About two years into a stint at a cannabis startup, Lauren Chanel Allen was abruptly fired. As the company’s digital marketing director, Allen was on the cusp of a substantial pay bump that would just about double her salary. Then, a day before her raise was slated to take effect, Allen claims she was dismissed over how she spoke to a white colleague.
“This wasn’t a complete shock to me,” Allen says. “There were small things that happened. I was the only Black employee there.” When Allen was interviewing for the job, she made it clear that she would push the company to address the fact that white entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly profiting off of the cannabis industry, shutting out the very communities that had been disproportionately penalized by the war on drugs. At the time, she says, the company seemed receptive to her perspective. “What interests me in that situation was the way people in power know the rhetoric to use, up to a point,” she says. “They said all the right things because it was important for them to have a Black face.”
As workers demand more from their employers, the balance of power in American workplaces is shifting. Even companies that were once reticent to wade into social issues have taken a stand on racial equity and pledged to work toward a more diverse workforce. And during the last year in particular—following the public pressure sparked by a summer of protests—countless employers have made sizable financial contributions to racial justice organizations and revamped their equity and inclusion practices. But companies have also grown savvier over time, making it more difficult for job seekers to distinguish between businesses that are truly invested in DEI work and those whose vociferous commitments to equity are merely window dressing.
“Diversity is so hot right now,” says Erin Ford, who leads talent learning and development at General Assembly and helps students enter the job market. “Companies are kind of understanding that that is the way that talent is looking at them. And I think that makes it challenging for people in the job market to know whether that company actually lives those values, or if it’s kind of performative.” Even so, there are some signs that a prospective employer is either underinvesting in equity and inclusion—or more invested in the optics of DEI as a company value.
When you’re the only one in the room
For Allen and others, it can be a glaring red flag if a company is so homogeneous that they would be the only nonwhite employee in the room. “In general, I don’t think any Black person should seek opportunities to be the only Black person,” Allen says. “It is often not worth it to a Black person to be the employee desegregating a company.” (When Allen raised the issue of hiring with her former employer, she was told that the company was trying to look at nonwhite applicants, but that “it’s so hard to find qualified people.”) In her current role at a cryptocurrency company, Allen is still the only Black employee, but she’s not the only employee of color—an experience that she says is markedly different.
Lawrence Humphrey, a design strategist and consultant at IBM and the founder of Tech Can [Do] Better, agrees that it can be damning when a company has no Black employees. But Humphrey doesn’t necessarily see it as a clarion signal. “I’m of the mindset of: You can’t change the nature of the game unless you have a seat at the table,” Humphrey says, adding that he has often been in spaces where he was the only Black person. “If a company is genuine about turning around its culture, there has to be a first Black employee. It has to start somewhere.”
In instances where a company has little to no diversity in its leadership ranks, Judene Small Jean-Louis says to pay attention “if your spidey sense starts tingling” and the organization trots out employees who look like you. “In past lives, individuals who are not on the management team or decision-makers at all have been asked to join meetings, especially when they want to show that there is a face that looks familiar,” says Small Jean-Louis, who runs a strategic marketing and operations consultancy and the digital media company RootsxWings.
When top-down DEI investments are minimal
One way to suss out a company’s commitment to equity and inclusion is to ask more pointed questions about how the organization values diversity and whether it can disclose workforce metrics or other benchmarks. If an employer’s efforts are more performative, you might see that reflected in how much—or how little—the company has invested in DEI initiatives, both in terms of human capital and financial resources. A sprawling tech company, for example, should not have an associate-level employee leading DEI, Ford says. “Whatever representation they do have should be scalable to the size of the organization,” she says. “I would not expect an enterprise-level company to have anything less than a VP of DEI.”
Humphrey has also found that some companies either approach him with DEI opportunities, rather than tech roles, or assume he’ll be interested in taking on additional DEI work. “I’ve had some people reach out to me and basically try to put me in DEI work at other tech companies,” he says. “I don’t want to do that. I have no intent of making DEI work my focus.”
Another indicator of an employer’s true intentions may be if the company seems to lean too heavily on ERGs, or employee resource groups. These groups can be a source of support and camaraderie for underrepresented workers, but shouldn’t be a substitute for DEI leadership or diversity goals tied to compensation. “In my experience, the ERGs still exist at the behest of the parent company,” says Moses Harris, a software architect at a large tech company. “It’s mainly a social place. So you can reach out and say, ‘Look, people who look like me exist. I have a connection. I have someplace to go where my mental health is considered. People are experiencing the same issues that I’m experiencing.’ But it’s more of a support structure than a real engine for change.”
When the company culture gives you pause
Even a company’s approach to the hiring process can be telling, Small Jean-Louis says. “If you see that they’re not intentional about follow-up and respecting your time, that is representative of a habit that is present in their culture,” she says. “When you’re looking to join companies, scrutinize the process to the tee.” One red flag Small Jean-Louis has picked up on over the years, and particularly amid the pandemic, is when companies overlook her résumé or reject her outright but then later express interest after she is referred by someone—a pattern also observed by her Black female friends. “I think there’s a lot to be seen about companies and their culture in how they handle [hiring],” she says.
In retrospect, Allen realizes the lack of HR presaged her experience at the cannabis startup. “I didn’t think to ask, do we have HR now?” she says. “It was an ongoing joke—like, ‘We need HR now!'” And before a white friend of Allen’s encouraged her to negotiate, the company had even proposed a title that didn’t match the responsibilities of the job. “In hindsight, I think a red flag is if you compare the title and the responsibilities, and the title is kind of elementary; I think it’s due to how much they’re planning to value you,” she says. “As a Black woman, I was okay with it, because the salary at the time was an upgrade. The team seemed cool; I’m in this new space and moving to L.A., and they’re covering the move costs.”
Sometimes, even seemingly innocuous comments about a company’s culture or the attributes that are most valued in employees can tip you off. If a company has poor workplace culture, chances are DEI isn’t a top priority—and that Black and brown employees might be disproportionately impacted by those issues. “It’s things like: ‘People who work here tend to believe in the company, and we don’t take a lot of time off,'” Harris says. “I’ve gotten that. And that lets you know [that] you’re either going to work your ass off and succeed there, or you’re not going to be there long.”
Harris is also more attuned to signs that he might have overlooked earlier in his career. “Back in the day,” he says, “I’d hear something about no parental leave, and instead of [thinking] They don’t treat their employees very well, I [would think] Well, I don’t plan on having kids anytime soon. So I guess it’s okay for me to work at this company. It doesn’t exactly affect me.” Now Harris sees things differently and recognizes that one exclusionary company policy can point to a broader lack of support for underrepresented employees. “It doesn’t affect me, but it affects the person next to me,” he says of poor parental leave policies. “Do I want to be one of the people who is supporting this?”
While press reports and anonymous accounts on platforms like Glassdoor can offer some insight into a company’s culture, Harris and others believe the best way to evaluate a potential employer is to talk to former and current employees. “I really try to have some kind of inside information when I’m making these kinds of decisions,” he says. “You really have to reach out to your network because you’ll never get this information until you work for the company. Everything that you find out from the outside is going to be: They’re checking all these boxes.”
These days, Small Jean-Louis won’t even apply for a job without consulting with someone who has worked at the company in question. “Somewhere between the praise and the absolute shitstorm is the truth,” she says. “Recognize that not all press is going to give you the full story, but you’ve got to be in control. You’re spending more hours [at work] than at home, and I think everyone is acutely aware of that now with the world opening up—so choose your spaces wisely.”