Defining culture

Clearly defining an inclusive culture from the outset is critical for a growing company. Culture determines how a company operates, how teams operate, and how people interact and behave. Startups committed to inclusivity will attract and retain talent by positioning themselves as industry leaders. Before you can successfully develop an inclusive culture, you need to define what it looks like for your company and set clear goals to measure your progress.

Why did we choose this area?

What does a comprehensive approach to inclusion and diversity that goes beyond ad-hoc initiatives look like? Those leading the diversity and inclusion charge in tech should learn from past efforts in tech and other industries. Both the public and private sector have spent decades of effort and billions of dollars to address bias and exclusion, with limited success. How will the current effort in tech be any different?

Several signs point towards the potential for positive change. We now have a deeper understanding of bias and the cognitive processes behind it. We have more technology tools to mitigate bias at scale. We have data that show there is both a pipeline problem (e.g. access to Computer Science classes is inversely correlated with underrepresented students of color and low income students in public schools) and a leaky pipeline problem  —  in other words, the myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle barriers and biases that begin with media messages and teacher expectations and progress all the way through hiring biases. However, companies still employ a check the box approach that prioritizes mitigating liability and improving public perception over building an inclusive workforce. Internal policies have been shaped more by lawyers and risk mitigators, focused on avoiding lawsuits and excluding those who truly understand the ways in which companies can build inclusive cultures and processes.

Furthermore, the meritocracy myth continues to persist. Tinkering with systems predicated on this belief is seen as social engineering or “lowering the bar.” Companies blame the pipeline and unconscious bias for lack of diversity without addressing their own internal failures to be inclusive. We find these behaviors racist and sexist.1

How do we think about defining culture?

The culture of a company determines who joins, who succeeds, how people behave, how teams run, and how the company performs. Cultures should be inclusive and welcoming so employees can thrive. Transparency is a key part of building an inclusive culture; it builds and encourages trust relationships in a startup. Finally, for inclusion of all employees, managing work-life balance should be an important component of any startup.

What are we concerned about?

Companies may take these materials and use them without putting in the work to tailor them to their own situations. A CEO should consider the size of the company, the starting point of the company’s existing culture, the stage of the company, the current team, and existing practices and attitudes. We do not want to see people blame these practices if they do not improve diversity numbers or attitudes, because they are not intended to be used as a one-size-fits-all quick-fix guide. At the end of the day, the CEO and management team’s involvement and commitment to diversity and inclusion and to tailoring these practices and making them work are most important.

We are also concerned that companies believe building a diverse team begins and ends with hiring, when there is so much more to it.

What are our recommendations?


Commit to inclusivity in the company culture

A truly cohesive and successful company culture cannot be achieved without a commitment to inclusivity  —  even over other priorities during difficult times. Often, having an inclusive culture can prevent other problems. It can also help attract and retain the people you need to execute on your other deliverables or fight your fire drills. In the past, companies would look at the makeup of their employee base without concern, and nobody raised an eyebrow. A group of homogenous leaders didn’t miss what they didn’t realize they were missing. Unfortunately, decisions made to intentionally cater to certain genders, races, or backgrounds are still present and common today. While this bias may not feel hurtful as it’s delivered, the result is harmful not only to employees, but to the company as well.

Over the course of this history of exclusion and bias, amazingly talented women and minorities have been left off the field. In recent years, with the rise of successful minority and women-owned enterprises and organizations, the word “inclusivity” has finally bubbled to the surface. A code of conduct and an anti-harassment policy are not enough to prevent incidents or violations from occurring. Instead, building your company’s foundation with this focus of inclusion will act to prevent violations from occurring, as opposed to simply working to reduce the instances of violations in an un-inclusive workforce.

Inclusivity goes beyond a statement of purposes and reflects a proactive, tangible culture at your company. First and foremost, inclusivity is a visible, tangible thing. It’s not simply posting a statement on your letterhead indicating that no applicant or employee will be discriminated against based on a list of several possible characteristics. Here’s an example of a well rounded inclusivity statement:

Our community is dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, color, sex (with or without sexual conduct and including pregnancy and sexual orientation involving transgender status/gender identity, and sex-stereotyping), national origin, age, disability (physical or mental), genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, parental status, marital status, and political affiliation as well as gender expression, mental illness, socioeconomic status or background, neuro(a)typicality, physical appearance, body size, computing experience, or clothing. Consider that calling attention to differences can feel alienating.

*Source: Clef Code of Conduct via GitHub


Include travel and offsite activities in your values

When employees are traveling on business, it’s important to be aware of laws and cultural norms, and how they may affect your employees. This especially applies to employees who may be traveling internationally, or to areas where discrimination is commonplace. Providing employees potentially affected by these situations with resources, offering them an opportunity to refrain from participation, and ensuring that they have adequate support while traveling can help offset this problem.


Include transparency in company values and culture

The more transparency in a company, the more open the culture and the more trust you can foster. We encourage transparency for better communication in both directions, allowing for more ideas from teams, better coordination, and ultimately, better results. Open communication helps all employees by giving them accurate information, the desired context, and equal access. Think about your policies and practices if they were to be shared internally or publicly. If you are uncomfortable, think about why and what would make you comfortable.

Underrepresented people often have smaller, more limited networks, so they may come in with less information about a wide range of topics, may have access to less information inside and outside, and thus be at a disadvantage to their peers and colleagues.

Creating communications policies in advance will prevent the appearance of random or selective information sharing. Such policies should include prior permission before sharing specific feedback or information that could be sensitive or might identify individual employees, and a feedback framework for cases when controversial information is shared. Additionally, a company should develop a consistent schedule for information release to build employee trust. Two-way transparency should be implemented carefully to avoid personal attacks that may damage trust or relationships.

Project Include invites companies to sign up to our effort, implement inclusion and metrics, and embrace transparency. Companies can utilize the tools we recommend in our section on measuring diversity and inclusion to develop comprehensive and consistent surveys. We intend to share aggregated metrics across the group of participating companies (result ranges for the top, middle, and bottom quartiles), and we plan to share the names of the top 25 percent of companies publicly. We also intend to support participants by leading meetings as a group to kick off the process and connect everyone who genuinely wants to explore new approaches to diversity and inclusion in their tech companies, including hosting workshops, convenings and recommending resources. This will be followed by a three month check in to share experiences and learning, and a debrief on aggregated data and experiences after six months.


Be thoughtful about information disclosure

Information sharing should be done thoughtfully, especially if it reflects a change from current practices. We are not recommending complete transparency of all information. Companies should respect the privacy of individual employees and avoid sharing information that might cause competitive behavior or be a distraction. For example, employees may have a hard time understanding certain decisions, especially if they become personal (like individual compensation packages).

Anonymity can allow employees and companies to share more information, but it can also degrade the quality of information if it is not done selectively and carefully. The lack of accountability can make anonymous information unverifiable and difficult to act on. Often anonymity can be pierced, especially in small companies.

There are valid reasons not to share (protecting employee privacy, legal reasons, keeping information from competitors). But there are also reasons for not sharing certain information (unfair practices, mistakes or problems, decisions that employees might not like) that might indicate issues that need to be addressed.

As a company grows, a transparency framework becomes more important as information flow may need to become more focused. There may be different levels of communication and communication trees. Employees may need a chance to ask questions as a group to executives or privately to their managers.

While promoting transparency, develop clear policies on sensitive information. Employees should be advised of instances in which a company may need to stop sharing information  —  as for instance if confidential information about valuation and fundraising is publicly leaked.

25+ employees

Define and share clear compensation bands

We recommend full transparency around salary and bonus bands, as pay secrecy can contribute to inequality. Different levels of pay gaps for women, underrepresented people of color, and women of color have been well-documented, including in tech.2 This research also shows that pay gaps increase over career lifetimes. Creating clear salary/equity bands for employees with defined expectations for people who fall into a specific band can create a level playing field for all employees, including new hires, and can prevent bias from skewing compensation. It also allows employees to receive fair pay. Smaller startups often have salary caps, sometimes for the company, sometimes by function. Some very small startups have the same pay for all employees in a function, which can work until hiring for managerial experience or specialized knowledge. Others share salary bands for levels without sharing compensation for specific employees.

62 percent of women and 60 percent of men working for private employers report that wage and salary information is secret.3 Pay secrecy is even more common among single mothers: nearly two of three (63 percent) say they work for employers who discourage or prohibit discussion of wage and salary information. While there may be no direct link between pay secrecy and pay inequality, pay secrecy appears to contribute to the gender gap in earnings.

In the early days of a startup, the compensation bands may be flat. As the company scales, the bands will become more differentiated, and it becomes even more important to create and stick to bands.

We recommend the negotiation policies set out in section three for complete transparency. Addressing the facts that women negotiate less than men in general and that women (and potentially people of color) are penalized for negotiating,4 is critical.


Be open about financials

Information around the metrics used to run a company is important for people to make the right decisions. Employees can better understand the value of their equity and the value they are creating as a team if they have access to information about the company’s financials.

However, there are many employees who are less likely to understand equity; this knowledge gap can disproportionately affect underrepresented groups. Employees may be distracted by short-term fluctuations, so companies need to balance distraction with information value and to plan how to communicate drops in company or equity value or revenues.

25+ employees

Encourage and support employee resource groups

Employee resource groups can be helpful in building camaraderie and belonging for employees who participate. They can also be educational for people who may not be part of the group but are open to learning. We recommend keeping activities open to encourage learning, build trust, and dissipate potential fear of others. The tradeoff is in openness of discussions when there may be some topics that are uncomfortable to discuss with outsiders or when there are outsiders who may unintentionally disrupt or sidetrack conversations. The cost of including allies who are not members of a group is that you will likely need to explain more about that group and its perspective and shared experiences. There also could be some quieting of the discussion as people may not feel as open to converse about shared issues in front of others. Companies must have a clear process for employees to raise and resolve ERG-related concerns like these tradeoffs, including creating space for private ERGs in some settings.


Promote a healthy work/life balance to embrace all employees

Work-life balance straddles the competitive divide between work (career and ambition) and personal (health, leisure, family, spiritual development/meditation, health coverage, life surprises, etc) needs. Female employees have historically been saddled with this balancing act, but it applies to other underrepresented groups as well, especially when it relates to other external (both personal and environmental) factors that affect output in the workplace, and vice-versa.

A holistic approach to promote work-life balance among diverse employees and applicants cannot be one-size-fits-all, as no two lives are identical. Companies need to consider and incorporate the needs of older employees, parents, contractors and part-time employees, immigrants, newer entries to the workforce, disabled people, veterans, and people re-entering the workforce, while incorporating the needs of underrepresented groups in all these categories.

Without weighing work-life balance in company values, policies, and procedures, a company will not be able to create an inclusive culture. CEOs and management must use tools like employee benefits and workplace supports to shape the companies they want to have, and lead by example in the industry as a whole. These benefits will increase over time as the employee base grows, needs scale and the startup has more resources, but a company should be building in work/life balance from day one.


Expand benefits beyond young single employees

Some benefits, like those targeted at young men, may feel exclusive when work/life balance benefits like flexible hours and childcare are not provided. In the fast-paced tech world, many tech companies do not prioritize the maintenance of a healthy work-life balance, with some actively encouraging excessive hours and unhealthy work environments. Many appeal to single workers and create a drive to work long hours to push projects through to completion, but don’t offer support to underrepresented employees who need a different kind of work environment to thrive and have just as much to offer.

The polarized nature of benefits in the industry often includes perks like pool tables, catering to allow people to stay at work late, free alcohol, gaming consoles, multi-day outings, massage, laser tag, and helicopter rides, but not preschool, childcare, or paid leave to care for sick parents. Such benefits do not encompass all workers of different ages, genders, races, religions, socioeconomic origins, immigration statuses, disability statuses, and other underrepresented groups. These benefits can have lower immediate financial costs, but do not address long-term retention and worker happiness for employees from underrepresented groups.

Employees are also not provided with adequate institutional support when they need to take leave, rearrange their schedules, or take other measures to manage their work-life balance successfully. Many company policies have a penalizing effect, regardless of intent.


Design a work/life balance benefits plan to grow with your startup

Company policies surrounding work/life balance should be inclusive, indicating support to help employees balance their lives with their work responsibilities, regardless of an employee’s family constellation or obligations. This can become tricky in implementation, but the policy must be clear and understood clearly by managers and People Ops. In discussing work-life balance, it’s necessary to take a multidimensional approach that considers a number of issues, and to routinely return to the conversation to reevaluate how well the company is supporting its goal of a more inclusive, diverse workplace.

Successful assessment of tools used to help employees manage work-life balance should begin with the offerings available for employees, who they serve, and how well they serve them. Listed benefits and internal supports should be comprehensive, targeting a broad cross-section of demographics. While employers ask themselves what they are doing for their employees, they should also evaluate self-balance, asking what employees are doing to set boundaries, proactively advocate and communicate about their work/life balance needs, and utilize company-provided resources.

Any work-life balance plan must also account for company growth. As companies get larger, the nature of the benefits they offer may change, necessitating constant reevaluation. While making decisions about how to adjust benefits offerings to reflect changing company status, companies need a clear decision chain that outlines the factors involved in decision making, who has final say, whether employees and other stakeholders play a participatory role, and how benefits will continue to promote inclusivity within a company while attracting outside talent.


Use diverse benefits to attract and retain employees

Parents may be drawn to benefits like childcare, preschool, lactation rooms, relaxation rooms, mothers’ groups, and other benefits centered around supporting them in the workplace. Extended parental leave without penalties for parents of all genders similarly signals inclusivity in the workplace. Options for caregivers who may not have time outside work to exercise, manage legal or medical appointments, and run errands can signal a welcoming environment.

Immigrants may be interested in services to help them manage legal matters related to their status and that of their families. Disabled employees might appreciate flex time to manage health care needs. People of various faiths will be attracted to a company that doesn’t hold critical meetings and events during religious holidays. Some employees may appreciate sensitivity around food-related events held during religious fasts, and consideration for employees with eating disorders and those who abstain from alcohol will also change the culture at a company.

Financial benefits including equity, sick time, personal time, vacation time, parental leave, retirement accounts, health insurance, and other supports should be provided in a manner that incentivizes workplace participation among underrepresented groups and doesn’t weigh benefits unfairly. Such benefits should also include supported professional development opportunities including continuing education, assistance with attending conferences, and in-house training and talks.

The demands of conventional workplace schedules can be challenging for many underrepresented groups to meet as they attempt to balance their outside obligations with their jobs. Setting measurable goals and focusing on results, rather than prioritizing rigid traditional scheduling, will allow managers to create a flexible workplace while making them more effective managers.

Some options for alternative working hours, with room for growth as the number of employees at a company increases, can include: Flextime, with varying start and end times; distributed and remote working; reduced work schedules; and daily flexibility. An agile workplace isn’t just more inclusive. It’s also better positioned for growth and performance on the global market  —  the single mother who comes in early, for example, can lead a call to Europe without disrupting her normal work schedule.


While Project Include provides resources as a starting point, we have not made a comprehensive search of all resources and do not necessarily agree with everything in the resources. We share these as helpful references and encourage you to continue exploring.

  1. Noguchi, Y. (September 1 2015). “How Startups Are Using Tech to Try and Fight Workplace Bias.” NPR Codeswitch. Retrived from:

    @Shaft. (November 3 2015). “Thoughts on Diversity Part 2. Why Diversity Is Difficult.” Medium: Tech Diversity Files. Retrieved from:

  2. (February 2016). “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.” AAUW. Retrieved from:

    Chamberlain, A. (March 2016). “Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap.” Glassdoor. Retrieved from:

    Kriesberg, A.N. (September 2014). “H-1B Visas: No Impact on Wages.” Great Barrington, MA: American Institute for Economic Research. Retrieved from:

  3. (January 2014). “Pay Secrecy and Wage Discrimination.” Washington, DC, Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Retrieved from:

  4. Bowles, H., Babcock, L., and Lai, L. (7 November 2006) “Social Incentives for Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations: Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask.” Decision Processes 103(2007): pp. 84-103. Retrieved from: