How to Organize for Equitable Employment at your Tech Company
To our allies who work in tech — those who are all set with the platitudes, the tweets, the blog posts, the BLM graphics, and who are ready to organize for justice — we want to work with you. There are many ways in which your company can defend black lives. For the sake of this article, we’ll narrow our focus to one: Let’s ask your company to commit to hiring more black engineers, as part of a broader effort to move the industry towards equitable employment practices. They’re unlikely to do so, without their employees demanding it. It comes down to you, the employee, to organize your colleagues, and lead the initiative at your office. You don’t need to do this alone.
A partnership between members of Boston Tech Workers for Justice and Resilient Coders is actively recruiting allies who want their companies to make good on their expressed feelings of solidarity. We need you. We will support, coach, and learn from you, as you navigate this journey, from the presentation of the idea through its execution. Our goal is to two-fold: (1) To change recruitment practices at your company, and (2) to come away with a playbook on how to do this, such that it can be rolled out at other tech companies.
We don’t need to start from scratch. Below are some practices we already know to work, though it’s incomplete. It’s scaffolding, which we intend to edit and flesh out. This playbook will be a living document, to be edited as we all learn from each other.
If you’re interested in agitating at your company, please email David Delmar Sentíes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start with Ethos
Whatever you’re building matters less than who you’re building it with. People don’t need your product, they need equitable pathways to prosperity. Your product is the vehicle through which you can sustain a company that sustains its people; work should work for the worker. And who those workers are is the most important question a company can ask, because it speaks to its impact on society. Your impact matters more than your sprint. Do you see yourself telling your grandchildren about the code you wrote, or about how you served your city in a moment of crisis?
Find each other at your company, and start with a discussion. Identify the delta between equitable practices and what your company is doing. Here are some examples of what we consider to be equitable recruitment practices:
- Remove the BA requirement. Ours is a city in which our minority-majority neighborhoods have a college completion rate around 20%. We all know that software engineering does not require a BA. Let’s not eliminate from consideration 80% of our communities of color without so much as a glance at a resume.
- No standardized testing, as it skews white and male. Recruitment should be project-based.
- Quit asking algorithmic design questions for coding jobs. If the job doesn’t require it, stop interviewing for it. Some developers believe that their algo class in college influenced their thinking, and made them the developer they are today. That’s awesome, and it’s a great example of one person’s path. But to mistake your path for the one empirically correct path is the literal definition of bias.
- Recognize the privilege of time. Some students are able to hang out in their dorm rooms between classes and work on cool side projects while others are in the mess hall washing dishes. This dynamic continues in the workforce. Let’s not punish folx for having to work.
- On-the-job training. Your ability to learn matters more than the amount of information you already have in your head. But we still like to hire based on the amount of information you have in your head, without regard for your ability to learn. On-the-job training, for all entry-level folx, is an example of one way in which we account for the privilege of time, and hire for potential instead of pedigree.
- Weekly structured mentorship. Important for a lot of reasons, but it’s especially important for people of color, womxn, and other folx who might be quietly struggling with Imposter Syndrome. They tend to ask fewer questions, because they don’t want to be “found out” as imposters. When people have a truly safe space in which to share their doubts and ask potentially embarrassing questions, they perform better.
Initial conversations with leadership
Start bringing members of leadership into these conversations. Frame the discussion as a desire to learn from them. Start by asking, rather than telling. Assume there’s a bigger picture that you’re not privy to. Why is it that we do it this way and not that other way? The strongest arguments are made entirely with respectful but probing questions. If you pull at the right thread, the sweater unravels.
Treat the person like a partner, implying that you know they share your values, and want to make it work. It might even be true. What are our potential blockers, given that we both want to be hiring differently?
A few deflections you’ll get early on:
Them: We don’t have time right now.
You: Okay. When will be the right time? What KPI will indicate that we’re ready? Let’s build a path to get there. I’d like to make sure I’m working in that direction.
Them: We don’t have capacity to support entry level folx.
You: Okay. How can we get to the point where we can? When will we know when that is?
Note: If your team really is consistently so strapped all the time that you can’t ever collectively assume the two or three hours a week it takes to on-ramp and adequately support a new employee, you might have deeper work/life balance issues. Your work isn’t working for workers.
Them: This other person or group of people will never go for it. The hiring manager. Talent Acquisition. Technical Leadership.
You: Okay, then let’s bring them into the conversation and find out what their blockers are.
Your asset is the fact that no one wants to seem like they’re opposed to equitable employment. Their argument will be that they agree with you in theory, it’s just that there are certain logistical challenges. So your position is that since you’re on the same page, you’re just there to understand the blockers and remove them.
Here’s basically what you’re trying to learn:
- Who are the influential people we need to get on the bus?
- What are their blockers?
- What are our processes?
These questions will determine the contours of your next phase.
Make sure your own questions consistently signal that you’re all on the same page. If you adopt an antagonistic position, you’re just making it really easy for them to dismiss you and your whole campaign. Don’t be an asshole.
The two types of “no”
There are two types of resistance you’ll meet from folx, once you start asking questions: Don’t Wanna (DW), and Don’t Know How (DKH). Neither of them will ever self-identity as such. It’s incumbent on you to recognize them and treat them accordingly.
The DKH will sometimes masquerade as a DW because it’s embarrassing to them to not know something. Pull them in. Treat them as the future allies that they are.
The DW might masquerade as a DKH because it’s easier than admitting to a colleague that you just don’t care that much about equitable employment practices. Recognize them, and move on. You’re not out to change minds at this point. And if all you have at your company are DW’s, get out.
Tips on communicating within the coalition
- Use existing structures and means of communication as long as you can. Slack. Standup. Whatever.
- Balance structured/scheduled communication with more organic, spontaneous conversation.
- Give a weekly bulleted update on progress. We have a “This_Week” Slack channel at Resilient Coders that we all contribute to on Monday mornings.
- Share genuine leadership of the conversation. Equity is about the recalibration of power. Be cognizant of your own power dynamics.
Want One Thing
Every effort to organize must arrive at, and rally around, an objective so simple it can be printed on a sticker. Fight for $15. The right to marry. Black Lives Matter.
Organizing for equitable employment at your tech company, while smaller in scope, will be most successful if you treat it similarly to these larger movements. Write down what you want. Use as few words as possible. Be as disciplined as you can with the specific points you’re fighting for. And be actionable with the asks you’re making of leadership.
There are many reasons for this: Consistency of messaging across activated people and press; ease of dissemination; clarity of vision; simplicity of compliance, among others. An often-overlooked reason for simplicity of messaging is that every point you make is a potential vulnerability you need to defend. Don’t open more than one front. Concentrate your efforts.
Levers of Power
It’s possible — maybe even likely — that the decision-makers you need to convince are DW’s, and are unmoved by your efforts to pull them into conversation. Remember that “wanting” is not binary. Your decision-maker may “want” equitable employment, but less than they want to advance other conflicting interests. Maybe they want to hire equitably, but less than they want to hire quickly, for example.
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, and definitely time-consuming, to try to convince a DW to suddenly begin wanting. Debate has its place. If you have all the time in the world, and an equal distribution of power between debaters, then by all means, debate. If you’re short on time, and/or not at the same level of corporate influence as those you want to convince, then you must be realistic about your chances at winning that debate. Explore other means of action.
The most likely scenario when you engage with a DW in leadership is that they offer up a token and then disappear. This means you’re too low on their priority list. It may be time to catapult yourself to the top. Find your Lever of Power.
You probably have at your disposal one, maybe two, such levers.
- The opinions of organized workers. Your leadership needs the buy-in of its workforce to do anything. Take that from them. Make it clear that they are at odds with the wishes of the majority of their employees. Draft a petition, and have your colleagues sign it. Move quickly; there’s value in surprise, and timing. Once your petition represents a significant portion of the workforce, present it to your leadership. Be public with it, but respectful. Always allow your leadership the opportunity to save face, and regain the trust and respect of your colleagues. A leader needs to see in your petition (and in your attitude) a chance to recover. They might try to ignore it the first time, or sidestep it. Keep bringing it up, publicly, until it becomes easier for them to engage with you directly than to continue ignoring you. As always, don’t be an asshole. You just make yourself easy to dismiss.
- Public opinion. Keep the press informed of your actions, and don’t be shy on social media. Don’t expect a consumer boycott; that’s just not the age we’re in. The public has a ton of other stuff to be incensed about right now. They just don’t care about your company. But there are a few key people who might: Potential candidates for jobs, prospective partners, investors, and board members. Their opinions matter deeply to your company’s leadership. Let’s generate some uncomfortable questions.