Explicit DEI focus has been one of the biggest changes to modern management responsibilities. This is a good thing - done right, DEI makes a business the best version of itself. However, done wrong, attempts at DEI can be confusing, distracting, and even illegal.
Unfortunately, there is no simple, clear guide on how to manage effectively for DEI. As a result, many leaders and managers are left making things up, screwing things up, or hoping the HR team will save the day. Below we’ll aim to give a guide to the most critical pieces for do-it-yourself DEI. While we can’t promise that this guide is exhaustive or systematic or authoritative, we do think it’ll help you avoid common pitfalls and be better than average.
What is DEI?
- Diversity: Your organization has many different kinds of people
- Equity: Opportunities are fair and unbiased
- Inclusion: You have a respectful work and appropriate environment, and you include the right people in the right ways
We’ll work backwards through each letter, and then we’ll talk about DEI programs at different company sizes. If you take nothing else from this, the cheat sheet is:
- Inclusion: Separate work and play; run good meetings; include people appropriately
- Equity: Document critical people processes and check for bias
- Diversity: Your company should become more diverse as you grow; have a mature leader coordinate these efforts as you scale
The I - Inclusion
What is inclusion?
Inclusion: You have a respectful, appropriate, well-advertised work environment and you include the right people in the right ways.
A lot of people use inclusion as a catch-all. This is a mistake. It’s very important to be clear about what inclusivity is and what it is not.
Here are some examples of what inclusion is not:
- A promise you’ll be “comfortable” at work. There are a million reasons you could be uncomfortable at work, from open floor plans to generally resenting capitalism to not liking small talk - inclusion in a DEI setting only has to do with the reasonable set of environment factors a company should be expected to control.
- A promise you’ll be able to be “authentic” at work. You might authentically be a terrible person. Companies don’t need to accommodate all versions of people. Employees should, however, aim to bring their best self to work. And companies should create an environment where good, well-intentioned, law-abiding people don’t have their core beliefs trampled on regularly.
This might all seem like being overly careful with words, but it’s important to be specific on this topic. Words matter, and when you use casual versions of these kinds of concepts you codify unreasonable expectations.
OK, so what is inclusion …
First, it’s a respectful, appropriate, well-advertised work environment. This means:
- A respectful work environment: you’re not regularly disrespected or denigrated in ways that a mature, reasonable third party would agree is disrespectful or denigrating.
- An appropriate work environment: the environment should serve the purpose of the company in a reasonable way. At FoxNews, bashing libs may be appropriate; at your billing SaaS company, it’s not. At a comedy club, it’s appropriate to hear off-color humor; at your infrastructure startup it’s not. Said another way – an appropriate environment is one that matches the mission of the company and the norms of the industry. Note: Some Industries might have norms that don’t match polite society. As a leader you should try to uphold the higher bar between normal society and your industry’s norms.
- An as-advertised work environment: The working agreements were clear up front. If you hire someone for a 9-5 and then ask them to work 100 hours every week, that’s not as-advertised. If weekly boozy team dinners are where many decisions happen and people are expected to join, you should say that before someone accepts an offer.
Second, you include the right people in the right ways:
- Treat people according to their title. Don’t treat one Senior Engineer differently than another. Don’t play favorites. Note: a common failure mode is not performance managing people effectively, causing different treatment for people in the same role. You may think that’s being generous to the person that isn’t fired; instead it creates a real inclusivity problem and is unhealthy for the employee.
- Set clear expectations of engagement and solicit inputs effectively. Don’t require aggressive shouting in meetings to have people’s voices heard..etc.
Tips for being inclusive:
- Make sure your environment is respectful – the best ROI here is to just avoid negativity, cynicism, and laughing at people/groups. Positivity is not disrespectful in most cases. However, when in doubt, also avoid touching people, nicknames, complimenting on appearances, and being overly inquisitive about backgrounds you’re unfamiliar with.
- Another way to have a respectful environment is to clearly separate work and play. Meetings are for work. Required attendance is for work. Optional invites and meals are where things can get more casual.
- Align your environment with your mission and industry standards. Set expectations of the role before someone signs the offer.
- Run good meetings.
- Have a writing culture.
- Performance manage people appropriately.
How not to be inclusive:
- Having de-facto leadership groups (e.g. the founders friends; people who happen to sit near the head of engineering… etc.)
- Requiring coworkers become friends to succeed
- Making major decisions in optional social settings
- Making bad jokes (worth noting that no joke is always better than a joke that doesn’t land, work isn’t the place to test new material)
- Trying to be edgy
The E - Equity
Equity means equal access to opportunities. In short, this means that your most critical people processes - hiring, firing, paying, promoting - are well-defined, unbiased, and consistent.
Being well-defined means that your processes are written down - you should be able to point me to your interview rubrics, compensation bands, and promotion processes.
Being unbiased means these processes are based on substance over style: interview rubrics should look for specific characteristics and behaviors instead of how you felt; promotion processes should focus on work done, instead of being a popularity contest.
Being consistent means you don’t break the rules you outline.
For equity and every other part of this guide, if you’re looking for specific processes, I highly recommend you go to Google’s Rework page and just do what they say.
Some common examples to think about:
- Anything that looks like “they’re ready for promotion except for this one tiny thing” is probably not equitable. That tiny thing is often a stylistic concern. Promote that person.
- Avoid over-comparison to existing people when promoting. “They’re just not like the three staff engineers we have now” is a great way to bias your process.
- Your compensation bands might need to shift as the market does. It’s not uncommon to have some changes happen in a non-synchronous way that doesn’t apply to everyone all at once. That’s ok. However, you need to go update the comp for existing people in the not-to-distant future.
- Don’t treat everyone the same - treat people appropriate to their situation. High performers deserve larger rewards and more opportunities. Some people might need reasonable accommodations for their life circumstances that differ from existing norms. Really distill what is necessary for a particular job and then accommodate anything that gets that done.
In summary, to be equitable, document your critical people processes and make sure those processes focus on what really matters.
The D - Diversity
Diversity is potentially the most controversial letter of DEI. Many people question the fairness and impact of diversity efforts.
The quick and practical reasons why diversity – done right – is good:
- To scale a company you need access to top talent, no matter if they are old, young, introvert, extrovert, black, white, male, female, non-binary, parents, single people, or anything in between. At a large enough scale if you’re not reasonably diverse, it makes it harder to ever become reasonably diverse – it’s not uncommon to not want to join a place where nobody is like you. As a result, you’ll be cutting yourself off from ever accessing the best and deepest talent pool.
- To scale a company you need people that act as bridges between different parts of your org. Some roles are more extroverted, some are more introverted, some groups are based in other countries, some have very different backgrounds. Non-diverse groups have fewer bridges and fewer bridges mean it’s harder to get work done.
- Products are built better with diverse perspectives. Whether it’s understanding a diverse client base or representing diverse viewpoints while designing algorithms, there’s a huge number of ways that different kinds of people help create better results. One example is how having someone who is visual impaired on the team can help spot the plethora of accessibility gaps your product has.
So, all things the same, if you can get reasonably diverse there’s some pretty good benefits. However, the devil, as always, is in the details.
What is reasonably diverse? At minimum, reasonably diverse is something like:
- Close to the average demographic breakdown of your industry; your industry and hiring pipeline demographics are the baseline from which “reasonable” diversity can be measured
- For critical industries and larger companies, society generally wants to aim for more diversity, adding advocacy in the system to have more representation (which can be created by companies creating apprenticeship programs, funding school efforts..etc). Companies should react to this advocacy and adapt their goals appropriately.
Said another way – as you scale in size and importance, your team should not be less diverse than average, and strive towards more diverse than average via incremental improvement year over year.
So, how do you get there?
- Focus on leadership and junior hires. Getting diversity in leadership helps manage orgs better and hire more people from underrepresented backgrounds. Junior hires are where most of the industry demographic aspirations are being realized (i.e. more representative of where industry wants to go).
- Use the something like the Rooney Rule. It’s legal and appropriate to have rules around interviewing a certain number of under-represented people before making a decision. This is how many companies create hard rules around investing in diversity and how many have become more diverse over time. Note: this should be administered by an experienced professional.
- Have well-defined interview loops with clear rubrics that evaluate necessary competencies.
- Sponsor early talent, via both pre-industry and leadership programs.
- Lower your bar for people from under-represented backgrounds. If you lower your bar you create a condition where people from under-represented backgrounds do worse on average – your good intentions create a very bad outcome.
- Have crazy goals. You’re not going to make double digit demographic improvements each year at scale. Be reasonable.
- Choose a less qualified candidate. Your goal is to hire the best person, always.
Finally, it’s important to note the correlation between diversity and inclusion and equity. A great example here is the treatment of parental leave. If your young company’s leadership group has no parents in it, it’s quite possible they treat a new parent just like everyone else – we have PTO and leave policy, that’s that. When Alice asks for an extra 2 weeks of remote at the end of her leave, the non-parent founders might be frustrated – she’s already been out for months! Having a parent in the leadership group, however, might lead that same company to proactively empathize with the varying and unique needs relating to birth and newborns, and understand Alice is probably pretty tired and really wouldn’t have asked for this if there was any other way. Having diversity in leadership helps companies be proactively inclusive, because experience is the best teacher.
Now that we’ve covered each topic individually, let’s talk DEI programs. Some quick tips:
- Have DEI programs be run by leaders or professionals; ideally professional leaders. Under no circumstances should you give a junior employee or a random committee of upset activists the reins of a DEI program. Avoid DEI leadership that just farms out ownership to everyone else without very good enablement. Avoid putting the burden of educating your team on people from under-represented backgrounds.
- DEI programs must understand nuance, must be practical, and must be done competently.
- Under-promise and over-deliver. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is having their advertised DEI goals not match reality. People often rightfully despise companies with DEI programs that take credit for more than they deliver.
Most DEI related problems are bad management (vs bad people). The basics of setting expectations, managing effectively, and rewarding fairly get you very far on inclusion and equity. Diversity is a hot-button topic but one that can be managed practically and evenly, focusing on proven methods and reasonable expectations.
- Inclusion: separate work and play; run good meetings; include people appropriately
- Equity: Document critical people processes and check for bias
- Diversity: your company should become more diverse as you grow; have a mature leader coordinate these efforts as you scale.