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February 26, 2020

What Can Tech Businesses Do to Create Diverse and Inclusive Workplace Environments?

So, your tech firm wants to embrace diversity in its workforce. Now what?


In this excerpt from our award-winning Technologist Talk podcast, Ulysses Smith, a leader in organizational diversity and inclusion, talks about next steps for tech companies – and for the people who work for them. Smith, an advisor to CompTIA’s Advancing Tech Talent and Diversity Community, describes ways tech firms reach diversity and inclusion goals, ways that may work and a few that may not.


Here's an edited transcript of the second episode in a 3-part series featuring Smith:


R.C. “Bob” Dirkes: Hello, I'm your host Bob Dirkes... This is the second of three podcasts focusing on diversity and inclusion in technology careers. Last time we talked about what diversity and inclusion means, in general, and why those values are important, not just for technology businesses, but for people working with technology.


[In this episode] we'll continue our conversation with Ulysses Smith… about ways tech firms reach diversity and inclusion goals, ways that may work and a few that may not. Smith says for many firms, thinking of diversity for the first time, simply getting started is often the hardest part. Once they do, companies need to take a hard look at where they are as an organization. Information about hiring is important, but Smith says firms aren't always looking for diverse employees in the right place.


Ulysses Smith: : I'd say there's a huge focus on recruiting, which, yes, there are definite opportunities in tech and beyond because there are a number of underrepresented people who have not quite made it into the actual companies yet. That doesn't mean they aren't in the workforce. They are.


But there's a myth, a very pervasive myth in tech, that there just aren't enough qualified, underrepresented racial-ethnic minorities and women candidates, which is just not true. It's absolutely not true.


But too many consultancies, I think, focus specifically on building pipelines, particularly through secondary educational programs as opposed to looking at the workforce now, where there actually is quite a bit of talent that has just been untapped.


Bob: Smith believes many diversity and inclusion consultants, especially in Silicon Valley, rely on training in unconscious bias, but he says that usually has severe limitations.


Smith: Diversity trainings, unconscious bias trainings are good to a certain extent. However, there's often very little follow up after that. I think people feel like they are quite accomplished once they sit through the UB training, but then there's no actual action steps that happen.


Nobody walks them through how to actually change their hiring process. There is no hard audit of their policies or their practices. There's no hard look at how each of those things actually contributes to a particular culture in that particular workplace. And for large companies, in particular, most of them have been operating for so long without considering anything beyond surface level diversity efforts that now… they're trying to go back and correct things that are almost impossible.


The culture is so deeply, deeply ingrained at this juncture that it is pretty difficult to just do an automatic course correction. You're really trying to turn an ocean liner. And that's not the easiest thing to do, as one might suspect.


Bob: That's why Smith says he prefers to work with smaller firms whose corporate culture isn't set in stone yet. He finds that changing culture can be done through a concept he calls belonging. It goes beyond just diversity and inclusion.


Smith: Belonging is actually a fairly new concept that is new in the sense that it has newly entered the mainstream dialogue around diversity in this space. But dialog really is creating that internal sense… the internal feeling that they are essential to a team, that they're not just a cog in the wheel, but that they have a place, that everything they do has meaning, that they have purpose. That's really what belonging is, right? It's, "How do I feel about my team? How do I feel about the workplace that I'm in? You know, what's my place in whatever environment I'm in?" That's where belonging comes from.


Bob: He says belonging also comes from a place of empathy.


Smith: Because, maybe not everybody knows what it's like to walk around as a black man. Not everybody knows the experience to walk around as an immigrant or to walk around as somebody who doesn't have English as their first language… who has their citizenship questioned at different junctures.


Not everybody is going to be able to understand that. Right? I'll never know what it's like to walk a day in the life of a woman. I'm just not going to know what that's like. But what I can resonate with is storytelling. What I can resonate with is somebody telling me a story about what it feels like to be excluded from something.


Bob: Smith says storytelling in this way can break through strong resistance because everybody can relate to the desire to belong, to not be excluded.


Smith: …That's really where the conversation of belonging came from. I think we've seen now the big performance indicators of belonging with the same kind of business case around diversity that a lot of people are citing now. Wow, shockingly, people choose to stay at a company where they feel like they belong a lot longer than they stay somewhere where they feel that they are not welcomed or valued for who they are. Right?


People tend to take fewer sick days when they feel like they're somewhere where they belong because we see stresses reduce dramatically. People aren't sitting at their desks processing trauma because they [are wondering] how are they going to be perceived if they say this versus if they say something else, or how are their coworkers viewing them? Or maybe they aren't feeling fulfilled in their job, because they aren't given the opportunity to really maximize their skills and reach their potential, because they're being overlooked for some other factor.


So, I think we've seen the business case for belonging being made. And now, I think the conversation really is about how do we shift from just talking about the recruiting side of diversity and getting the composition and the demographics of our organizations to change to really talking about the climate, right?


What does it mean for somebody to be included? What does it mean for our climate to change? But what does it mean for us to really engage everybody in this conversation?


Bob: Smith says businesses also need to focus on policies, practices, and programs, making sure they encourage belonging. For companies that do so successfully, there's a lot to be gained, which is what we'll discuss next time…


Technologist Talk is an award-winning podcast produced by Creating IT Futures, CompTIA’s tech workforce charity, where we talk to business leaders, workforce professionals and talent developers about shaping the careers of today’s and tomorrow’s technology workers.


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