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The Future of Work

How Startups In Hypergrowth Mode Can Tackle Diversity Before It's A Problem

An exec from a recruiting software firm offers some actionable suggestions for hiring and retaining diverse people in tech.

[Photo: Flickr user Dev Bootcamp]

With the spotlight on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and beyond, there is a wealth of companies casting about for strategies that will ensure their employees reflect a mix of gender, race, age, and educational backgrounds.

For established players such as Intel, it’s taken a $300 million investment, not only to recruit, hire, and retain staff at the 107,000+ person juggernaut, but a variety of other measures to diversify.

Smaller companies and startups would seem to have an advantage given the size of their ranks and potential to grow into a diverse staff. Yet Pinterest recently recognized that it needed to have a dedicated individual leading the diversity charge while Slack, currently in hypergrowth mode, announced that it would implement the strategy of interviewing at least one minority candidate for each open position when recruiting senior leadership to its burgeoning staff.

Although that strategy, called the "Rooney Rule," has slightly changed the numbers in the NFL—where it originated—there have been complaints from minority candidates of not getting beyond a cursory phone call. As Leela Srinivasan observes: "No one wants to be hired or interviewed just so a company can check off a box."

The current CMO of Lever, a San Francisco-based recruiting software firm, who works with the likes of Github, Lyft, and Foursquare, tells Fast Company that from where she sits, taking a Rooney Rule-type approach is a starting point. "It’s probably necessary as a minimum bar at larger companies with a mountain to climb in getting to balance, but it needs to be coupled with driving awareness of unconscious bias among interviewers," she says. "Simply committing to a diverse candidate or two on the slate won’t result in diverse hires unless you also equip interviewers and hiring managers to effectively interview in an inclusive, unbiased way," Srinivasan observes.

She’s watched this unfold at her former employers, OpenTable—where she built her own product marketing team and started a B2B marketing team—and at LinkedIn, where she was part of their Talent Solutions business. Srinivasan has watched her current employer go from 40 to 70 employees and counting in less than six months. Lever is planning to hire an additional 20 people right now.

Hiring in hypergrowth can be a boon to a diversity initiative. Srinivasan says, "Companies building a culture of diversity and inclusion when they're small have far less "fixing" or catch-up to do when they're much larger organizations, when the needle is harder to move." She notes that while Lever is growing rapidly right now, its balance so far is 48% non-Caucasian and 42% female staff. Lever’s leadership is 43% female, which Srinivasan says exists because the first Diversity and Inclusion task force was formed when there were only 10 employees.

It’s no surprise that the biggest area Lever is trying to staff up is engineering. Overall, hiring a bunch of people for similar roles is a good thing, according to Srinivasan. Although she says it's even more competitive than previously to hire top diverse talent in tech, overall she says starting with a big pool of talent for those multiple roles—whether applicants or proactively sourced passive candidates—helps the hiring manager build a slate.

"Be mindful of diversity throughout the process," she cautions. "If your pool is light on diverse candidates, you can dial up targeted sourcing and marketing efforts to balance things out, and as hires are made you can continue to watch that balance."

Expert opinions vary on how important existing employee referrals are to the recruiting process. Glassdoor data indicates that among the most common hiring channels, employee referrals only make up 10%, but in the tech world, there is evidence that it’s much higher. What’s more, relying on current staff to recommend candidates has skewed employee pools to be predominately made up of white men.

Srinivasan says getting good referrals from existing employees can definitely challenge diversity efforts, but she believes "you can still have your cake and eat it." Srinivasan says that it’s necessary to show employees that diversity is important to the executives of the company. She recommends taking stock by answering two questions:

  • Do you have a diversity team/group at your company?
  • Do you have company-wide initiatives that are accessible and actionable?

She says, "Once your employees understand that this is something your executive team cares about, it's far easier to have open conversations about the actionable goals." Srinivasan points out, "While it's fair to say that many people's networks reflect more consistently their own ethnicity and background, it's not the rule."

But it’s tough to stay the course. Even the founding team of Jopwell —a recruiting platform designed to tackle tech’s diversity problem by filling the "broken" pipeline with a cadre of qualified, underrepresented minority candidates—has had to pay special attention to hiring as it grows. As cofounder Porter Braswell admits, his first four hires were former schoolmates or work associates. "I think it is okay to hire people you trust and know, but you can’t build a product that is going to change the way people interact and change the world without diversity in your organization," he said in a previous interview.

Srinivasan says that a crucial first step to tapping into employees’ networks is to keep them updated on what the goals are surrounding diversity. "The net result that it’s easier to be aware of how you’re doing relative to your diversity goals throughout, so long as you step back and look holistically about the talent relationships you're building."

Once they’re on board, it still takes effort to maintain diversity. Srinivasan says, "Employee resource groups are a fantastic way to keep employees engaged and heard."

Fast Company has reported this working at fintech startup Addepar, where the initiative takes on the look of conversations during all hands meetings—albeit ones about diversity. Men and women can share articles, posts, and personal experiences, and are encouraged to ask related questions of the CEO.

At Offerpop, a platform for social marketing, the senior financial executive got tired of being the only woman at the table so she started LOOP (short for Ladies of Offerpop) where female staff join to share ideas and support each other in activities ranging from breakfast brainstorms to Zumba.

Whatever format they take, Srinivasan notes that such groups also provide a great feedback loop, "when it's made clear that feedback is encouraged, valued, and acted upon (as possible or necessary)." Once in place, she says, these groups are a natural resource for new hires.

"The good news is that tech companies are increasingly sensitive to the benefits of a diverse workforce," she contends, "So above all, you need to aggressively commit to diversity in order to make progress."