Fast-growing company? You can still embed diversity and inclusion
By Jo Faragher on 19 January 2021
Anyone who leads diversity in an established company will tell you it has its challenges, but what about that critical period when the organisation is emerging out of its start-up phase to become something much bigger? Moving from start-up to scale-up, particularly in fast-growing sectors such as technology, can mean companies become so focused on commercial success or developing their product that embedding principles of diversity and inclusion get lost.
“One of the biggest challenges start-ups face when it comes to diversity is the management team not recognising how important it is and not embracing it as part of their culture from the beginning,” says Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter, a non-profit organisation looking to drive inclusion in the tech sector. Charlotte Reypens, who has undertaken research on entrepreneurs and start-ups for Nesta, the technology and innovation charity, says one of the greatest barriers can be finding people with the right technical skills in the first place: “We operate within an ecosystem, and the talent pool has to be there for start-ups to draw from. This is not an excuse, but it can make it difficult to implement certain interventions, such as ensuring the shortlist is diverse before closing applications for a role. Sometimes they need to fill a position quickly.”
Forster believes that building a culture where all employees feel welcome from the word ‘go’ can help. “My key advice for an early-stage business that wants to embed diversity is to focus on inclusion first. Start a dialogue, listen to your team and take their experiences and ideas seriously. Consider how inclusive you are in day to day operations, performance reviews, benefits and promotions, and actively seek diverse opinions and voices. Once your culture is on the right track, you are ready to re-think your recruitment.” She argues that an inclusive culture starts with strong leadership, so entrepreneurs and start-ups mustn’t assume diversity will ‘just happen’. “It takes purposeful leadership and open and ongoing dialogue from the start, a willingness to listen to people’s concerns and really address them,” she adds. “Yes this can be uncomfortable but we need to help people get comfortable with being uncomfortable to really build inclusion. It is important to win people to the “why” of inclusion as well as the “how”, genuine support rather than just compliance from managers is needed to really move things forward.”
Multiverse, a tech start-up which offers a range of apprenticeships in business and technology roles, has a social mission to create an outstanding alternative to university and lifelong learning opportunities. It has grown from around 40 employees in late 2018 to around 200 now, with another 50 joiners due to arrive in the next three months. Siobhan Randell, Multiverse’s Inclusion and Diversity Lead, says that, as it grew, the company wanted to look at its internal diversity and inclusion to ensure it reflected its external mission.
“We know that there are diversity issues in the technology industry and if we’re not proactive they won’t improve. We want to grow in an inclusive way and have built a strategy right up to 2022 which looks at recruitment, development and culture,” she says. Values sit at the centre of this strategy as opposed to developing standalone initiatives, she explains. “It’s about ensuring inclusion is a part of who you are and your ways of working. Because we have always been a values-driven organisation with inclusion central to our social mission, it made having a diversity and inclusion strategy a natural next stage, rather than having to spend time building a business case.” On a day-to-day basis, this is reflected in how people treat each other and their expectations of one another, and managers look for values alignment in every hire they make.
Data is at the core of how Multiverse approaches diversity and inclusion, and something every start-up should focus on. “We have a clear recruitment strategy with data monitoring and collection embedded into that,” adds Randell. “This should always be your first step – otherwise you don’t know what your specific issues might be. This doesn’t cost any money, it’s a commitment to being accountable and we’ve set up new recruitment partnerships as a result of what we’ve found. As soon as you have the data, you can understand where your area of focus should be, whether that’s talent attraction, changes to your recruitment process, training for your team, progression or retention and you’ll be able to measure your progress.”
Isotropic, a growing communications company, has taken its data to create stretch targets for diversity in 2021. The company has pledged to make its workforce 40% Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority and 35% female this year, and has set up a taskforce to ensure this remains on the agenda throughout the business, not just at leadership level. According to Caroline Thomson, SVP HR & Organisation Development, the team will analyse data at the application stage in the recruitment process to determine whether its D&I targets are being met through its hiring practices.
Camilla-Astrid Robinson, Senior Culture Specialist at Checkout.com, a global payment platform, agrees that embedding inclusive practices into processes, rather than having D&I as an ‘add-on’, is crucial. The company doubled in size during 2020, and is set to grow at a similar pace this year as it expands into more global locations. Checkout.com has developed numerous partnerships to build a more diverse recruitment pipeline. Over the last 12 months, it has built relationships with organisations including the Black Young Professionals Network, Code First Girls and SheCanCode, according to Tom Pattison, Employer Brand Specialist. The company has run a number of joint events or webinars with partners so they can amplify each other’s inclusion message. “We work very collaboratively with these partners and want to help them continue to do their great work. The content and events we produce together should always provide value to the members of the communities. And because people have made a connection with us, they tend to result in strong applications,” he says.
The company just announced an additional $450 million raised in Series C funding, taking their overall valuation to $15 billion. Robinson says: “As a rapidly growing company we have ambitious targets, so we try to carve out the time to see how we’re accelerating D&I. The key is making sure it’s not one person’s job, ensuring that everyone thinks about what they can do to progress it. So if you’re hiring, have you shared the role in everyone’s network so it’s been transmitted as widely as possible? How are you making meetings more inclusive, are there voices that are missing? What policies do you have in place to ensure everyone feels safe and included at work?” While organisations at an earlier stage in their growth may not have the budget for dedicated D&I roles, everyday actions such as this are among the many free “nudges” employees can make that support an inclusive culture.
Reypens from Nesta says venture capitalist firms and investors increasingly offer support with D&I, whether through creating guidance or opening up relationships with other companies to share best practice. “Some require companies to implement D&I policies as a condition of further investment,” she explains. There are also a growing number of accelerators – which help entrepreneurs turn ideas into marketable products and services – focused on under-represented groups, she adds. Apprenticeships can be a worthwhile route for young companies looking to build a diverse workforce, adds Randell from Multiverse. Many may already be paying the apprenticeship levy if their annual pay bill is more than £3m, or there are ways to access training funds that larger companies are unable to use.
So while accessing a diverse pool of talent and building an inclusive culture may seem like an overwhelming challenge to a young business, behind the scenes a network of potential partners, best practice and support is gathering pace.
The Tech Talent Charter lists eight practical inclusive actions growing companies can take:
- Use a skills-based (as opposed to experience based) job description. Focus on the top 5-6 skills only
- Include information in in your job advert about disability accommodations, flexible working, care leave and your other staff wellbeing policies
- Keep the language in your advert and job description simple and clear. Remove all gendered or ableist or racially biased terms
- Try to avoid asking for CVs. Instead use skills based templates / questions
- Use work sample approaches for shortlisted candidates instead of standard interview questions (get people to show you what they can do, not just tell you)
- Give shortlisted candidates the information they need to prepare for the process, to minimise surprises
- Think about who will add to your culture, rather than who will fit into your company culture
- Include diverse voices on your interview panel – ask for opinions and feedback from many different voices
Organisations can find out more about signing the Tech Talent Charter by clicking here
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.