Last month, team collaboration tool Slack, was was awarded this year’s Fastest Rising Startup at the Crunchies in San Francisco. In fact, Slack is often credited as one of the fastest-growing business apps of all time. On stage to collect the award were four of Slack’s engineers, all of them black and all of them female.
Diversity is something Slack takes very seriously. It can be difficult to put companies side-by-side on this; different methodologies makes comparison difficult. But overall Slack are leading the pack, at least among their Silicon Valley peers:
Slack US Race & Ethnicity:
And Female-identified Employees:
Striving for workplace diversity throws up some challenging questions, for sure: How do you define a good level of diversity? What do you measure representation against? What strategies or tactics are appropriate?
Before all of this there is one question you should ask first; why is workplace diversity important?
Why diversity works
In a recent episode of the Reply All podcast, Scott Page, Professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, proposed that benefits of workplace diversity can be captured by asking one big question:
Where do you keep your ketchup?
To paraphrase Scott’s argument:
It turns out, if you’re British or if you’re African American from the South, not as a rule but generally speaking, you’re likely to keep your ketchup in the cupboard. If you’re not British and you’re not African American from the South, you tend to keep your ketchup in the fridge. Now suppose you run out of ketchup and you’re a ketchup in the fridge person, what are you gonna use? You might use mayonnaise or mustard because those are things you think of when you think, what’s next to the ketchup? If you’re a ketchup in the cupboard person and you run out ketchup, what’s next to the ketchup in the cupboard? Well, malt vinegar.
So the more people you have from diverse backgrounds, the more associations you have to draw on. Where you’re from, the languages you speak, how old you are and your personal experience all shape how you consider and solves problems.
When you have a diverse team you’re seeing the world through several sets of eyes. As a group, you have collective empathy that reaches much further. A broader understanding of different types of customers, their needs and how you might solve them.
Cultural fit vs workplace diversity
Once-upon-a-time in 2014, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky shared a letter he had sent to all his employees that set a precedent for all startups and fast growing companies: make culture king.
There are days when it’s easy to feel the pressure of our own growth expectations. Other days when we need to ship product. Others still where we are dealing with the latest government relations issue. It’s easy to get consumed by these. And they are all very important. But compared to culture, they are relatively short-term. These problems will come and go. But culture is forever.
Chesky argues that culture is built by “a thousand things, a thousand times”; by upholding core values in everything you do. In other words, if can you define what it is that your company values, and then find people who share those values, you’ll be on to the money. Cue thousands of startup CEOs prioritizing cultural fit as their number one hiring priority.
Now, seeking cultural fit and diversity are not at odds with one another. Far from it. Core values are universal human principles that can be held by anyone, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, religion or background.
Unfortunately – and in particular in organizations where core values haven’t been put to paper – cultural fit is too often misinterpreted as; someone I get on with, someone I can picture here, someone like me.
Slack has tackled this tension head-on by referencing diversity within their core values. Changing your organizational values may not be appropriate or possible. There are, of course, other strategies you can apply.
Seek cultural contribution too
Last year Diego Rodriguer, Partner at much-lauded innovation and design firm IDEO outlined how they hire:
I try to choose candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of our culture, even if they don’t feel like today’s mainstream employee. I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.
Next time you are hiring think about what might be missing from your culture. When you are speaking to a candidate, consider not only how does this person exemplify our core values, but how will their background and unique experiences help our culture grow and adapt.
If you continue to repeat this approach, you’ll build a machine that will take you a lot further, a lot faster, and along a route you probably never could have imagined.