axis of diversity, consider all of them, and make sure that you have a work environment that truly anyone can feel safe and valued on.

Don’t scare the talent away once you’ve hired them

If the “only” on your team is having trouble fitting in, it’s time to bring out the 1-on-1s, it’s time to bring out the retros. It’s time to listen to their feedback and take studious notes. It’s time to make sure you have HR in place to help facilitate. It’s time to figure out how to change your culture. Underrepresented people are often the canary in the coal mine for a toxic culture. They’re the ones most likely to be affected by it, but that doesn’t mean that other people are not. Toxic cultures can be slow simmers, chipping away your productivity over time and chasing away the talented people you had hoped to keep around.

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Retain a diverse group of talent long term

Hiring a whole bunch of diverse candidates will get you nowhere if you don’t know how to let them change your culture. You don’t get the benefits of diversity if you don’t allow their perspectives to shape the company.

  1. Make sure your culture is one where all voices are heard. Work towards a strong collaborative work environment that understands different working styles and different types of contributions.
  2. Take biases out of the review process and ensure you’re correctly accounting for the “hidden” work that’s done on your team.
  3. Have set guidelines for promotion and written and detailed job qualifications for each position and each level. This helps eliminate bias, creates transparency, and helps employees and managers plot growth and potential in an organization. Be a place where people from all walks of life can find genuine career growth and have great reasons to stick around.
  4. Have a company where it’s possible to have a work-life balance. Just because someone has a life outside work, doesn’t mean they don’t have a ton to contribute. And just because someone can contribute all their waking hours to a product, doesn’t mean you’re getting the most and best contribution you can from them.

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Stay up to date

We’ve scratched the surface here and we’ll learn so much more in the next few years about how to make our processes better, less biased, and more inclusive. Follow the new ideas and research talking about biases and figure out ways to iterate.

Additional resources:

Mailing list: Diversity Advocates

Weekly advice column: Inclusion at Work

Why Women Leave Tech: What the Research Says

Podcasts: