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The talent problem that employer branding can’t solve.

When I received an offer to work at Facebook, I almost didn’t accept. I was worried that in the move fast culture there weren’t many people like me. What I meant by “like me” had nothing to do with my race or gender or career aspirations but rather a nod to things that weren’t obviously visible: a mom of 33 with two kids under 5, married to a full time working spouse, and a family that relies on my income as much as we rely on my partner’s.

Invisible diversity matters.

My case may not be so typical, but the more I get to know my colleagues in the workforce, the more I wonder if the people companies say are like us, don’t just look like us, but are really like us. From the outside looking in, it’s nearly impossible to know whether an organization supports the diversity we bring that stretches beyond just our looks. Do they respect the invisible diversity which makes us who we are both as employees and members of society?

The inevitable question.

When I started working at Facebook, I realized I needed to carve out at least an hour each week to talk to people in my network that wanted to work at Facebook and complete referrals in our employee referral system. Not a surprise, Facebook is regularly rated as one of the best places to work, and between the work, perks, and salaries, it’s pretty easy to know why. Every role I’ve ever needed to fill, full time or contract, receives many more applications than I can review or follow up on and many of my colleagues say the same.

I’ve worked at several large corporations, and while the request for referrals may not have been as abundant, the asks for help to join organizations I’ve been a part of have been a mainstay. I’ve had the luck of working at companies where internal guidance and support to bring diversity into our roles and teams makes sure that everyone is welcome, regardless of background or beliefs.

So, what’s the problem then?

While the numbers are still not where we’d like to see them, we’re starting to see some good news as women in leadership are entering the c-suite. We’re keeping diverse slates when it comes to identifying and interviewing. We’re investing in talent branding and employer branding organizations to make sure our teams and potential team members know how great our company vision, values, mission, and vacation policies are. If everything looks so great, why do so many of my networking calls go like this?

“Hey, I’m really interested in XYZ, Inc. Do you like it there?”

“Yes, I love it — one of the best places I’ve worked! Do you want me to refer you?”

“Well yes, but — are you working all the time? Do you have to travel a lot? How do you manage the kids?”

The most depressing part is I’ve been on both sides of this call. No matter the company, the mission, the salary philosophy, or the perks, no one can accurately answer the question whether the working culture of the organization will leave you feeling full or frustrated. Why is that? It’s because your day to day life depends so much on the nature of your role and the expectations of your direct management line. And as far as I can see, even the best efforts to normalize culture across a company can’t neutralize this.

As corporations want to reap the benefits of entrepreneurial culture, the most rigorous work-life, once reserved only for founders and early employees at startups, has found its way into large organizations that want to stay nimble, agile, and on trend. While this culture has a draw to many of us, it leaves us stumped on how we can pour our lives into a company that isn’t entirely ours but still have a significant part of ourselves available for the other parts of our lives that we cherish. This disproportionately affects women and minorities — the very groups our employment branding efforts, particularly in tech, are trying to include.

This type of call comes to me from everyone: friends of all ethnicities, friends with graduate degrees, and some that are already executives at other companies looking for a change. Lately, it’s been men in my network who are looking for a chance to be more involved with their families while still providing financially. With all the content that’s been generated about work-life balance, work-life integration, alongside the promotion and personal branding of diverse leadership executives and new hires, why do we still struggle with the simple question?

“If I take this job, can I still have a part of myself? Essentially, can I still have a meaningful life beyond my job? “

What role is this playing in the diversity equation at work? Does it affect our ability to identify, recruit, and retain diverse hires across visible characteristics like gender, race, or disability? But even more so, does it limit our ability to capture the invisible diversity across life stage, socioeconomic status, and belief?

We address diversity head-on by searching for specific visible characteristics and our organizations proclaim, “We have people here like you.” But the truth is, if I see a woman leader, I can’t automatically assume she’s like me. In fact, there is a good chance she’s not at all like me — the things she values, the path she took, the sacrifices she made don’t belong to me, and I can’t even be sure she’ll have empathy for my journey. I’m not saying that it’s not essential to address the issue of visible diversity and in fact would beg the opposite. If we don’t continue to treat visible diversity head-on, the other invisible elements of diversity that may not be a one for one delineation to the visible aspects will never thrive. The simple act of bringing more visible diversity provides more examples and paths for us to consider as we try to understand if there are others like us.

What I am saying, however, is that if we genuinely care about building diversity in our organizations, while hiring and keeping the best talent, we have to make a change. We can’t penalize anyone that wants to raise children, intends to pursue a personal passion, care for a loved one, or be a single head of household. We can’t trap our most promising female talent by expecting them to wait to start families until they are older than 35, and we have to address that there is more to fixing this challenge than perks. And as I said in a previous article on female leadership, “An organization that is truly open to new ideas or methods and respectful of employee’s personal time is a fundamental part of creating an environment that welcomes diversity.”

So, how do we do it?

Invisible diversity is a hard problem to tackle, and it’s not because the examples don’t exist. It’s because we don’t have an effective way to share them. Employer and talent branding is trying to tackle it in the best ways they can with recruiting mixers and employee highlights. But the fundamental challenge of invisible diversity can’t be addressed efficiently within the constraints of our current recruiting and interviewing protocol — it’s a system that inherently asks potential candidates to hold off sharing who they are or asking questions related to job experience (like working hours, or flexibility) until after they have an offer in hand. This hurts employers and candidates alike.

The only way I’ve found success in this area is to make an effort as a hiring manager or referring employee to be alert and aware of invisible diversity and how it can sway great candidates. That means proactively sharing thoughts on workplace culture, flexibility, and work life for the role a candidate is considering before they ask. This approach gives them an opportunity to learn more about me, and (hopefully) gives them a chance to know if the level of flexibility I can support in a role works for them. I also share my personal experience and the things that I love outside of work if I can within the context of the interview.

The good news is when it comes to invisible diversity sharing your story can make a difference. Perhaps most importantly, all of us want to hear that our invisible diversity isn’t going to limit what we want in our professional paths, whether that be pay, prestige, or work that makes us proud.

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About me

At work, I create startup education, programs, and curriculum to help entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses while engaging global founder communities. At home, my husband and I have two wonderful children. I love music and am a cellist (formally trained for 14 years) who is learning to play again after an 18-year hiatus. Travel, meeting new people, writing, and spending time with my family makes me happy.

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