Successful inclusion requires following an employee over the course of their lifetime with a company, from the moment they file an application to their exit interview. We recommend a multidimensional approach that incorporates hiring into a larger framework, including supportive HR practices, inclusive onboarding and mentoring, equitable compensation practices (salary, benefits, equity), and fair approaches to assignment, performance evaluation and promotion decisions.
Why did we choose this area?
The experiences of employees sets the foundation of diversity and inclusion at a startup. Once a company has created a culture of diversity and inclusion and put the core tools in place, how those tools are used across the company in all operations will determine how employees will experience diversity and inclusion.
How do we think about the employee lifecycle?
Inclusion must be embedded in all aspects of the hiring process, and beyond. “Pipeline” rhetoric has polarized the way tech companies recruit, interview, and hire. Focusing on gender allows companies to temporarily absolve themselves of responsibility with respect to age, religion, race, experience, disability, sexual orientation, and other aspects of diversity. Inclusion training must be included with all new employees from day one, while giving employees from historically underrepresented groups access to internal resources and support.
Diversity and inclusion only works well when companies commit to administering it with care. It starts with diversity recruiters and a hiring manager who is committed to building a diverse workforce. It continues through to supportive HR and D&I teams focused on promoting inclusion and upholding company values throughout an employee’s time at a company. It should incorporate an inclusive onboarding process, strong mentoring and sponsorship programs, and thoughtfully administered performance reviews and promotions that consider both conscious and unconscious biases.
What are we concerned about?
We acknowledge that diversity is key, but we are concerned about gendered, one-dimensional discussions regarding the “pipeline,” and the tendency to assume that hiring is the only problem in the tech industry with regards to diversity and inclusion. Certainly there is a need for more women to be hired into technical roles, but the focus on gender is at best woefully incomplete.
Blacks and LatinXs are graduating with CS degrees at twice the rate1 that tech companies are hiring them. Furthermore, this disparity also exists in non-technical roles, which are often neglected in diversity initiatives. Those groups make up just five percent of the overall workforce2 in the tech industry, compared to 14 percent nationally.
The tech workforce also lacks diversity in other areas: Many tech workers are young, for example, and few have disabilities. Veterans and those making mid-career transitions are unusual as well. Even those with better representation don’t rise in the ranks — the “bamboo ceiling,” for example, is a persistent problem for Asians in tech, even worse for Asian women.3
Technical organizations often struggle with the idea that if they diversify their hiring pipelines, attract candidates from underrepresented groups, and support them in the workplace, this will lead to “lowering the bar” or hiring less-qualified individuals. This assertion has no basis in reality, and is inherently both racist and sexist as it assumes that candidates from underrepresented groups must, by definition, not meet the hiring qualifications. In fact, research shows that women and people of color in science face higher bars and resumes from women and people of color are rejected more often than resumes from men and whites with the same qualifications.4
What are our recommendations?
Use inclusive and transparent hiring practices
Sourcing, recruiting, and hiring candidates are key in diversity initiatives, and companies should use a diverse team that includes members of underrepresented groups. We acknowledge that the majority of the discussions around diversity in tech have centered around this area. The primary focus has been on pipeline issues and the “leaky pipeline” in particular. However, this focus distracts from the embedded structural inequalities found in both technical and non-technical pipelines and the recruiting process as a whole.
Sharing information about hiring processes with all candidates can reduce information advantages from knowing someone already at the company or who had been at the company. This reduces the risk of hiring people who look like the team you already have and promotes inclusive hiring practice from the start.
Use a broad range of recruiting sources
Employees with considerable potential can come from nontraditional sources including coding camps, bootcamps, and nanodegree programs. Others may have attended community colleges with specialized training programs. Target these settings to attract talent who might not otherwise apply.
The location of job advertisements can make a big difference. If ads are placed in locations frequented by the industry and conventional networking groups, diverse applicants may not find them. Consider local open spaces, like coffee shops, community centers, and libraries.
Take advantage of relationship building in the long term to build your company — go outside current practices (“pattern matching”) to foster valuable relationships with diverse organizations. Use practices outlined in our section on building an inclusive company culture that will attract diverse talent, and use word of mouth to create a positive reputation. Facebook, elected officials, other people in the field, college counselors, and job mentors can all participate in the creation of a strong recruiting network.
Write inclusive job descriptions
Minimize references to perks designed to appeal to young, male, white applicants in the jobs page, like pool tables, ping pong, nerf guns, pull-up contests, laser tag, and company retreats in exotic locales, and emphasize inclusivity. Did you know that including “salary negotiable” in a job description reduces the gender wage gap by 45 percent? Discuss your company’s policy on negotiation from the outset.
Consider what your recruitment and careers page looks like to members of underrepresented groups reviewing your materials. It should include inclusive, but accurate, imagery of life at the company. You may wish to highlight diversity initiatives within the company like ERGs and the role of the D&I officer, making it clear that your company takes inclusion seriously. Avoid the use of staged and fake inclusive photos and other recruiting material.
We know that diverse teams are strong teams, and welcome those with alternative identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Our team includes women, men, mothers, fathers, the self-taught, the college-educated, and people of a wide variety of races, nationalities, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Develop inclusive workplace environments
Every company has a different working climate, which should be communicated clearly at every stage of the recruitment, hiring, and onboarding process — and companies may want to consider how their existing expectations feed their company culture, and whether they should be reevaluated and adjusted. Especially at startups, employees may be expected to work long hours to meet business needs. Employees may be afraid to ask about these potential limitations and transparency facilitates better hiring practices.
CEOs and management must lead by example, promoting a healthy work-life balance through their actions.
Example: Susan Wojcicki at Google:5
When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent. (We also increased paternity leave to 12 weeks from seven, as we know that also has a positive effect on families and our business.) Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready. And it’s much better for Google’s bottom line to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills and perspective of our employees who are mothers. Best of all, mothers come back to the workforce with new insights.
Eliminate bias in resume evaluation
Rethinking resume reliance is an important aspect of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Think about employing a “distance traveled” metric: Where did a candidate begin their journey? Which achievements were accidents of birth and linked to privilege (e.g. an internship at a family or friend’s company) as opposed to earned in a meritocratic competition?
Consider using technology to remove identifiers from resumes and other job application materials. Studies have shown systemic unintended bias when reviewing resumes that are identical with the exception of names that signify a racial background or gender6 or a resume entry that signifies LGBT status.7
Pattern matching is another problem found while reviewing resumes, from universities to previous companies worked. Recruiters and hiring managers should utilize a new wave of HR tech tools; startups are moving away from traditional resumes to alternative forms that include project-based blind auditions to assess fit while others work with “optimized resumes” that move away from a timeline model that often promotes ageism and highlights gaps in employment.
While looking at resumes, hiring managers should consider the bottom line needs and criteria of a company, evaluating whether a candidate has the skills to meet those needs. Managers should also train their teams to move away from assessing a candidate purely on “cultural” compatibility.
Rethink traditional interview practices
Despite studies demonstrating that interviews don’t provide the results they are intended to8 and top tier tech companies losing faith9 in the interview process to indicate the success of a candidate, interviews are still pervasive and a rite of passage before joining a company. Current interview practices often amplify confirmation bias. For candidates who come from underrepresented groups, the interview process can also be a minefield of untrained interviewers, poorly structured questions, and a process that leaves them feeling excluded from opportunities. It can be hard to move from standard processes that have been used in tech companies for years, but they don’t work and are worth investing time and resources in to fix.
Use an inclusive interview process
While the interview process may be flawed, there are ways to make it more effective, and to reduce biases that can disadvantage members of underrepresented groups. “Culture fit” or synonyms like “value alignment,” “lack of personal connection,” and the “Saturday” or “beer” tests (Would you want to be alone in the office with the interview subject on a Saturday? Would you get a beer with them?) are frequently cited as a rationale for a positive or negative hiring decision. This is reflective of interview failure.
Everyone has a role to play in an interview; plan, train, and assign those roles ahead of time. Interviewers should always read resumes and other documentation to familiarize themselves with candidates so they can tailor questions to the knowledge and skills of the people they’re interviewing — and so they avoid asking easily-discoverable questions that are answered in resumes and cover letters.
Use structured interviews, asking the same standard questions, and making them applicable to the type of role you’re filling. And make sure that interviewers understand when and how to ask these questions. Be prepared with flexible, open-ended questions that permit for more than one answer, providing an opportunity to see how candidates think through problems and solutions. Experienced interviewers can delve into responses in more depth to learn more about the candidate as a person, not just someone who can answer a series of rote questions.
Avoid trivia questions, single-answer questions, those that rely on esoteric knowledge or photographic recall, or those that don’t reflect the work or culture of a company. Questions shouldn’t be “gotchas,” but rather opportunities for people to discuss the value they will add to the company.
Interview processes go both ways. Candidates are interviewing you, too, and they’re making decisions not just about whether they want to work with you, but whether they would recommend you to others. Thoughtful, trained interviewers should ask engaging questions, address their internal biases, and make candidates feel welcome. They should also be respectful: Don’t cancel an interview at the last minute, make sure any tech tools you need like phones or Skype for remote conversations are working before the interview, and show up on time. Schedule interviews at appropriate intervals so they don’t run over.
A candidate may turn down a job on the basis of an interview — or may be turned down — but could alert other people in the field to stay away from your company, ensuring that you miss out on excellent future candidates. Request that candidates consider offering feedback about the application and interview process. Use this data to create actionable metrics you can use to adjust your practices. While recruiters gather this information on an ad-hoc basis, it’s much more useful when the data are comprehensive and formal. Thank interviewees for their time at the conclusion of an interview.
Use two-on-one interview panels
In an interview, the person who is tasked with making a determination about whether to recommend hiring a candidate is also representing your company. The people who make up the panel of interviewers matter immensely, especially when interviewing a candidate who is part of an underrepresented group. Though it’s tempting to have the one woman or person of color on your team interview every candidate who may be able to boost the company’s diversity stats, that shortcut that doesn’t necessarily get the desired results. Not only do interviewers develop fatigue, but if they lack interview skills, the candidate will have a bad experience. What matters most is that every interviewer is respectful, professional, and conscientious throughout the stressful interview process. Consider these qualities while deciding who will be representing your organization in the interview room.
A one-on-one interview can be stressful for a candidate, while a two-on-one creates a more inclusive environment. Large panels can also be problematic: Being the only person from an underrepresented group in the room with all eyes on you can be intimidating.
Train employees who interview on how to interview
Give a class for interviewers instructing them on legal boundaries (e.g., women cannot be asked if they are pregnant or planning to have children) as well as questions that do not reflect your company values. Require them to shadow senior interviewers who regularly receive positive feedback and have extensive experience, as learning skills from those who are strong interviewers will help your company to develop a consistent interview process. Show trainees what good written feedback looks like, and give them feedback on how theirs is good or could be better.
Encourage new interviewers to conquer one aspect of interviewing candidates — and get good at that one before expanding their skills. They should be quite comfortable with a minimum of two to three questions in that role before they move on into others. They should also understand how the interview, interview questions, and hiring criteria reflect company values.
Not everyone communicates in the same conversational style. Train interviewers to be thoughtful about how they shape their questions to get the information they need. For example, people from some cultural backgrounds may have learned that it’s impolite to take personal credit for work done in a team, and will have difficulty saying “I did this project” instead of “the team did this project.” Dig in for more information by asking, “And how did you divide up the work? Which part did you tackle?” Consider that many members of underrepresented groups underrate themselves, and may not accurately represent their talents and skills.
Develop a consistent interview feedback process
All interviewers should write feedback within 24 hours and submit it independently to avoid weighting and bias. Early interviewers, especially if they’re more senior, can have a disproportionate impact on the direction of feedback, amplifying individual biases. Sharing feedback is important during the hiring process, but should be limited to after the team has interviewed, and should be closed off after the hiring decision. It streamlines the hiring process, but can be complicated once the candidate becomes an employee if that feedback is still available.
Standardize your offer process
Companies must have a clear, consistent framework for offer decision-making, including determining who makes a final decision and whether stakeholders are allowed votes or vetoes. New software tools can help reduce bias through structured weighting and scoring systems. In smaller startups, the whole company is often involved in hiring a candidate, and each employee has a veto. Vetoes are problematic, as each person’s biases can torpedo a candidate, and research shows that most people harbor biases that are inconsistent with how they perceive themselves.10
At larger companies, full company consensus decisions become increasingly harder, and companies should start having smaller groups discuss hiring decisions once they have more than 15 employees, if not earlier. Smaller group decisions should be based on clear criteria, and discussions should focus on candidates’ capabilities with respect to the criteria and the role.
At some companies, decisions are made in the form of “tropes,” where the interview panel convenes for 30 minutes and gives a +1/-1 on the candidate and their rationale. Theoretically, this structure is supposed to provide an open forum to air opinions and weigh in on a candidate. However, in practice, because most interviewers have biases, these tropes can turn political and discriminatory.
Establish a transparent framework for offer compensation
In the early days of a startup, compensation is often easier. The salaries are usually smaller, with narrower ranges; there may be even a salary cap or even a single salary amount for every employee. As a startup scales, sticking to a low-salary, low-differentiation compensation can make it harder to hire people with cash needs, like those who have to support dependents or pay back student loans. It can also make it harder to hire people who have higher alternative offers, which often includes people with management experience or more work experience.
At 75 plus employees, compensation ranges spread out and more people, functions, and levels enter the company. Establishing compensation bands for job levels based on role, function, and amount of experience, even in early stage startups, will lead to more equitable pay across the company for all employees.
Decide whether, and how, to allow offer compensation negotiation
Negotiating compensation can be a painful and long process for both the candidate and the company. Throughout this process, transparency with the candidate is important. Setting expectations on the timing for receiving an offer can help a candidate decide to hold off on taking another offer as they wait for another company’s offer to crystallize. These discussions will set the tone for the future ongoing work relationship.
In the earlier stages of a startup, having one person like the recruiter handle all the compensation decisions and negotiations can provide consistency in the application of compensation bands and fairness, provided she is aware of biases and works to avoid biased outcomes. A hiring manager should handle other parts of the negotiations, but having the manager lead compensation negotiations while trying to close the candidate can lead to conflict that could impact their future work relationship.
One innovative but controversial solution for the compensation negotiation problem is a no-negotiation policy. Several companies have banned compensation negotiation. One way of banning negotiations is to give each candidate the top package they would have received had they been strong negotiators. This process has the benefits of avoiding bias in the negotiation process and preventing ill-will. Research shows this can be a big problem for women, as women are judged more harshly than men when they negotiate compensation11 and this may be one reason why women negotiate less than men.12
If this solution is too uncomfortable, offering the same compensation in two forms is one way to preserve the opportunity for candidates to negotiate. Offering to swap cash for equivalent stock value or vice versa gives the same overall compensation but can address cash needs or lack of cash needs along with risk aversion or risk affinity. As an alternative, a company can opt to minimize the range of acceptable negotiated increases to limit variance in compensation.
All employees, regardless of gender, age, race, religion, and/or disability, should be educated on the benefits and challenges of owning equity. The financial ramifications of purchasing stock early in a startup’s life can have disastrous tax and other ramifications.13
Make onboarding ongoing during the employee’s first year
To be effective, onboarding should begin during the hiring process. During the pre-hire process, let candidates know what they can expect in terms of leadership, decision-making, communication, and collaborative working methods. Throughout the onboarding process, use clearly structured processes to integrate new employees and provide them with the resources they need to succeed, including supports for members of underrepresented groups. This process should not take the form of a checklist, afterthought, or series of documents to sign.
This is not a day long or even a month long undertaking. Ideally, onboarding should take place over the first 12 months, from the later stages of the hiring process to the end of the probationary period. Research indicates that the onboarding process is a critical period in determining the quality and duration of an employee’s engagement with their company.14
Employee resource groups can be a great resource for guidance and advice on diversity and inclusion initiatives in the planning and execution of your onboarding process. Discuss ERGs with new hires, provide them with information on the best ways to engage with them, and offer to connect them directly with the ERGs of their choosing.
Companies with a standard onboarding process had 54 percent greater new hire productivity and 50 percent higher new hire retention rate. Many employees make the decision to stay or leave during their first six months of employment. Given the rates of attrition in tech among employees from underrepresented groups, having an effective, inclusive onboarding process is even more crucial.15 When designing an inclusive onboarding process, employers need to develop a comprehensive set of practices.
Train new hires on the company’s code of conduct
Reading and agreeing to a code of conduct is not enough to ensure that an employee will understand it, remember it, or take it seriously. A robust, well-designed training program focused on the code of conduct will help to clarify its contents, solidify abstract concepts, and communicate the importance of the code to the organization. An effective training module would be customized to the organization’s code of conduct. It should: explain the value of the code, including the business case for its adoption; provide examples related to the guidelines contained therein; delve deeply into reporting and enforcement procedures; and test the knowledge of participants.
Set and communicate performance goals from the start
Managers can set performance goals early and work with new hires to identify and communicate about the resources they need to successfully achieve these goals. Managers should think about setting clear goals on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. These goals can involve social integration (having lunch with team members, grabbing coffee with a member of another team), skills development, and project milestones.
Use a buddy system to onboard new employees
During the negotiation and hiring process, consider matching candidates to a buddy — a person within the company, preferably someone working in a related role, who helps the candidate make the transition into the company. Ideally, a buddy would be matched during the last stages of hiring and stick with the new employee through their first six months. Specifically, the buddy would offer guidance on the everyday aspects of working with the organization, connecting the new hire with other team members, leadership, and administrative support personnel, and guiding the new hire through the organization’s working methods and culture.
Buddies should be trained on how to properly assist new hires. It is important to note that the role of a buddy is different from that of a mentor. Mentors are more experienced persons concerned with the overall development of their mentee. Buddies are more like internal allies who serve as primary points of contact during the orientation process.16
Don’t spread out members of underrepresented groups
Design teams keeping in mind that one voice gets silenced, while having two people together makes a difference. When you don’t have many members of underrepresented groups, do not separate them by putting them on different teams. If you have the option, put at least two in a group so they have mirrors and allies.
Some argue that spreading out people of color or women or women of color benefits the company by providing more employees the opportunity to work with diverse people. But it is at the expense of the diverse employees. Coworkers can also cause the sole person of a certain group to take on the extra work of being the voice for the entire group.
In the 1980s, the concept of windows and mirrors arose in designing curricula: Educators wanted children to see themselves in the stories they heard and to learn about each other as well. Research has shown that having female peers on small teams improves the motivation, participation and career goals of women in engineering school. This effect increases for teams that have as many women as men, and participation increases most in groups of mostly women.17
Use diverse role models
Many companies have affinity groups or employee resource groups for connecting underrepresented people within their companies. Most large corporations have at least a group for women. These groups are typically voluntary and are seen as a core part of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The problem with these groups is that in early tech startups, there often aren’t enough people in a particular group to form an ERG. When you have only one Black engineer or two women engineers, what should you do? Are the earliest members of underrepresented groups hired expected to spend time thinking through these issues and setting up these groups? If so, are you going to compensate them (either with additional pay or by decreasing other work obligations)?
Bring people in from other companies as examples of successes or connect people across companies. If you have a speaker series or guest panels, they should be diverse. It can inspire your own employees by showing that you value underrepresented groups inside the company and also provide role models for success and connections outside the company.
Encourage shared values while also respecting individual experiences
It is important that core organizational values are clearly communicated with new employees and linked to working practices throughout the onboarding process. However, adopting core values should not be confused with subverting identity or perspective.18 For employees from underrepresented backgrounds, the pressure to conform with company culture can be emotionally and cognitively draining, detracting from their job performance. An inclusive working environment is one in which employees feel encouraged to share their unique perspectives, leverage their strengths, and act authentically. During the initial months of employment, employers can help new employees identify their unique strengths and find ways to apply them to their work.
Use mentoring and sponsorships to promote D&I
The startup industry is full of people who have accomplished the difficult, the challenging, and the impossible — for the first time ever. The reality is that none of them would have succeeded without help along the way. The entire industry is based on this very premise — a community of people working together to move the world forward. For example, without successful entrepreneurs giving back to the community, there would be no angel investors.
Great mentors, advisors, and sponsors help founders in myriad ways beyond raising an initial round with establishing corporate structure, guiding board dynamics, hiring, product prioritization, business development, and much more. Many founders instinctively look for mentors who will help them become more effective CEOs, but they don’t apply the same knowledge to their teams. In much the same way that support can greatly accelerate the learning curve for a founder — even for experienced founders — having access to committed, high quality mentors, sponsors, and advisors can help the entire team accelerate their learning curves as well. Given that team risk is the primary factor cited by venture capitalists in assessing a startup’s chances of success or failure, why wouldn’t a startup do everything they can to reduce this risk?
This is especially true for team members who are part of underrepresented groups — just like your startup founder/CEO, they are often attempting to do something for the first time ever. By definition, they are less likely to have peers in similar positions who can understand and support their journey. They are attempting to be the first Black female engineer at your startup, or the first LatinX partner at your venture capital fund, or the first Asian transgender member of your executive team. We should be celebrating all of these trailblazers, and giving them access to the resources they need to succeed. Just like the startup founder/CEO needs a trusted team of advisors advocating for success, so too do your team members who are part of underrepresented groups.
Very early stage startups may lack resources for a comprehensive mentoring and sponsorship program, but they should start thinking about it in consultation with guides who can offer suggestions on company structure and promoting mentoring as early as possible. Options like seeking outside mentors could be extremely valuable — in a company with 10 employees, someone with broad experience from a larger company may have more advice to offer, or more specific expertise, than an internal mentor, and may also offer more diversity. Mentoring should complement existing systems for company growth.
Cultivate a mentoring environment
If you successfully create a positive mentoring environment, all of the programs that build around it will have a greater chance of success. Such environments must incentivize collaboration, creating a supportive, nonjudgmental culture that recognizes different cultural styles. It’s critical to reward participants not just for meeting goals, but for helping their colleagues reach them through empowerment, support, and facilitation.
A well structured mentoring and sponsorship program increases your team’s chances of success, both for the team as a whole and also for people as individual contributors. Furthermore, when smart, committed mentors and sponsors are involved in the team’s personal development, with the support of the company’s leadership, they can reduce the risk of team failure, which encompasses issues ranging from attrition to relationship conflicts.
A strong environment includes fostering a supportive work-life balance and other measures to value employees as whole people. Team leaders should get to know each the people they work with in one to one settings, taking advantage of such settings to learn about how team members work while also recognizing them as human beings who add worth and value to their teams and companies.
Prioritize sponsors for your underrepresented groups
People in underrepresented groups need sponsors, not just mentors. While mentors can be a good sounding board or coach for short term, tactical questions, sponsors are people who are invested in the long term career success of their mentee — they advocate and find opportunities for promotion and career development. They open up their network and accelerate the learning curve for team members who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Sponsors are the equivalent of angel investors for individuals: They take risks on talent, help nurture that talent, and identify opportunities for that talent to catapult to the next stage.
Mentors can also provide a mutually beneficial relationship that helps both parties develop their careers as they navigate a workplace or their given field. As both learn and grow, they can take advantage of regular meetings to discuss progress and develop networking opportunities that will help them within the company as well as externally. Mentors offer psychosocial support, acting as friends, role models, and counselors who provide an environment to discuss anxiety and concerns — but they’re often women who are expected to fulfill a nurturing role.
Coaches offer an instructional role: They provide people with skills they can use for career development and better collaboration with their team members. Coaches can train people to lead teams more effectively, assist people with technical skills development, and help their beneficiaries with other clearly defined and discrete tasks.
Sponsors are people with senior-level positions who identify protégées and help them develop a stronger voice and influence within a company. People receive job and career-related opportunities through working with sponsors, who take an active and accountable role while working with the people they assist. A sponsorship can result in promotions, more weight in company discussions, and more influence in the field. Sponsors directly enable their protégées with career advancement, and they increase objective career outcomes.
It is critical to prioritize sponsors for members of underrepresented groups. Historically, men tend to receive more sponsoring-oriented support than women, who are often only offered mentoring. No matter how many resources or good intentions you allocate to diversity and inclusion programs, if you don’t actively facilitate leadership and promotion pathways for those in underrepresented groups, those efforts are doomed to fail.
Add a mentoring and sponsorship program when you reach 50 or more employees. We’ve seen too many startups implement mentoring programs to fulfill a checklist, but they haven’t been truly thoughtful about what it really takes to make a mentoring program successful. Specifically, sponsors move the needle for underrepresented groups more than mentors, and most startups do not offer any sponsorship other than for their highest level executives, rather than the people who might most benefit from such a program. To complicate matters further, in our experience, a poorly implemented mentoring program can undermine the success of diversity and inclusion programs, and impact long term team morale negatively.
Often the few senior managers and executives from underrepresented backgrounds in a company are responsible for mentoring all the new and junior employees from underrepresented backgrounds. In many startups, mentoring work is not valued or compensated. And often these are the same people who are doing much of the other unpaid diversity work. Instead, add mentors from outside the company, including for the CEO, founders, and executives if necessary — especially mentors who can expand their understanding of D&I. Don’t just rely on the one D&I person on your team. If matching is not carefully thought through, both sides can fail to connect and the relationship may never work.
Create goals and measure progress
Vague goals are difficult to accomplish and it’s hard to measure their outcomes. Some common actionable goals include: Improving leadership potential, reducing attrition, acquiring new skills, better team integration, high performance, bonus opportunities, increasing promotions, and improving employee happiness. These goals should be clearly defined in order to make them measurable. At the outset of a mentoring relationship, both parties should discuss their goals and expectations.
A mentoring program cannot be successful if there’s no way to determine how well it’s working. Overall, we have seen that when companies implement mentoring programs and request feedback from employees, anonymous feedback provides the most effective insights. Those speaking publicly or responding to surveys may claim that the program is working and providing benefits, while anonymously and privately stating that the program doesn’t work.
Metrics hook onto goals: For example, if the goal is to improve leadership potential and increase promotions, a company can track progress in the ranks over time. If underrepresented employees are not moving up, it’s a sign that the program is not working. When teams or a company overall have a high attrition rate, that indicates that employees are not happier. When managers consistently receive negative feedback, a mentoring program designed to promote their development is failing.
Companies need to consider what to measure and how to measure it, including both negative and positive outcomes. This should include not just overall performance, but breakdowns by cohorts within a company: If people in a management mentoring program are performing well with coaching, is that true across managers, or just white men? If retention rates are improving, is that true among all people in the company, or just men, while women still feel left out?
Create a clear, transparent structure for mentoring and sponsorship
Success depends on creating an opt-in, not ad hoc, approach. Employees who are pressured into participation in mentoring or sponsorship programs rather than being invited to participate may be resentful or feel as though they’re being asked to go through the motions of a program the company is not really committed to.
Mentoring and sponsorship programs also do not work without structure, though the degree of structure can be variable depending on who is being mentored or sponsored and in what context. Some options include a regular schedule for meetings, clearly articulating goals and discussing how to measure them, and creating a framework for both parties to use as they move forward.
At the same time, structures shouldn’t be too rigid, to allow mentors to adjust their relationships with their mentees to suit the needs of their individual interactions. Requiring that people complete specific programs or exercises, for example, can alienate employees and contribute to program failure.
We recommend this baseline:
- Establish a code of conduct, so people know what the fundamental rules are
- Set expectations clearly, and err towards structured and goal oriented interactions
- Create a formal mechanism for ending relationships without stigma or retribution
- Set a goal to provide a mentoring-friendly environment, share tools and tips with everyone, allow people to opt in on their own teams or self-organize using common tools. Communicate early and often and use surveys to measure progress, allowing room for anonymous, low-pressure feedback.
Create a framework that provides opt-in adaptability
Matching should directly further mentoring goals, connecting mentees with the people best suited to collaborate with them in a mutually beneficial relationship. In addition to that, companies need to think about cultural fits, working styles, and communication styles.
Mentors and mentees alike should be diverse, and a matching program should consider chemistry as well. Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work and there should be a system for dissolving mentorship collaborations with no fault or hard feelings on either side. If insufficient diverse mentors are available, a company may want to consider improving the balance of their mentorship resources by bringing in external support.
Opt-in programs also rely on the success of helping mentees learn how to work effectively with their mentors. Just as mentors are expected to buy in to the relationship with trust and ethical obligations, their mentees should commit to the bidirectionality of such relationships. They should be offered advice on setting up clear lines of communication and expectations with their collaborators — for example, a woman of color might ask for a weekly check in and introductions to other women of color working in the field.
Incorporate internal and external sponsors
Individual departments may be very committed to mentoring programs, establishing their own with guidance and promoting collaborative relationships among their teams. Other departments may not have such programs in place, because their leadership lacks interest or guidance. Companies must empower all department and team leaders to create mentorship programs, and people who want to participate or build programs need access to tools they can use to collaborate with team managers to implement them.
For example, if Engineering has an extensive program of mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring that helps teams cross-communicate effectively and contributes to overall productivity and happiness in the department while Marketing does not, Marketing staff may feel like the engineers are receiving special treatment. Offering tools to help them request and build mentoring programs will help the department improve, rather than leaving people feeling disadvantaged or unimportant.
Not everyone can be an effective mentor, and other people may not step forward to offer mentoring skills. Companies should thoughtfully evaluate and recruit candidates and then provide them with training so they can offer the best support to their mentees. A mentor handbook should clearly go over the materials provided in training sessions and should be updated as a company uses metrics to learn more about what is and is not working.
This should include taking advantage of tools like developing a mentor code of conduct and commitment to values that stresses “first, do no harm” and the maintenance of ethical relationships. Companies should require mentors to adhere to these policy documents and periodically solicit anonymous feedback from mentees to measure the outcome of their pairings and determine if mentors are a good fit, and if the company’s mentoring guidance is adequate.
Mentors should discuss this when they’re matched with mentees, to provide people with more tools for success.
Design objective and inclusive performance reviews
CEB found that 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with the way their companies conduct performance reviews, and nearly 90 percent of HR leaders say the process doesn’t even yield accurate information.19 Performance reviews can be particularly problematic where matters of diversity and inclusion are at stake.
Performance reviews that do not objectively reflect employee contributions or are not well received are one of the main obstacles to retaining underrepresented groups. When the performance review process is out of balance, opportunities for advancement narrow, and in turn narrow an organization’s diversity pipeline.
Understand how performance reviews can be biased
Bias can come from several different sources. The most common source of bias in reviews is manager or rater bias, which occurs any time one person evaluates the performance of another. Such bias can manifest in considerations of leniency, stereotyping behavior or expectations, preference towards similarity, and the weight or influence negative events are given.
Bias can also be encountered when employees rate themselves.20 For self-evaluations, understand that employees can both overrate and underrate. Both can be damaging. If we tend to be judgmental about ourselves, we may tend to underrate. This can be especially true of people in underrepresented groups. Self-rater bias can happen as a result of imposter syndrome, a cultural aversion to self-promotion, or societal expectations and messaging concerning self-promotion.
Feedback bias can be institutional, influenced by the rating models by which people are evaluated and the organizational culture priorities to which they are held.
In practice, anonymity and lack of accountability can bring out bias in the form of cruel, subjective, unproductive comments in reviews.21 A 2014 survey on women in tech found that women were more likely to get negative, less constructive feedback than men. Only 58.9 percent of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback, compared to 87.9 percent of the reviews received by women. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop. However, feedback for women tended to be more personality based, and called for them to pipe down. Women were advised to “pay attention to your tone” and “let others shine.” This type of negative personality criticism showed up in almost nearly 75 percent of the critical reviews of women and in roughly two percent of critical reviews of men.22
A performance review process that mitigates bias and effectively evaluates employees stands to increase the likelihood that a company will not only attract, but also retain and grow, its talent. This must include the early establishment of goals and the use of multiple feedback sources to take advantage of opposing views.
Have HR interrogate biases before conducting performance reviews
Reviewers must use a variety of tactics to fully engage with their subjects, setting aside the filters and preconceived notions they take into a performance review. This includes an examination of the biases the reviewer may have faced and how those experiences affected them. Employees may also find that review decisions are influenced by reviewer agendas, rather than the best interests of the employee under review and the company as a whole. It can be important to allow for differences in work style or approach that could contribute to biases, as these may feed into conflict during a review session.
Reviewers should also consider whether a given situation is reminiscent of another event, and if that association is positively, negatively, or neutrally coloring the current review. When discussing the employee’s experiences at the company, the reviewer should consider whether they are projecting their own beliefs about the employee’s career development goals and aspirations onto the conversation. Taking time to explicitly discuss these issues can result in a more equitable and productive outcome.
Every organization has an image of a leader. Structural inequities can reinforce this image through biased competency models and contribution areas, penalizing underrepresented groups. Consider this factor before entering a performance evaluation.
Consider incorporating joint evaluations into performance reviews. Research indicates that reviewers are less likely to focus on stereotypes and more likely to focus on performance in joint evaluations.23
Establish performance goals early and provide ongoing feedback
Goals for similar roles and the standards by which they will be evaluated should be established as early as possible, and communicated clearly, as discussed in our section on transparency. For new employees, managers can include this as part of the onboarding process. Be aware that when unmanaged, personal preferences of leaders as to which contribution areas are most important become part of the structural bias.
Furthermore, feedback should be ongoing and can be incorporated into informal and formal review mechanisms. Feedback and monitoring progression should be part of employee one-on-ones. Where annual performance reviews are used, scheduling more robust conversations on a quarterly or semi-annual basis is advised.
Develop a mechanism that enables employees and managers to easily track feedback. Such a system enables an organization to identify trends in reviewer feedback, potential areas of bias, and roadblocks to advancement. This also helps employees track their progress and set future goals.
Prevent biased language in performance review feedback
Performance review feedback from others and from the employees themselves can be subject to bias. Avoid biased language by examining language in performance reviews in the same way that you would with job descriptions. Language can reinforce bias. For example, women’s evaluations have been found to be twice as likely to contain language related to their communal or nurturing style.24
Avoid using language to describe performance that is stereotypically associated with members of that group. Also be aware that language positively associated with members of one group may have negative connotations when used to describe members of another group. For example, the word “aggressive” may be used to positively describe a man but is much more rarely positively associated with women.
Use standardized systems to measure performance
Have clear and transparent rating areas and weighting processes and identify metrics for team and individual performance. Develop standards of measurement related to core company values and business outcomes. Allow space for additional insights but keep in mind that too much flexibility can allow bias to creep in. Train employees in how to provide constructive feedback on the performance of their colleagues and themselves.
Avoid biases that influence promotion and bonus decisions
In management, the levels of representation are particularly dire. The leadership ranks of technology companies are overwhelmingly white and male. Even minority groups that are overrepresented at lower levels in tech, such as Asian-American women and Asian-American men, face difficulty breaking into the leadership ranks.25 The numbers of women of color in leadership are so low as to be rendered statistically insignificant.26
In addition to biased hiring practices and approaches to performance evaluations, low levels of representation at the managerial level can also be attributed to high rates of attrition and biased promotional practices. Women who work in science and tech are 45 percent more likely to leave the industry than their male peers and more likely to report feeling stalled in their careers.27 Those women who leave do so at a specific moment in their careers, in their mid to late thirties, and do not return to the sector.28
Increasing representation within leadership is just as important as diversifying at the lower ranks, if not more so. Inclusive leadership teams are more likely to pass on inclusive values to their organizations and serve as role models to people from a variety of backgrounds. Rethink your idea of what a leader looks like. Don’t base it on the current leadership. The idea that you have to be behaving at a certain level to be promoted to that level is inherently biased.
Create a clear organizational chart and a consistent promotion ladder
Being consistent about promotion practices should help. Develop standards for promotion based on performance. Share these standards with all of your employees. Consistently apply these standards when evaluating employees for promotion. This reduces the role of bias in promotion practices. As with regular performance evaluations, considering people collectively rather than individually for a promotion can mitigate bias.
Take the time to carefully consider management levels within your organization and the criteria for reaching them. Be sure that standards associated with each level are neutral or do not unintentionally provide one group with an advantage over another. Publicly share which levels exist within an organization, what the path to advancement looks like, and what the criteria for advancement are. Finally, be transparent about the compensation ranges associated with each level. Where this information is not transparently shared, access to the information may become privileged, excluding people from underrepresented groups and impeding their ability to advocate on their own behalf or ascertain whether they are appropriately positioned and compensated in the firm.
Pay secrecy is linked to relatively poorer job performance and employee turnover.29 Establish your salary and equity levels and share them publicly. Pay transparency can reduce disparities that arise out of bias,30 increasing employer accountability, empowering employees and job seekers to better advocate on their own behalf, and establishing metrics by which employees can assess themselves.
Larger startups should review pay across the company periodically to ensure that each employee is being paid fairly. Any salary gap analysis should cover at least gender and race and ideally all categories. The gender wage gap analyses announced by companies recently fall short due to their failure to provide enough detail and their failure to extend beyond gender, when research shows significant pay disparity due to race.31
Install managers who are actively committed to diversity
Moving an individual contributor into a management role is traditionally seen as a promotion. Who you decide you want to make a manager is really important. You should make sure they’re open to diversity, can communicate, understand the role, and treat the role responsibly. Ask them about their views, support them as experiences expand their perspectives, and continuously train them.
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.
Platforms and services
Today’s companies and leaders have the benefit of many technology tools to help manage employees and culture that weren’t available before. Here we share a list of technology tools for people and operations. We have not looked at all these companies and tools closely, but we believe they are worth considering and testing in organizations.
- Atipica: Using big data and deep learning to improve hiring databases.
- Blendoor: “Blind” recruiting: merit based hiring.
- Culture Amp: Company surveys, including on diversity, that seem to get a good balance between anonymity for surfacing issues and accountability to filter out noise.
- Gap Jumpers: Blind “auditions” for recruiting to interrupt hiring biases.
- Glass Breakers: Connecting professional women in a company in peer mentorships using data algorithms.
- Interviewing.io: Practice technical interviews for real jobs anonymously.
- Jopwell: Connecting underrepresented people of color to companies for jobs.
- LeaveLogic: Planning employee parental leaves.
- Make School: Two year college replacement for founders.
- Painless1099: Manages savings for tax payments.
- Textio: AI-powered intelligent text platform that predicts how well text will perform before it’s published.
- Unitive: Hiring platform built for your business.
- Black Girls Code
- CodeWalker Academy
- Hack The Hood
- Latinas in STEM
- Lesbians Who Tech
- Operation Code
- Why Mentoring Won’t Create More Female Leaders
- Mentors Are the Secret Weapon of Successful Startups: Our analysis shows that mentors who had already achieved success in the tech industry were able to help younger tech startups outperform their peers by a factor of three.
- Optimizing Mentoring Programs for Women of Color: Diverse women are much more likely to have mentors who lack power. In a recent Catalyst study, 62 percent of diverse women with mentors cited “lack of an influential mentor or sponsor” as a barrier to advancement, versus 39 percent of white women.
- Supporting Careers: Mentoring or Sponsorship?
- Creating Successful Mentoring Programs: A Catalyst Guide
- Making Mentoring Work
- FaunaDB Job Descriptions
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