Building a diverse team? Start by asking questions of your own company
If you’re looking to build a more diverse team, don’t leave it up to potential hires to determine if you’re serious about inclusivity.
That was the thought of our Director of Development Noel Rappin when he kicked off a serious discussion about diversity at Table XI a year-and-a-half ago. Back then he was our Head of Talent, and he wanted our software consultancy to at least reflect, and hopefully lead, the effort to have a diverse technical community.
If that’s something you’ve been wanting as well, here’s how we’ve gone about creating a more inclusive culture at Table XI, starting with asking some tough questions.
Finding out there’s a problem with inclusivity
When Noel’s friend Liz Abinante published a guide to finding diverse teams for job seekers, he decided to try the guide himself, (instead of waiting for recruits to figure out how Table XI held up as a welcoming place.) After he answered the 16 questions, Noel invited me to answer them as well so we could collect another data point.
Our answers ended up being relatively similar: while we had good intentions, Table XI wasn’t always the workplace we believed it could be. Occasionally Table XI slipped into the more stereotypical culture that’s common in the tech industry, and we weren’t as inclusive as we wanted to be. Many social events centered around hanging out after typical work hours and involved drinking. Definitely a lot of Star Wars. If you didn’t grow up in a setting typical of the American majority, a chunk of Table XI’s culture wasn’t skewed toward you. We had an opportunity to make it more welcoming.
We also had evidence that certain personalities were struggling to be fully successful at Table XI. People who tend to be quieter — literally even the volume of their voice — or more introspective were having trouble feeling that their voices were heard. This went across gender and cultural lines. We know it’s common for extroverts to outshine introverts in business, but we want to be a company where all ideas are heard. So we knew we had work to do.
How to build a more diverse team: 3 steps to start
We won’t pretend to have the solution for diversity in tech. It’s a complicated problem that a lot of companies are spending time focusing on. There was no question that we were going to take every step we could to make our team more inclusive and welcoming, though. Aside from the fact that we’re all curious people who want as many different ideas at the table as possible, diverse teams produce better results.
We’re a software consultancy. To give our partners the best solutions, we need to first know what all the available solutions are. Five people from the same background will give you one solution. Five people from diverse backgrounds will give you five perspectives on the same problem. The more viewpoints we have access to, the more likely we are to offer options our partners need to hear and know.
Here are the steps we took to raise awareness and empathy across our team:
Step One: Quantify the problem
We believe in data at Table XI — so much so that our UX team practices evidence-based design. So we hired a professional to do some research beyond Noel’s and my answers to the questionnaire. Jo Avent came on board to help us figure out where the problems truly were, starting with comprehensive exit interviews with people who had left Table XI over the previous 18 months.
Input from former employees provided a clear imperative and a direction to start with respect to being more inclusive to women. At the same time, we wanted to keep our eyes open to potential issues for other demographic groups that are typically made to feel less welcome than white men in the tech industry. We began to come up with a way to build awareness of inclusivity in general while working to correct specific issues.
The first step was just to start listening. We asked everyone to work on their awareness, and come to me if they were uncomfortable with a situation or comment. Our team is happier knowing someone is listening, and it’s also empowered a few people to begin dealing with possible microaggressions in language or actions as they happen, because they know we have their backs.
We also quantified our pipeline, to see if there were any groups that seemed to have an edge through our interview and hiring process. We found that once people became job candidates, there was a level playing field. The work for our team is in creating a more diverse hiring pool.
Step Two: Raise awareness of the problem
Once we had a better understanding of the problem, we needed to start getting it out in front of people. We presented our diversity study’s report at our all-staff meeting. Instead of sending it to people and asking them to passively review it, we were able to stand in front of everyone and say “Diversity is an issue for us and the tech industry, let’s work on it.”
We’ve kept that transparency up by reporting back to the whole company on each step forward. We want them to know what we’re doing now and what we’re doing next, so everyone’s aware that we’re acting on this information. That’s also part of why we’re writing this post — we want to be accountable to the larger community as well, and to share what we’ve learned.
One example is our rooftop movie nights. Historically the movies have been chosen by one or two people, but not designed to pull in folks with different tastes. It happens: you love a cool thing and want other people to see the cool thing. You don’t always stop to think about the message it’s sending. So we started putting movie night to a vote. First we vote on a genre, so we can consider movies we might not otherwise. Then we push people out of their comfort zone by asking them to cast one of their two ballots for a movie they’ve never seen before.
There has been a little bit of pushback. Some people were used to things being customized for them, and perhaps felt uncomfortable when we changed things up. But that’s a good thing. Some of us feel a little uncomfortable all the time!
This process has spawned a lot of great conversations throughout the company. We’re all more comfortable raising up the issues we used to avoid. We’re able to talk about it together instead of defensive attitudes getting in the way on either side.
Step Three: Update systems to address the problem
We didn’t come out of our initial research with hard and fast recommendations. But we did know that nothing would get done without some accountability. We formed a diversity and inclusivity team of four to five people from all backgrounds to start making changes. Having a proactive, interested team directing energy at the problem is the best action we’ve taken. It keeps the momentum going and it lets our coworkers know who’s responsible so they can bring things to us.
The first set of recommendations were ideas we had been working on for a while: expanding Table XI’s maternity leave policy into a paid family leave policy and switching to discretionary vacation time. We’d had both in the works for a while, but we pushed up the priority and announced them mid-2016. We also updated our insurance policy. Instead of covering 100 percent of premiums for staff but none for families, Table XI now covers 80 percent of staff premiums and 50 percent of premiums for their dependents. And we’ve always given employees flexibility to balance work and life — I live in Seattle, for example.
We also started planning events that are interesting and accessible for everyone. We’ve planned a few kid-friendly events, and some that are earlier and don’t include drinking, so people don’t feel like they have to stay out all night to bond with the team. And if we do have an event that’s later or not kid-friendly, we’ll reimburse employees for childcare and travel.
What we’re doing next to build a more diverse team
Changing our systems is a process on which we can deliver. Changing our culture takes time and a lot of hard work. We may not have a full set of answers yet, but we will keep asking questions and keep talking. At the next all-company meeting, we’ve invited a group specializing in inclusivity training to facilitate an unconscious bias workshop that will help everyone engage with their less inclusive cultural behavior. We also added a diversity and inclusivity statement to our website, so our commitment is codified where we can all see it. We hold a lunch and learn dedicated to diversity and inclusivity topics every month. To help expand our pipeline, we rewrote our job descriptions to make them more reflective of the way Table XI really operates, and hopefully more welcoming. We also ran them through Textio, a program that checks for any biased words or phrases we didn’t catch. We’re focused on increasing the diversity in our recruiting pipeline. Every day we’re working inclusivity into conversations and making small changes to get us closer to a diverse team.
This process has been hugely informative for our team, and has already made our workplace more inclusive, though there’s always more work to do. We highly recommend any other teams wrestling with the question of inclusivity take the same steps to quantify and address the underlying issues. If you want to hear more about what we’ve done or have any suggestions for us, please email me.