You have a culture problem. Here’s how to avoid a diversity disaster.

You might be in trouble if you’re not asking these questions

Ellen K. Pao
Jan 23, 2018 · 5 min read

When I talk to tech founders and CEOs, one of the questions I hear a lot is: How can I tell if my company has a culture problem?

“I know company culture requires constant improvement,” they say with a worried look. “But how do I know that I have a problem before it blows up in my face?”

It’s hard not to be disheartened when I hear this. Not because people shouldn’t think about how their business improves itself, but because they’re mainly worried about earthquake-scale problems. They’re focused on the gigantic explosions that make headlines, or kill companies — those Uber, SoFi, Magic Leap levels of implosion that we saw so often through 2017.

Photo: Bitboy under Creative Commons

The reality, though, is that these major seismic events could have been prevented if they’d identified the things early on that shut the door to new opportunities or made their startup stutter — not the major shakes, but the tiny tremors. Building a culture simply to avoid a “big one” won’t build diversity and inclusion.

Some industry leaders ask how they can identify if these little shivers are happening, and then they hire million-dollar experts to judge their culture, to conduct countless interviews, and analyze hordes of data. The answer is even simpler, and (better yet) needs almost no resources. It just requires the CEOs and founders to ask themselves these six questions to determine if they have a culture problem early on when there’s still time to course correct.

Do I (or my managers) have a “rockstar” employee I’m worried about losing?

Photo: trix0r under Creative Commons

If you’re terrified that an employee might leave, then it’s a matter of time before that employee realizes it. In fact, maybe they already do. And anyone who knows they are invaluable is likely to test your company’s boundaries one way or another as they are given more leeway and performance rewards — and their ego balloons. Other employees will sense and pay attention to this dynamic, and that’s a recipe for bad behavior all round.

Have I removed a perpetrator for bad behavior?

Let’s be honest, we all hate firing people. It’s easy to hope that putting somebody on a performance plan or telling employees to “move past complaints and just work together” might work. But if you have more than 100 employees and you haven’t had to let somebody go for bad behavior, then it’s very unlikely that you’re enforcing a rule that “harassment will not be tolerated.”

How can there be a big problem if no one is complaining to HR?

It’s easy to know you have a potential earthquake if everyone is pointing out the problems to HR. But it’s also an indication that trouble is brewing when no one brings up any problems. It’s highly unlikely that a company culture is so perfect or uniformly practiced that everyone’s happy. Study after study has indicated that men and women have distinct versions of what they consider appropriate behavior, and the same goes for generations, ethnicities, and social backgrounds too. So if nobody is communicating about those differences and trying to create new norms? It might mean nobody trusts your HR department — or your culture.

Am I (and is my HR department) discussing culture concerns regularly?

Company culture is driven by the top, starting with the CEO. If you don’t take culture seriously, and model it consistently, then your employees won’t either. Likewise, anyone responsible for day-to-day staff operations can’t succeed in a vacuum — and if you’re a CEO who expects HR to simply take care of culture on your behalf, or a leader who tells everyone in the company that complaints and concerns are difficult for you to process, then your team and the problems will likely be ignored. Employees in these situations don’t feel comfortable raising concerns early. If you don’t let your team, especially HR and leadership, know that early reporting is important for finding and solving problems, these smaller issues will likely balloon into something bigger, more entrenched, and harder to fix.

Have you checked in with people who raised concerns in the past?

It’s nice to imagine that once you raise a concern, everyone solves it for once and for all. But culture problems require hard work. Have you gone back to see if a problem has actually been solved? Have you asked the people who raised the complaint if your solution is working? Have new problems surfaced? Do they feel safe from retaliation, which happens 75% of the time? Are you measuring progress regularly?

Have employees from well-represented groups spoken up to correct bad behavior?

One of my favorite flywheel activities is to reward employees who speak up to correct behavior in a public setting. “I think we interrupted X,” or “Let’s make sure Y is included in this meeting” are good for your business. The reward could be as simple as praising those employees in public.

If you’re encouraging people to openly speak up about bad actions but with less tension and conflict, you can save potentially millions of dollars over time by retaining employees and making them more effective. The best way to encourage this is to model it yourself — and bonus points if you openly talk to staff about the ways you’re trying to correct behavior without drama or turmoil.

Chances are that, if you are honest with yourself, you answered yes to at least one of the questions above.

You may be tempted to dismiss the concerns, perhaps telling yourself that these company culture problems will improve on their own or that at least you’re not Uber. Identifying and accepting that you have some real diversity concerns for your company is the first step. The next steps are just as easy. Research and start some discussions about diversity with peers and experts. Check out And remember — ignoring these tremors and putting your head in the sand is the first step to creating a diversity disaster.

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