Retaining Diverse Talent

22 July, 2021

Jossie Haines

Jossie Haines

VP of Software Eng; Head of DEI at Tile

Jossie Haines, VP of Engineering and Head of DEI at Tile, uncovers how to retain diverse talent by emphasizing the importance of impact job descriptions and bias busters, among others.

While DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in tech has been much more talked about in recent years, most agree that much more is to be done. Pioneers in many respects, tech companies are often lagging behind in their efforts to make the industry more diverse and workplaces more inclusive.

When DEI, at last, took center stage, diversity got all the limelight. A disproportionate amount of attention was paid to attracting diverse talent than to any other DEI-related activity, which in all right made some object that DEI is becoming a numbers game. This tokenistic approach could hardly help inclusion. Even when members of underrepresented groups are hired to an increasing extent, without an equal effort put into ensuring inclusion, that diverse talent would be difficult to retain.

Retaining Diverse Talent Should Start With Hiring

To ensure the inclusion and retention of diverse talent, one needs to understand how hiring and particularly framing job descriptions can become a cornerstone of our efforts. As verified through multiple research, underrepresented minorities receive less concrete feedback on what they do, which with technical feedback amounts to the complete absence of feedback. To set new hires up for success, I suggest using “impact job description,” which sets forth 30/60/90 days goals in the job description itself.

Using impact job descriptions can significantly reduce bias because those 30/60/90 days goals could be translated into the first set of goals the new hire would receive on day one. Measuring their progress against the goals explicitly set in the job description will lead to more objective and fair reviews where a manager’s biases, if any, would be restrained by a set of impartial criteria.

Measuring Inclusion: Mission Im(possible)

There is no doubt that measuring inclusion is much more challenging than measuring diversity. All it takes to measure diversity is to place people into buckets and count how many of them are in each bucket. On the other hand, to measure inclusion, one needs to ask people how they feel and if they feel included. The most effective approach to gauge inclusion is through engagement surveys and inclusion exercises where people can pinpoint what part of the business/processes makes them feel unincluded. I find inclusion exercises particularly important: they help capture qualitative -- and often quite personal -- data but can also be practiced as a team activity that enhances cohesion and intra-team inclusion.

Though I acknowledge that some folks are doubtful, my engineering self believes that inclusion is something measurable. Of course, surveys should be complemented with qualitative insights that would disclose deeper affective and cognitive layers. Some of the questions that I find to be rather helpful are: Do you feel you can be your true self at work, Do you feel included in the team’s activities, Do you feel your voice is being heard, etc. The key to measuring inclusion is to do it with a regular cadence. I would set up a baseline and then do surveys/exercises on a recurring six months basis. Also, putting in place a mechanism to report incidents and creating a safe space where people can bring these incidents up without being penalized is critical for measuring -- and consequently, improving -- inclusion. I would rather avoid HR and would go with a third-party solution such as Allvoices, an anonymous reporting tool that enables employees to safely report harassment, bias, and culture issues directly to their company's leadership.

Bias Busters: Addressing Unconscious Bias

We all have biases. Biases are part of our nature, a by-product of our evolutionary past, and are not by default hurtful or negative. But many were used throughout history to justify atrocities, persecution, and unequal treatment of different, marginalized social groups. However, regardless of their social consequences, many people are unaware of having biases. Managers, peers, executives, direct reports -- they all may have implicit biases that could hurt, diminish or openly discriminate against people from underrepresented groups.

I find middle managers to be primary agents in calling out our unconscious biases. They do a majority of hiring, set up the team culture, and set up their team members to thrive or fail. They often define other people’s roles while serving as role models themselves. Therefore, they should be the ones empowered to detect and call out biases.

I recently completed reading a new book by Kim Scott, a widely acclaimed author of Radical Candor, called Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, in which she introduces a concept of a “bias buster.” Scott argues that we should have a functional mechanism in our offices that would allow us to call out something as biased. We often overreact when someone tells us we are biased because it is not normalized. But if we would treat biases as something normal that we could openly talk about, we would be much more prone to change. She suggests coming up with a code phrase, “Oh, is that biased?” which everyone should be comfortable using without associating any derogatory names or accusing epithets to it.

Some Lessons To Take Away -- and Implement!

  • The more I became involved in the topic, the more confident I am that retention is more important than hiring. It doesn’t matter how many candidates from underrepresented groups apply if they end up leaving because they don’t feel included. Thirty-seven percent of people leave tech because they feel that they haven’t been treated fairly. That number alone is alarming enough for us to reconsider our existing workplace practices.
  • We should be cognizant that biases are part of our nature and what their impact is on every aspect of our work-life. We should reflect on our own biases -- what caused them and how we can remove them -- and work to create a safe environment where we can be better allies.
  • There is an illustrious cliche on how diverse culture adds to our teams and companies: diverse teams will help create better products that would serve diverse consumers better. But there is more to it. Celebrating our differences is helping us learn about respect, integrity, and dignity while making us more open, accepting, and emphatic human beings.
  • Measure DEI. This won’t come without some methodological controversies. But you don’t need to be perfect from the start. There is nothing else that can help you track progress but measuring. Some people may avoid measuring DEI because they are afraid they are not doing well. Don’t be one of those people.

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