Three questions every organization should ask about diversity

Three questions every organization should ask about diversity

In May 2014, Google became one of the first technology companies to release a report with its employee diversity figures. This began a trend among fellow tech titans in what has become one of the most talked-about movements in Silicon Valley and beyond. Google’s data about its employee demographics revealed an overwhelmingly nondiverse employee base: the search giant’s statistics showed a gender breakdown of 70% male employees and just 30% female employees, and a workforce that is more than 60% white. Other companies like Apple, Facebook and Twitter followed suit and released their own information. Perhaps not surprisingly, their collective numbers prove the technology industry has a big diversity problem.

I applaud these companies for coming forward with this data. No doubt it has ignited a conversation and laid the foundation for change. We know that for any company to be successful, it comes down to the talent of the team. There have been numerous studies over the years showing that diversity is good for business. According to recent McKinsey research, of the more than 350 public companies evaluated, those with racial and ethnic diversity were at least 35% more likely to gain financial returns above national industry averages. Yet many companies are still struggling to improve diversity in the workplace.
As one of a small handful of African American female CEOs in technology, diversity is a topic that is personal to me, and one that I’ve thought a lot about. Here are three questions every company should be asking themselves as we continue, together, to chart a new course for our own organizations and the tech industry at large.

Is the organization, in general and at the leadership level, diverse?

Bringing together people who have different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives helps increase discussion, analysis and ultimately problem solving. Based on the 2010 research of Katherine W Phillips, Katie A Liljenquist and Margaret A Neale, bringing together individuals from different backgrounds and experiences results in more cognitive processing, more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict. The upside: new ideas can emerge and individuals can learn from one another and discover the solution to a problem in the process. In the study, diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.

Similarly, diversity encourages innovation and creativity. While people prefer to engage and work with people who agree with them, it is precisely from disagreements, debate and analysis that new ideas emerge. A 2011 survey by Forbes of 321 large global enterprises – companies with at least $500m in annual revenue – showed 85% agree or strongly agree that diversity is crucial to fostering innovation in the workplace.

Is a wide net being cast for talent?

In a competitive global economy where talent is crucial to successfully growing a business, hiring from the largest and most diverse set of candidates is increasingly necessary to succeed in the market. Finding potential employees who differ from a gender, ethnic or nationality perspective requires looking beyond your traditional networks.

Start thinking like an athletic coach. Coaches target and recruit the talent they need. They don’t put an ad up and then wait. Talk to local organizations with community connections, including professional organizations for women and minorities, cultural institutions and colleges. They can help you connect with candidates. As a mentor of mine likes to say, the best candidate for a job could be a woman or minority, but it may just take a little longer to find them. Ensure that energy is being spent to create a diverse talent pool for consideration when hiring.

Have you created an environment to support diversity?

The hardest effort may not be in recruiting diverse talent, but in retaining them. This is particularly true for firms that are very homogeneous or are located in less diverse communities. Minority employees may feel isolated and disconnected. A more active role in helping them adjust may be required. The first month or two can be the most challenging for any new employee. Setting up a mentoring program to assist employees in navigating the organization and developing relationships can be very helpful. Affinity organizations that empower small groups of employees can also be helpful in providing not only support, but reassurance to employees that their differences are valued and important to the company.
It is also critical that the commitment to building a diverse workforce is understood by all employees. The purpose is not just to have different genders, cultures or skin colors, but to take advantage of the different ideas, perspectives and approaches that diversity brings. So everyone needs to help create an environment to hear, consider and debate new suggestions and thoughts. People leave when they don’t feel heard and can’t get traction with their ideas.

Diverse teams are good for business. But the tech industry in particular has been slow to grasp this. The good news is the discussion around diversity challenges in tech has broadened significantly. High profile cases like Ellen Pao vs. KPCB and Intel’s $300m diversity pledge are fueling the discourse. In the past year alone, we’ve seen companies open themselves up and become more accountable to their stakeholders. We’ve also seen companies create and share diversity action plans with significant financial backing. While the diversity problem does not have a quick fix, I am optimistic about what the future holds for Silicon Valley and beyond.

Shellye Archambeau is the CEO of MetricStream, a Silicon Valley-based governance, risk, compliance and quality management cloud apps company that helps organizations around the world improve their business performance. She also currently serves on the board of directors for Verizon Communications and Nordstrom, and was named the “#2 Most Influential African American in Technology” by Business Insider.


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