By Secret Columnist

Once viewed as the solution to fostering diversity and inclusion (D&I) in an organisation, D&I committees have become the biggest barrier to creating truly inclusive workplaces. Since entering the workforce more than six years ago, as a black queer woman I have been roped into creating and managing countless D&I groups and observed how ineffective and problematic they can be — slowly becoming more disillusioned.

In most D&I committees, the few people from underrepresented backgrounds and allies (mostly junior level employees) come together in an attempt to have open and honest discussions about how they can make their workplace more inclusive, whether that is by planning internal inclusive programming or commissioning internal surveys to gauge sentiment around D&I. But over time, it seems as though these committees and task forces have become PR stunts for startups striving to be seen as ‘progressive’ and ‘welcoming’, hindering businesses from being accountable. 

“D&I committees and task forces have become PR stunts for startups striving to be seen as ‘progressive’ and ‘welcoming’.”

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Startups think that by hiring one or two individuals from marginalised backgrounds, hosting a handful of  ‘unconscious bias’ training sessions, and posting a rainbow or black square on their social media channels to show solidarity with oppressed groups, they’ve ticked the diversity box. That could not be further from the truth. It’s these surface level tactics that hinder businesses from actually unpacking and addressing bias within their workplace. 

This is also the case with diversity committees. At best they are a convening of marginalised people expected to undo the very biased and oppressive practices that they’re subjected to at work.

So how can startups build an inclusive work environment? Let’s start by ditching the D&I committees. These committees have never been effective and likely never will be.

D&I initiatives are seen as ‘extracurricular’

In addition to managing a daily workload, employees of colour are often expected to lead and organise these groups with little to no support from senior management or other colleagues. According to a report highlighting the experience of black employees in corporate America, many black respondents felt exhausted and cynical about D&I groups as a result of constantly being tasked with explaining and solving workplace issues of racial inequality. 

This is only further exacerbated by the lack of buy-in from upper management, which not only renders all of the efforts null, but also sends the message to staff across the company that this isn’t important.  

What’s worse is that despite putting in all this extra work to make the startup look good, these individuals are rarely compensated (via promotions or pay raises) for their hard work — making it even more difficult for employees of colour to break into senior roles and positions. A recent article from Washington Post further reinforced this issue, highlighting how in light of the racial revolution, many black employee groups are now being expected to put together programming, host panels on race and vet executive statements in addition to their day-to-day roles — for free.

Given the lack of compensation and support from senior management, it’s easy to understand why these task forces are often positioned as something that is optional. As a result, the individuals managing these efforts are not provided with the budgets needed to implement initiatives that lead to lasting change, or the emotional support needed to take on this work, which is often emotionally taxing

So how can European startups looking to establish an inclusive workplace do this without D&I groups? 

Senior management must focus on three main areas: implementing diverse hiring practices, establishing an inclusive culture and committing to transparent reporting to ensure accountability. 

1) Implementing diverse hiring practices

There is overwhelming evidence that companies with a diverse workforce perform better overall. When establishing your startup, it is important to prioritise an HR strategy to recruit and hire a representative workforce, alongside your strategies for growth, funding and product or service development. 

There are various ways to do this, but one proven approach is adopting a “diverse slate” hiring approach where companies pledge to assess a certain number of diverse candidates for any role. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve been really intrigued by those startups providing solutions for blind hiring, such as PitchMe, a data-driven recruitment and upskilling platform. PitchMe’s aim is to reduce bias by enabling candidates to create digital identities based on skill set rather than a traditional CV. 

Another approach involves investing time into mentoring at schools and programming aimed at providing pathways into tech for historically underrepresented people. Making diversity and inclusion a cornerstone of your business from the beginning is much more effective than any D&I group.

2) Establishing an inclusive workplace culture

Upon establishing your startup, it is equally important to ensure that you have a workplace that not only hires underrepresented individuals, but creates a work setting that is inclusive and boasts long term retention. It is not enough to have one D&I workshop every year, but important to host a regular cadence of company-wide town halls, workshops and activities where all staff can engage in meaningful conversations and learnings about how to ensure their company is implementing anti-racist actions. 

3) Transparent reporting to ensure accountability

As with finance and HR, it is crucial to report and track important D&I metrics, including the number of diverse people on staff and annual retention rates. From there, leaders should dedicate a significant portion of quarterly or annual updates to the state of D&I within the business, including the metrics and objectives that the organisation wants to meet and measurable strategies to get there. 

“It is crucial to report and track important D&I metrics, including the number of diverse people on staff and annual retention rates.”

One startup that is leveraging transparent reporting to foster diversity and inclusivity is Buffer, a social media management platform. Back in 2013, the company decided that the best way to move the business forward was to embrace “radical transparency” and decided to make all their salaries public in an effort to ensure fairness, including gender parity. Since then, the total number of female employees at Buffer has grown more than 65% in the past year and has prompted more efforts by the company to bring on more women in senior leadership positions.

The only way to create lasting change is to acknowledge systemic bias and commit to taking measurable steps to do better. It’s time to do away with task forces and panels because these are issues that need to be tackled head on by everyone in the company, especially senior leadership. There are many tangible things that startups can do to help make the tech industry more diverse and more inclusive; it’s now just a matter of actually doing the work — and stop looking to people of colour to carry the burden. 

Our secret columnist is a black queer woman who’s worked in the San Francisco and London tech scene for the past six years. 

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Johanna Kriisa
Johanna Kriisa

Thank you for the piece – this is great advice. I would add – It all starts with commitment from leadership team and they keep the ownership for initiatives and that they get implemented. Setting goals for diversity as true diversity (cognitive and demographic) leads to competitive advantage. It’s proven many times that diverse teams perform better!

Pedro Michel
Pedro Michel

The issue with diversity is that it’s deeply subjective, and everyone has their own definition of it. What are we talking about here? Diversity of gender? race? sexual orientation? degrees? nationalities? political views? Also, who decides if an organisation is diverse enough and not? Who gets to say if D&I initiatives are successful or not? Who is responsible for saying when an organisation under-represents a group of people? How do you ensure your diversity initiatives are in-line with reality when major European countries do not collect demographic data about gender or race (France or Germany)? As a black queer woman,… Read more »

Claus Gallardo
Claus Gallardo

Hey Pedro! There are various organisations that have their own definitions of diversity, which others choose to follow (UN, Gvnmtl bodies, diversity scholars such as Ely & Thomas). Generally in the startup environment, organisations look at the big 6 pillars of diversity (Age, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Ethnicity, Disability, and Race). The one who determines whether an organisation is diverse enough depends on the country. There are some that require orgs to have diversity goals and report on them. In others, it is up to the company’s stakeholders to exert pressure on the organisation to work towards a more fair state.… Read more »

Claus Gallardo
Claus Gallardo

I agree with your suggestions, but I think that they are not synonymous with doing away with diversity committees. It seems the problem is more centred on the fact that these committees are not regarded as serious functions worthy of budgeting and remuneration. They could carry out the suggestions you wrote, with authority given by top management.