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How to Build Diverse and Inclusive Teams, According to Leaders at Airtable and Box

27 July, 2020

By Dana Frederick from HackerRank

Building diverse and inclusive engineering teams starts with a hiring process that limits bias. After all, hiring is the engine that builds your team. If you’re not hiring a diverse set of candidates, you can’t have a diverse team. And if you’re not cultivating an inclusive environment, even the diverse teams you build could begin to deteriorate.

But getting started in diversity and inclusion (D&I) work can be daunting. And continuing to do the work, even amidst slow or difficult progress, can be downright discouraging. But that doesn’t diminish its importance.

To understand how tech companies are approaching diversity and inclusion, HackerRank’s Chief Customer Officer, Gaurav Verma, consulted leaders at Airtable and Box. In a remote interview, Gaurav spoke with Albrey Brown (Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Airtable) and Prabitha Ganesh (Director of Platform Infrastructure at Box) about how they’re working to build more diverse, more inclusive teams at their organizations.

First: take stock of the state of your organization

Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, but that doesn’t make them one in the same. Diversity, on one hand, focuses on ensuring your team has representation of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. It means ensuring that people from a wide range of identities—including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and much more—are represented in your organization. Individuals can’t be diverse—but teams and organizations can be.

Inclusion, on the other hand, focuses on ensuring those on the team feel welcome, appreciated, and invested in. In other words: they feel like they belong at the organization, or on the team. And that’s key to retaining talent in underrepresented groups, especially. A 2017 Deloitte study found that 39% of workers would leave their workplace for a more inclusive one—and 23% already had.

“With diversity, focusing on the numbers are a good start,” Prabitha says. “But we need to start focusing on the actual inclusion, too. How engaged are folks within the organization?” Focusing on both is the only way to ensure a truly balanced organization. “Otherwise, we’ll lose the folks we’ve brought to the table in the first place,” Prabitha explains. And Albrey agrees: “When someone leaves your team, it costs you a lot of money. The sacrifice of not having an inclusive environment means that people leave your organization faster.”

Start by asking questions like:

  • What groups are represented on the team and company level? Are your teams set up to foster balance and belonging, and to avoid social isolation from imbalances?
  • What does retention look like at our organization, especially amongst underrepresented groups?
  • Do underrepresented people at your organization feel like they belong at your organization? How engaged and empowered do they feel as a part of your team?
  • How do you fill your candidate pipeline for open roles? How much do you rely on external outreach versus referrals and the like?
  • What’s your candidate evaluation process? How have you designed it to limit the natural expression of bias from those involved?

Second: reconsider how your hiring process impacts diversity and inclusion

Hiring practices and processes can be your greatest asset on the road to building diverse and inclusive teams—or they can be your greatest obstacle. Hiring practices like resume review and culture fit interviews are the norm in most workplaces. But that doesn’t mean they support your diversity and inclusion goals.

Focus on value fit or culture add, not culture fit

“I have a problem with the phrase ‘culture fit,’” says Albrey. And it’s with good reason. While the concept of culture fit most likely originated in the 1980s, it’s been known to stoke bias in the interview process. “I would rather say ‘value fit,’ or ‘culture add,’” Albrey explains. “Collaboration for example is a value, rather than culture. I think culture has to do with someone’s experience, background, and how that manifests in the way they carry themselves...whereas collaboration is a skill set that has to do with what you value.” The key is to evaluate for the latter.

At Airtable, that happens through the culture add interview. “We use a culture add interview, and we do values-based hiring. And I think those two things allow us to look for folks that fit within our values system and add to our culture,” Albrey says. “We don’t want to stay the same culture—we want to be an evolving culture...but the values should be the consistent thread throughout.”

Mitigate forces of homogenization from referrals

If your organization relies heavily on referrals, it may be worth reevaluating how you handle them. “Referrals are an easy way to recruit—and they definitely don’t beget diversity,” Albrey explains. Studies show that referrals disproportionately benefit a very narrow group of people. By default, they encourage homogeneity. “If we all took 10 seconds to write down 10 professionals that we trust in our circles—that we trust to do a great job—and then wrote down their race and their gender, I’m sure it would look very similar to either the people we are, or that we know. And that wouldn’t be a very diverse group of folks,” says Albrey.

Airtable does utilize referrals—but they’ve instituted a set of checks and balances to ensure the referral itself doesn’t outweigh the candidate’s skills. “If a referral is coming into the pipeline, we’re also going to do as much work as we can to source candidates outside of our network to compete with that person,” Albrey told the panel. It helps them ensure that they’re hiring the best fit candidate—not the best connected candidate. “Is this person the best, or is this person a friend of our network?,” Albrey asks. Use resumes intentionally, if you use them at all Resumes can be a breeding ground for bias. Seemingly innocuous details like name, email address, education, and job history can trigger bias that disadvantages underrepresented groups. One study from the Harvard School of Business found that minority candidates were more than twice as likely to receive an interview offer when they “whitened” their resumes.

“I like blind hiring,” Prabitha says. “The resume is a bootstrap to have the interview conversation,” But the rest of it is about the journey of this person. It’s about the skills of this person, about who they are, and what they can accomplish for the organization.” To Prabitha, resume review is a limiting practice that organizations may be better off without. “I would rather spend time throwing a problem at the candidate, and talk about: what is this person thinking? What are the new answers they can bring to the organization?,” Prabitha says. “But when you throw in a resume, we go back to the past.”

And if you do utilize resumes, wield them with caution. “I don’t think we should kill the resume—I think there’s great information,” Albrey says. “Perhaps we should move it to a different part of the interview.” Airtable does this by including free-form questions on their job applications.

“We have four or five questions that you have to answer about how you would impact Airtable, your journey, etcetera. And we read that before looking at your application,” Albrey explains. “And then we look at the resume, and say, ok, with that added context of who you are, what are the things that you’ve done, and are those skills applicable to what we’re trying to do?” Empower your hiring managers to prioritize diversity over time-to-fill Hiring managers and recruiters often feel the pressure to fill open roles as quickly as possible. Some recruiters are even measured on time-to-fill. So how do you balance the need to prioritize diversity against pressure to get the team up and running?

“You have to really convince your hiring managers and your leadership that diversity is more important than shipping a project for the long-term benefit of the organization,” Albrey says. It comes down to time horizons.

“Generally, when something is very urgent and the team needs to build something, you’re thinking on a three-month, 6-month, maybe a year time horizon. But you’re hiring folks that are hopefully going to be there for 4+ years,” Albrey explains. “If you do the math on that long-term time horizon versus what you might lose pushing a feature out for a month, or two months because you’re looking to build a team that’s diverse, I think it becomes pretty easy to make that sacrifice, and start prioritizing diversity over the pressures of building a product.”

Third: advocate for dedicated time, energy, and resources for D&I

Atlassian’s 2018 study showed that 80% of tech workers feel that diversity and inclusion are important. However, only 45% have formal D&I programs at their organization. It also showed that less than 30% of underrepresented groups have representation, retention, and a sense of belonging.

“If your company doesn’t have someone that’s hired to do this D&I work, this is the best time to do it,” Albrey says. “Hiring someone to do the job is the #1 thing you can do. Having someone who owns it, who is the lighthouse, who puts 40 hours a week towards making it happen and keeping people accountable—it’s the best action you can take to make sure you have long-term success.” The best way to define goals for diversity and inclusion initiatives For starters, don’t over-index on strict end goals. “I think one of the challenges I’ve seen building out D&I at companies is that I focused a lot on the end goal,” Albrey notes. “For example, ‘I want to increase diversity on this team 10% quarter over quarter.’ But I think that is a pretty naive understanding of diversity work,” Albrey explains.

Albrey says to first build a system to cultivate diversity and inclusion, listen to the signals you receive, and then create your target. For Airtable, that meant creating a diversity framework outlining what D&I means to the team, how often they meet, what hiring experiments hiring managers would commit to, and how they’d measure whether or not these initiatives were happening.

“Like with any business, or with any startup, you have to do the research, and you have to build the system. The system will tell you what your goal is going to be. And I see a lot of organizations missing that step—and when they don’t hit the target, they get really discouraged,” Albrey explains. “Be ready to just experiment over time. Because just like with any new function—or any new department—it’s going to take you a lot of time to figure out what works. And you're going to have to adjust and evolve.”

And even if it’s difficult at the start, it will get easier. “As you continue to bring on more women, more people of color, folks from the queer community, disabled folks—the more ingratiated you’re going to be in those communities,” Albrey explains. “It’s like any strategy or tactic: as you continue to do it, you will get better.”

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