How to start talking to your team about diversity

This post is the second in our “Lessons from the USV Diversity Summit” series. In December, USV hosted our first Diversity Summit. Below are some of the most helpful insights we gathered about how to take action. If you are just joining the conversation, you can read the first post here.

Start somewhere

Who starts the conversation around diversity? Who will be the first one to say something, out loud, to your team? How do you start that conversation?

Talking about diversity can feel awkward. Many of our attendees found themselves leading the charge at their companies simply because they were the first person to speak up about it. Others had their leadership role bestowed upon them because they happened to be the first person on their team to represent diversity.

A lot of our attendees told stories about how their company first “discovered” they had a diversity problem. Sometimes the team’s lack of diversity was pointed out by an outsider: “So how does it feel to be the only female engineer in your company?” Other times it was something people realized for themselves: I noticed I was the only black person at our all-hands meeting of 100 people.” Occasionally, diversity came up because employees realized there was a mismatch between the team and its customers: “As a team of ten white male engineers, we don’t represent the market or our customers.”

Most of the time, it was up to the diverse member of a team — whether they were a minority with regard to gender, race, or background — to take up the diversity initiative themselves. This can create the impression that diversity is important to that person simply because they want more representation for people “like them.”

We asked our attendees to tell us about their fears and concerns. Here are some of the sentiments that emerged:

  • “I’m a woman and I’ve never been discriminated against, but I know others have, so I’m making sure that behavior doesn’t continue for others.”
  • “I’m Latino, and I know a number of talented engineers of all backgrounds. I don’t want them to feel like an outsider like I did when I joined.”
  • “I’m the only male on my team, and I don’t want my opinion to be perceived as, ‘this is what all men think.’”
  • “I was the first female engineer, and I wanted to show other female engineers that they would not feel alone here, the way I felt alone when I was the only one.”

Waiting for minority team members to start the conversation themselves is dangerous, because if there is no diversity in your team, how will you ever start? So don’t wait. Start the conversation now.

If your goal is to be the best place for top talent to work, it should be the best place for anyone — even if they don’t work there yet.

We’re all in this together

No matter who or “what” you are, diversity belongs to all of us. To frame the discussion about diversity at our summit, we discussed unconscious bias early in the day.

We are all different from the next person. We all have biases that we use in our decision making, biases that come from our upbringing, our life experiences, and our interactions with the culture and the world.

Leaving it to the professionals, we played a portion of Google’s video on unconscious bias. The video explains the importance of bias awareness in how a tech company successfully makes decisions. The video is worth watching in its entirety.

The concept of unconscious bias gives us a shared language to frame our personal experiences. Instead of saying “we,’” “them,” or “us,” — or using general statements like “men like to…” or “as Hispanics, we…” — we instead each framed our own thoughts around bias, conscious and unconscious.

Here are some examples: “I’m biased in favor of iPhone users, since I’ve always used an iPhone and never an Android.” “I’m biased in favor of NYU grads, people who grew up in North Carolina, and middle children.” It’s okay to have these biases, but letting them go unnoticed is where we get into trouble. If I only want to interview candidates who come from NYU, I’m letting my personal bias affect decisions for my company. If I believe that people who have been entrepreneurs just “fit the culture better,” I may not realize that I’m biasing a hiring decision. The idea might sound logical, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

In your conversations, you may find it easier to talk to your peers about diversity if you have thelanguage to talk about differences, rather than generalizing. Instead of saying, “I only hire SVA grads,” you might try substituting, “In the past, I’ve had a bias toward hiring SVA grads.” Modifying the language you use in your mind can make the difference between weighing a decision and having your mind already made up.. It’s the difference between being open to discussion vs. being closed.

We found that establishing a shared vocabulary empowered us to speak up, be empathetic, and encourage without turning the conversation into an “us vs. them” type argument. Unconscious bias training is a great way to kick off diversity discussions, but it is only the foundation of a larger conversation. There are more unconscious bias resources listed here.

Allies and open conversations

The most cringeworthy stories we heard about at our summit came from people’s efforts to try to “get people talking about diversity.”

One company had held an all-hands meeting to discuss diversity. Anyone could weigh in, share ideas, and speak up about what they wanted changed. To ensure that employees were building off each other instead of battling, the facilitators required everyone to say “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…” The conversation generated a lot of ideas but left everyone exhausted. At the end, everyone had to come up with one word to describe how they were feeling. Most people chose words like “uncomfortable,” “tense,” or “stressed.”

In hindsight, brainstorming sessions that have more than 50 people are rarely productive. Extroverts excel, introverts hang back. Leaders speak up while newer employees proceed with caution. It’s not the right forum for most topics, and it;s not a great forum for diversity discussions either. The meeting generated conversation, but nothing moved forward until a smaller group took the lead and started to make changes.

Starting with a small group proved to be a successful strategy for several other companies as well. Two different companies set up lunches to try to bring women in engineering together and ask: “What can we be doing better?” One company found that just creating a space to discuss the question already helped the attendees feel supported and heard. At the first meeting, only women were invited. Once the safe space had been established, the second lunch was open to anyone. Ultimately, the meetings led to several positive outcomes: (1) women in the company were encouraged to attend the Grace Hopper Conference, the leading conference for women in engineering (2) the company started requesting a Code of Conduct from conferences attended, and (3) the company pledged to have more diverse hiring panels.

Several companies advocated starting the process by assembling a small group of people to brainstorm about objectives, then bringing in more people only after the small group had a handle on what they wanted to accomplish. The small groups don’t need to be limited to one type of diversity. It’s enough to start with a small, diverse group of individuals who all share the same mission: to increase diversity on their teams.

Defining Diversity

Once you’ve gathered your small team of allies, the next step is to define what diversity means to your company.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has an extensive (and evolving) list of classes who are protected from discrimination. Since discriminating against members of these classes is against the law , it’s probably a good place to start. But you don’t have to stop there.

Here’s Stack Exchange’s philosophy on diversity in the workforce. This statement can be found on all of their job listings:

Diverse teams build better products
Legally, we need you to know this: Stack Exchange, Inc. does not discriminate in employment matters on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, military service eligibility, veteran status, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, or any other protected class. We support workplace diversity.
But we want to add this: We strongly believe that diversity of experience contributes to a broader collective perspective that will consistently lead to a better company and better products. We are working hard to increase the diversity of our team wherever we can and we actively encourage everyone to consider becoming a part of it.

Another company defines it as “Diversity of Thought.” They built off the EEOC guidelines, but expanded it to include diversity of skillsets, education, and interests. They took what was required legally and added to it to make sure it felt authentic to their company culture and their existing team. Diversity belongs to everyone at the company, not just a subset of employees.

Start small, start today

One of the break-out sessions from our summit was “Talking about Diversity without Tension.” There were a few takeaways from that discussion. There will be always be tension, even in a small group. Trying to avoid tension may actually be counterproductive. It’s more important to have the conversation than to try to avoid it.

The best way forward is to start small. Assemble a small group of people to start the discussion in a safe space. Invite a professional trained in diversity or unconscious bias to join you. Or bootstrap early conversations with online resources. We’ve collected a few recommendations in the Diversity Hackpad here: Unconscious Bias Resources. Whatever the size your company, start your small group conversations today.

The next post in this series will explain how to take the small group conversations and extend them to the wider company culture.

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Originally published at www.brittanymlaughlin.com.

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