Defining Culture

Build diversity and inclusion into your culture. The culture of a company determines who joins, who flourishes, how people behave, how teams interact, and whether a company succeeds. Your company culture should be inclusive and welcoming so all employees can do their best work and thrive — and so you can recruit and retain the best employees.

Each company needs its own inclusive culture. There is no standard checklist for building diverse, inclusive cultures; each company will have its own tailored solution. We know the check-the-box approach of a quick bandaid and PR announcement does not work. Our recommendations can and should be customized for your startup, but should follow these clear principles:

  • The CEO must lead the charge to make diversity and inclusion a core part of the company culture and to get executives, teams, and the whole company to follow.
  • Diversity and inclusion must be part of more than hiring — they should be part of every process, every activity, and every plan from the start. That way, they scale with the company, and they can be part of changes as the company grows, teams evolve, and operations scale.
  • Open communication and fairness are a key part of building an inclusive culture; they build and encourage trusting relationships.
  • For inclusion of all employees, managing work-life balance should be an important component of any startup culture.

Inclusive cultures include everyone. Focusing on only certain genders, races, or backgrounds hurts both employees and companies themselves. Over the course of a history of exclusion and bias, amazingly talented people from underrepresented groups have been shut out. Including all people is easier, more profitable, and less legally risky than building a two-tiered system of inclusion and exclusion. Unfortunately, the meritocracy myth continues to persist, and reforming systems built on meritocratic ideals is often denigrated as “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

What are our recommendations

Commit to true inclusion

Inclusion means involving all employees in all opportunities and activities, so everyone gets a fair chance to succeed, while diversity means bringing all types of people to all parts of your company. A truly cohesive and successful company culture cannot be achieved without a commitment to inclusivity  —  even over other priorities. The value of an inclusive company can be measured in attracting and retaining talent and improving performance. Inclusion goes beyond a statement of purpose and reflects a proactive, tangible culture at your company. You must build inclusive company values and live them, not just relying on written codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies to do the work. In an era of offsite events and socializing, the code of conduct doesn’t stop at the front door, but instead describes expectations for employees wherever they are.

Build transparency into company culture

The more transparent a company is, the more open and trusting the culture will be. We encourage transparency for better communication in both directions, allowing for more ideas from teams, improved coordination, and ultimately, better results. Open communication helps all employees by giving them accurate information, the desired context, and equal access to opportunities. This is especially important for people from underrepresented groups, as they often have smaller networks and are at an information disadvantage both in the industry and the company. To make information sharing more fair, create a clear communications policy. As your company grows, you will need to evaluate transparency more carefully. Some considerations:

  • Require prior permission before sharing specific feedback or information that might be sensitive, or could identify specific employees
  • Be thoughtful and consider that some information may need to remain confidential or controlled for legal or practical reasons
  • Have a feedback framework in place for employees receiving controversial, potentially confusing, or sensitive information
  • Release information on a regular schedule to build trust and reliability
  • Think about whether information might trigger competitive behavior or constitute a distraction, as for example when sharing details about compensation packages
  • Balance anonymity with accountability, as too much anonymous information can become devalued and disruptive
  • Disclose when sensitive information might need to be withheld — to protect trade secrets, for example, or address a leak — and how to communicate that to employees

Information often flows outside the company, as well: Before sharing information internally, consider what would happen if your policies or practices were shared publicly. At times you will need to keep information confidential for the welfare of your company, but an excessive desire for secrecy could be a sign of something wrong. If revealing internal policies or data would conflict with your stated commitment to inclusion, you need to resolve those issues, not ignore or hide them.

Prioritize a strong work/life balance for 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. Employees from underrepresented groups are often at a disadvantage due to conflicting demands between work and personal obligations 2 which can be more extreme for underrepresented people of color, disabled people, LGBQTA people, and others from diverse backgrounds. Many tech companies do not prioritize healthy work-life balance, and some actively encourage excessive hours and unhealthy work environments. The best approach to work-life balance among diverse employees and applicants is holistic and customized, as no two lives are identical. For example, a young single parent may feel disadvantaged because an employer doesn’t allow a fixed departure time to pick children up from daycare — an issue that non-parents may not think about. That can mean not applying for the job or getting left behind, especially when promotions and bonuses are handed out. Similarly, a veteran might need a flexible schedule for VA appointments or National Guard service. Both needs could be casually met with a flex schedule policy that would benefit everyone without singling anyone out.


We share these helpful references as starting points 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. Retrieved from: 

  2. Blake-Beard, S., O’Neill, R., Ingols, C., and Shapiro, M. (2010). “Social sustainability, flexible work arrangements, and diverse women.” Gender in Management: An International Journal 25(5): pp. 408-425. Retrieved December 2016 from: