6 Signs That Your Company’s “Diversity” Initiatives Are Just Covering Up A Hostile Work Environment

Many companies preach about diversity, but do nothing of substance to address their issues.

by Anonymous Author on May 25th, 2016

Does it sometimes feel like conversations about diversity are a fad? Like companies are just throwing things together? Putting an inclusion statement on their website and calling it a strategy?

Sure, some companies aren’t sure where to start: inclusion statements and volunteer committees are a good step forward. But others are just using these tactics as a veil while they continue to perpetuate exclusive and hostile work environments.

I’m Black woman working in tech as a developer. I was previously working for a high growth company that was just like this. Before working there, this company spoke about how much they valued all voices and wanted to promote diversity. They placed a lot of value on “culture” and “being inclusive,” but when I spoke up about the gender bias I was facing, I was silenced. When I reported sexist behavior by a colleague, I was told “it was a misunderstanding”… after all, the offender had a daughter. He couldn’t possibly be sexist… right?  

This logic blew my mind.

I’ve since spoken to a few other women about these experiences, and heard similar stories of companies that preached about diversity, but did nothing of substance to address their issues. Through those stories, my experiences and some research, I began identifying certain red flags: signs of companies who are just running superficial diversity initiatives to avoid addressing issues of equality, racism and sexism at work. Here are six of them.

Tattered red flag flying in the wind.

Photo CC-BY Tim Green. 

1. Joining the ‘Inner Circle’ is the only way to be heard or promoted

Can you name your co-founder’s favorite employees? Is there a particular individual they always listen to, while ignoring others? Are there individuals, that whenever they suggest something, it’s a grand idea… even if another individual already suggested the same thing?

This one is challenging for leaders to admit to since it signals politics within the organization – something most startups pride themselves on not having. Favoritism can affect project assignments and promotions, giving certain individuals an upper hand that may not be based on merit, but rather on social capital within the company. It also affects salaries and bonuses.

If someone needs to be part of the ‘inner circle’ to be promoted or heard, that inherently creates an environment in which certain individuals can’t succeed. Furthermore, people outside of the “circle” will be less likely to bring up challenges they might be facing, for fear of implicating someone who is in it. When they aren’t heard, their issues and concerns can’t be addressed.

2. They take tokenism and call it diversifying

I recently heard an eye opening distinction on the podcast Startup. They were talking about diversity at Gimlet Media. Brittany Luse talked about the difference between tokenism and targeting: Targeting, she says, is actively pursuing candidates outside the traditional channel, outside of existing networks. Tokenism is getting one person to represent a particular community and stopping there.

This topic is complicated for individuals. In an article on Monster, Olivet Jones discusses how tokenized employees are treated “more as a representative icon than as an individual.” The article identifies ways individuals can assess whether or not they are tokens, and what next steps to consider.

From a company perspective, the decision to create a more diverse company should be clear. Taking tokenism and calling it diversity is a huge red flag, and one that many employees can see right through.

3. Those who talk about bias are shamed and silenced

I talk to a lot of women who are silenced about their experiences. “Clear” sexism certainly exists, but it’s the microaggressions that are often overlooked. These are the subtle nuances in how a white male co-worker is treated better, or how praise and criticism are delivered to a Black woman. Women who report these experiences are often told they’re imagining things or making things up. They aren’t taken seriously by HR or management, and are sometimes even punished. They may be excluded from important decisions and projects, lose critical career opportunities, and in some cases are even fired.

To prevent this at companies, there should be a clear process for reporting bias — even seemingly subtle bias. Every incident should be taken seriously and steps should be created to prevent future incidents. Furthermore, there should be a process to assure that employees don’t face retaliation if and when they report.

4. Money and equity are not part of the conversation

And of course, money. Oftentimes, conversations about diversity and inclusion don’t directly address salaries and stock options. But studies confirm that gender and racial pay gaps persist, even in companies working on “diversity”.

This is about building wealth. Salaries and stock options seriously affect the ability of individuals to accumulate wealth throughout their lifetime. Although there aren’t a lot of studies on how stock options are distributed amongst employees, there is strong evidence that women are punished for negotiating, and options sometimes aren’t even on the table in negotiations that involve underrepresented groups in tech. Tech companies also may have very homogenous early teams, which means that those groups get most of the valuable early equity in the company.

Unequal compensation may not be a conscious action on the part of the employer, but the consequences are real. Companies should audit their compensation plans for signs of pay gaps and should address them accordingly. Companies must work to correct differences in salaries across demographic groups, and should also look at how shares are distributed amongst departments and individuals.

5. The leadership team is fairly homogenous

Translucent chess pieces lined up on a board.

Photo CC-BY Sasha the Okay Photographer.

The workforce is changing. The nation’s demographics are changing. At the least, the leadership team should reflect the employees, but it should aspire to reflect your customer base… AND the reality of the world we live in.

A predominantly white, male leadership team could make it less likely that companies will put resources towards diversity. Support needs to come from the upper echelon of the organization. When you look at each level of the organization, there should be some kind of equitable representation amongst employees. Companies with disproportionately more women and people of color at the individual contributor levels, but mainly white male leadership, get a red flag. Twitter’s user base, for example, is 18% black and 12% Latino. But the company as a whole is only 2% black and 4% Latino, while 59% of its staff is white and 31% is Asian. At the leadership level, the diversity drops further: almost ¾ of the leadership team is white, and Asian employees are underrepresented compared to the overall employee base; meanwhile, there are no Black or Latino people represented (2014 data).

While these numbers don’t need to align *perfectly* all the way through, these major discrepancies are concerning, not only from a representation perspective, but from a business perspective as well. Addressing these discrepancies starts with hiring. Hiring teams should have a list of the top qualifications needed to succeed, and set specific goals around representation that help the company get to where it should be. Companies need to consider their company goals, their user base and how they, as creators of a product, represent their customers.

6. No resources are devoted to diversity initiatives

There are a lot of conversations about how diversity is important to companies. Some create volunteer-led initiatives that meet once in awhile to put together events. Other have affinity groups to create a space for people to talk about their experiences and build a stronger community. These are worthwhile strategies, but often run the risk of dying down due to lack of funding and managerial support.

If diversity is important to companies, they should put resources and money towards those initiatives. The CEO and other top executives must show support for diversity and inclusion outcomes, and allocate resources towards these goals. Diversity initiatives should be treated like any other project: they should have funding through the appropriate organization in the company, work to develop a budget and goals, and track and report on those metrics over time. People who participate in these initiatives should be properly recognized and compensated for their success.  

There ARE companies who are putting the effort, focus and resources towards creating a more inclusive environment. These are companies that have a strategy and devote resources to the initiatives. They work with employees to make sure their voices are heard and complaints are addressed. They look at their entire pipeline, from hiring to promotions, from individual contributors to leadership, and find the gaps. But in some companies, superficial “diversity” initiatives are just a way to distract from toxic work environments, structural inequalities, and the same old status quo.

Marginalized employees knows the difference.

We know the stats. The demographics are changing. The workforce is changing.

The question is… can companies change?