In the early 2000s, I started attending South by Southwest. Back then, only 20 or so people of color were attending the conference.
At the time I lived in Austin, Texas, and worked at Dell. In the evenings, the two dozen people of color would get together and ask ourselves, “Where are the Black and brown tech speakers and content?” We were tech enthusiasts who incidentally became diversity pioneers at SXSW. We just wanted an experience that was relevant to us, network and collaborate with other tech professionals of color and, most importantly, add our point of view to the products and emerging trends shared at the conference.
4 Steps Toward an Inclusive Employee Experience
- Make sure actions back up words in your mission, vision and values statements.
- Start your change at the top, with full involvement from your CEO.
- Conduct a cultural maturity assessment of your organization.
- Establish KPIs for inclusivity.
When we pitched conference organizers our ideas for diverse content and speakers, we were met with resistance. Eventually, after many conversations over the course of a year, we were given the opportunity to host speakers and content targeting people of color.
Instead of including the events in the main SXSW lineup at the downtown convention center, we were given a separate space for our sessions — across the interstate in East Austin, the historically African-American neighborhood.
This was a win because it was the first time SXSW endorsed diverse content. Still, we felt we were separate but not equally in terms of adjacency to the main SXSW venue.
Two decades later, not much has changed. Many people of color in tech and/or corporate America encounter resistance when they ask for changes that will make a company more inclusive.
The solution is to transform the overall experience and make it inclusive for everyone, from onboarding to exit, not to make a second, separate experience, as happened at SXSW.
BIPOC talent often sees the adoption of the old DEI playbook, which involves decisions based strictly on ethnicities and race, with little regard to social and cultural shifts in the world. This results in DEI as a mere head-count game, with little or no regard to the experience those employees will have once they are working at a company.
It’s time to evolve. Here are four ways to establish an inclusive employee experience at your tech company.
Revisit Your Mission, Vision and Values Statement
Words are powerful. To garner more attention or gain followers, most startups make claims and write mission statements that don’t reflect the actual workplace culture.
Many technology companies start with two co-founders, scale quickly and then intentionally repeat a pattern: VC funding, deals and acquisitions flow from founders who have computer-science degrees from elite universities and are usually white men.
Tech founders have furthered this all-white boys club by hiring and promoting those who look like them. This permeates the entire industry, from the offices of venture capitalists to startup accelerators, to selecting which founders to place big bets on, to which receive media coverage. Inherent biases flow through the entire tech ecosystem.
We see this seeping into the setting of the tech company’s mission in the form of vision and values statements that claim to value accessibility and inclusivity when they do not.
As a tech CEO and leader of people, it’s crucial that you revisit your mission, vision and values statement while inviting diverse employees and advisors to the table to make sure words are backed up by actions. This can include anything from quarterly statements that showcase how you are making drastic improvements to ensure that what you are building is inclusive of all people, specifically people of color.
Take a cultural maturity assessment, explained below, and post your results on social media to open up a dialogue with your employees and customers to show you are pinpointing certain gaps and barriers your workplace has uncovered due to lack of investment in hiring and funding BIPOC talent.
Have Your Change Start at the Top
Many tech CEOs who receive Series A funding focus on other business matters and pass the roles and responsibilities for building an inclusive employee experience to a human resource professional.
This must stop. Mistakes start to happen because you transfer ownership of an issue, plus your duty and commitment to scaling your workplace culture, to someone else. The most effective change starts at the top. It’s the responsibility of the CEO to co-own the employee experience with the chief human resources officer.
Startups go wrong when they stop collaborating and start siloing HR executives. We very rarely see CEOs who are investing time, money and resources in developing inclusive employee experiences and supporting the people leaders of tomorrow. CEOs are the face of the company for employees, customers and stakeholders. They are needed in this cultural shift.
Conduct a Cultural Maturity Assessment
Startups need to revisit each stage of the employee journey from prospecting to onboarding and ensure that it is engaging, rewarding and exciting. Ask yourself: “Is every stage of the employee journey inclusive?” Most startups turn to data, but data alone won’t tell you that you have a problem and have work to do.
We tell our clients that if your workforce is two or three generations behind the current marketplace, something needs to change. A cultural maturity assessment is the first step. A cultural maturity assessment involves asking key questions around structure, strategy, segments, systems and solutions. It looks like this:
- Structure: Is there full buy-in on the value of pursuing cultural inclusion across your organization?
- Strategy: Has your company implemented strategies and shared best practices to support an inclusive workplace at every level?
- Segments: Have you explored the various demographic segments your employees represent, plus the intersections therein (for instance, Latino/Latina + Millennial), to ensure they are appropriately represented at all levels of employment?
- Systems: Has your organization adopted systems and change management software to ensure that cultural inclusion strategies and best practices are easily implemented company-wide and sustainable?
- Solutions: Has your organization set standards with business partners to make cultural inclusion the core of hiring and retention processes?
Establish KPIs for Inclusivity
After assessing and validating that each stage of your employee experience is inclusive, put key performance indicators in place to scale and sustain your actions. Startups love KPIs and OKRs for how many customers they acquire. Why not do the same for designing and sustaining an inclusive employee experience?
At each stage of the employee journey, establish where you are today and a goal for where you’d like to be, with monthly or quarterly reporting on the performance and consequences for not reaching the established milestones. This is similar to holding leaders accountable for business outcomes. If they do not reach those milestones, then they are not promoted and they can lose compensation.
At Reframe, we do extensive interviews with diversity, equity and inclusion and c-suite executives for a deep dive into the structures and processes in your organization.
With change, there is usually resistance. Many leaders are confused and/or don’t want to have the hard conversations.
Instead, they use strategies and tactics that stress racial and ethnic outcomes, for instance hiring a certain number of employees with a certain background instead of making structural change and impact.
For actual change to happen, tech organizations must use change management practices that transform their organization versus settling on integrating their workforce.