Diversity Tips for Startups

Originally published on hirediversity.us/blog

It’s no secret that tech has a diversity problem and over the last several years there are an increasing number of tech companies working to improve this. There are great resources online about how to approach diversity and inclusion, for example projectinclude.org which provides recommendations for building an effective Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) program. However, a lot of the information is geared towards large companies. This makes it challenging for early stage companies to find actionable advice on inclusion and diversity. Over my career I’ve worked at a variety of software companies ranging from 3 to 1200 people and I’ve seen a lot of successful and unsuccessful attempts at D&I in that time. In my current role, leading an early-stage product engineering team at Stackery, we’re building inclusiveness into our company from the earliest stages. So how should a small startup approach recruiting and retaining a diverse team? How do we create a company environment where people of all genders and backgrounds will feel empowered and excel? Here are some of the practices that are most relevant to leaders at early-stage companies:

1. Start Early

When you’re starting a company from scratch you have to prioritize constantly. You’re building a product, finding customers, courting investors, hiring a team, providing customer support, looking for offices, doing taxes, writing docs. It’s easy to convince yourself diversity can wait. A lot of the best practices (e.g. develop an effective employee handbook) don’t really make sense at an early stage when you’re focused on recruiting your first few employees. However, two of the most important responsibilities of every startup leadership team are to hire a strong team and build a strong company culture. You should be focused on these priorities from the earliest stages of your company, and these two areas, hiring and company culture, are where it makes the most sense for startup leaders to focus their diversity and inclusion efforts.

2. Rewrite Your Job Postings

One effective way to attract more diverse applicants is to look closely at the language in your job posting. The way you present your company and team will have a big impact on who applies. Avoid using language that tends to skew the applicant pool male, like overemphasis on how hard your technical problems are or how aggressively you pursue your goals. An effective technique is to describe the team environment, the company culture, and the technical stack. Talk about how you work together and what you value. Every applicant is interested in what the day to day environment will be like, and this takes on additional importance for individuals who don’t fit the typical white male programmer mold.

Avoid describing your ideal candidate or listing requirements. This encourages many potential applicants to disqualify themselves. Candidates used to having people consistently assume they’re “not that technical” (which is very common for underrepresented candidates) are even more likely to skip past your posting and move on. I’ve found it’s useful to explicitly encourage candidates to apply, even if they’re not sure they’re qualified.

3. Plan Your Interview Process

A big part of encouraging inclusiveness and diversity is discussing it with your team. Planning an interview is one perfect opportunity to do this. Communicate why D&I is important to you and the company, and how that factors into your hiring practices. Your team should be discussing what’s being assessed in each part of the interview process, since without a shared understanding of the criteria for the hiring decision you’ll be relying primarily on unconscious bias. Make sure you’re coaching your team to avoid vague statements when giving feedback. Statements like “wouldn’t fit in” or “doesn’t seem that technical” often mask unconscious biases. Make sure your team grounds their feedback in concrete observations (e.g. “was able to implement the program, but struggled to implement optimization X,” “interrupted and talked over me repeatedly”). Encourage your team to ask themselves “what does this person bring that we don’t already have?” and “how would this person add to our company culture?” A group with diverse skills, strengths, and weaknesses will be more resilient than one where everyone shares similar strengths and blind spots.

Structure your interview process to avoid putting candidates on the spot. Interviews are stressful for the candidates and different people show stress in different ways. Your goal is to assess whether the candidate will succeed in the role, not whether they speak eloquently under pressure while discussing CS 101 concepts with a whiteboard. Many people will get flustered and freeze up in these situations. Does this mean they’re bad programmers? No, it doesn’t. In addition, when you consider societal factors like women being perceived as “pushy” instead of “confident” when they strongly state an opinion, it is even more important to think through the way you structure interactions in the interview process. Ideally you should be telling the candidate what to expect and how they should prepare so they can put their best foot forward throughout your process.

4. Plan Inclusive Activities

There’s a lot of data which shows that underrepresented people leave the software industry at higher rates than white males. Why? A lot of it boils down to tiny things that happen every day that indicate to an employee that they don’t belong or don’t fit in. This is why creating an inclusive culture and work environment is a critical part of promoting diversity in your company. One thing that many young companies get wrong is planning team-building exercises and social activities which unintentionally make some employees feel excluded. Look for activities that can be enjoyed by individuals with a wide range of physical abilities, personalities, ages, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. Avoid highly physical activities which some people can’t participate in. Avoid venues that have a likelihood of making anyone feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Minimize off-hours activities which may be challenging for employees with children or other caregiver responsibilities. Make sure that if alcohol is available it isn’t the primary focus and consider the impact on employees who have experienced addiction. Even if everyone on your current team is really into paintball and brewskis, the effort you put into ensuring work-related activities are inclusive will help you attract and retain diverse individuals.

5. Talk About Diversity & Inclusion

One of the first rules of management is that if something is important, talk about it a lot. People look to their leaders for cues on what they should care about and to understand what’s valued by the company. One-on-one meetings are an excellent opportunity to emphasize the importance you place on building an inclusive environment. Ask for feedback and suggestions. Explain why diversity and inclusion matter to you. Encourage employees to share with you (or other leaders) if and when they encounter uncomfortable situations. Keep in mind that many employees may feel uncomfortable sharing situations where they felt excluded or unwelcome for fear of being ostracized or further excluded, so it’s important to build a strong foundation of trust, and emphasize that any concerns they do share will be handled thoughtfully. Meetings related to hiring and team activities also provide great opportunities to provide updates on steps you’re taking to promote D&I, to solicit input from your team members, and to reiterate the importance of building a strong and welcoming company culture.

Starting Inclusively

At Stackery, our leadership team made the decision to emphasize inclusiveness from day one. We believe this is not only the right thing to do, but that it makes us a stronger team. It is a core component of our strategy for building a successful growth business. We’re striving to be a company where people of every flavor can see people like themselves playing important roles and succeeding.

Leaders at startups today have the opportunity to sidestep the diversity problems that plague the majority of tech companies. There’s more awareness and useful info available than ever before on how to solve tech’s diversity problems. It won’t happen overnight. It will require the hard work of many people over many years. But, if you’re in a leadership role at an early stage company you have the potential to avoid the all-too-common situation, where you wake up one morning to realize you’re a company of 50 or 100 or 250 white men with a diversity problem. Instead you can build intentionally towards a better future where people of all shades, shapes, and backgrounds can feel welcome, contribute in meaningful ways, and achieve incredible results. I hope you’ll find these tips helpful for encouraging inclusion and diversity at your startup.

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