Inclusivity: Moving from value to priority
I can’t recall the exact moment; it was sometime last year. After a series of final-round interviews with job candidates, something bothered me: while solid and experienced, they were not the person we were looking for. They also all looked like junior versions of me.
Over the past eight years, Luminary Labs has earned a reputation for being female-friendly, family-friendly, and ultimately, human-friendly. We have employed staff hailing from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences: first generation immigrants, people of color, people early in their career, people with 25 years of experience, the LGBQT community, people who hail from the city, and people who brag about the biggest tractor they have driven. But at one point, our recruiting pipeline — and therefore our staff — became even more female, and even more white. Worse, I knew that we most likely missing out on really great talent.
How could this be? The most common response was, “of course our pipeline over-indexes for people who look like you; you’re a role model.” While a part of my brain accepts this, the other part of my brain argues that if it were all men, this same logic would have more holes than a slice of swiss cheese. I’m a firm believer that a room full of sisters is not necessarily better than a room full of bros. We would need to work harder.
Hiring is an intense process, and to be told that none of the candidates are a fit means that someone needs to go back to square one. Team members need to shoulder more work for a few more months. And recognizing our individual biases is uncomfortable. At one point, a team member said, “if inclusion is a priority, tell us, and we will make it so.”
Believing in inclusivity and explicitly designing a company to be inclusive are two very different things. And so a small group formed.
We started by defining what inclusivity means to us and why it is important. At the core of our culture is an appreciation for critical thinking. We are not afraid of thorny and complex problems with no simple answers — in fact, we seek them out. Our natural curiosity has created a practice of point-and-counterpoint discussion that seeks out diverse perspectives and even rebellious thought. (We often do this for fun.) If we want to bring the best thinking, we need to be inclusive of many lived experiences and ways of being as possible for a small company.
As students of Human Company Design, we added all things inclusion to our reading list, sharing examples of companies that were doing it right, and those that were not. We followed new voices, watched webinars, expanded our circles by attending different events, and allowed every new piece of information to challenge what we previously held to be true.
Fresh eyes were laid upon our approach to talent. While the symptoms appeared in the recruiting cycle, we also assessed our culture and how it relates to inclusion. We pinpointed the areas where new approaches might yield different results and then set up pilots in short order.
We have many people to thank for sharing their knowledge. Heather Brunner of WP Engine shared the effect of dropping degree requirements where not necessary. Kelli Newman gave tips on how language choice in job descriptions — and even the use of bullet points — can affect the gender mix. We ran a trial with text.io to further examine word choice, and rethought image selection.
Last, but not least, Andre Blackman connected us to Willie Jackson, who helped me answer a lingering question from the team: what is our concrete goal? Can you quantify it? In larger or fast-growing companies, inclusion is often measured in percentages. For the small, controlled-growth company that adds a few people a year, zooming out a number of years to make similar calculations introduces many other variables that may or may not affect inclusion.
One of the hardest things about being a CEO is not having all the answers. We might have strong opinions or preferred ways of doing things, but prophets we are not. Willie, however, helped me rethink everything. Perhaps the goal of inclusion is not just about company metrics, but about being better humans on the street, in the subway, in your community. Instead of seeing it as something that needed to be fixed, embrace the energy and tension as a positive indicator that we are all moving forward.