The Grassroots DEI Organizer Playbook

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

Note: We use “DEI” as shorthand for Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging.

Written by Claire Veuthey and Stoddard Meigs, part of the Grassroots Diversity Advocates group. This is Chapter 3 of a larger playbook that is still a work in progress. Here are Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. We welcome feedback, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Please send them to cveuthey@gmail.com and stoddard.meigs@gmail.com.

Introduction

Bad organizational DEI is due to a combination of individual actions and institutional processes. If you want to improve your organization, you have to change both its people’s behavior and its processes.

In Chapter 1, we distinguished between Bottom-Up and Top-Down approaches to getting started. Similarly, we’ve split out initiatives into two kinds: Grassroots initiatives that you can undertake on your own today, and Corporate initiatives that are typically led — or at minimum publicly supported — by leadership. Chapter 4 looks at External Initiatives, where the focus area lies outside of the company. Don’t miss Chapter 2, as it provides lots of examples of events you can organize to further DEI discussion at your company.

General resources:

Grassroots initiatives

a) Gather baseline data

Take stock, and start counting! Especially if your company is small, collecting some data to serve as a baseline should be easy, and it will help clarify your company’s starting point. Please be careful not to profile people; if you don’t know their identity, you may want to politely ask. Keep track of which team each person is part of, how they got to the company (namely, if they were a referral, inbound, or active recruit, and who sourced them), and how long they’ve been part of the company. It’s a good idea to track contractors, too, especially if employees tend to start as contractors and if you rely on them for core parts of the business. See the example in b) Conduct a retention/ turnover audit.

Once you’ve done this, you may realize that your entire Eng team was referred or came over as a team from another company, but the Marketing team was assembled one by one under changing leadership. That may provide helpful context on the teams’ relative performance and the likelihood of individual members’ feelings of trust and belonging. Similarly, if new hires under a particular manager all leave within 12 months, it may be worth looking closely at that manager’s style. If folks are let go after circulating through different teams, perhaps the evaluation process wasn’t targeted enough, or maybe there was a mismatch between job scope and expectations.

In short, collecting data will help make explicit the default processes your company relies on to recruit, hire, retain, promote, and engage talent. Having data on hand can also help you make a clear case to hiring managers and leadership if you intend to suggest changes to these processes because you’ll be able to point to the problem very precisely.

b) Conduct a retention/ turnover audit

Turnover can serve as a proxy for employee engagement and culture fit. If your company is small enough that this exercise isn’t overly time-consuming, get a sense of turnover by collecting data:

  • List all the past and present employees you know of, as well as their start and end dates.
  • Make a note of how they got to the firm (referral, cold application), who referred them if they were referred, and their function/team.
  • If they are no longer with the company, note whether their departure was voluntary (they quit) or involuntary (they were terminated/laid off.)
  • If their departure was voluntary (i.e., they quit), make a note of whether it was regretted (the company wishes they had stayed) or not (it wasn’t a great fit anyway.)
  • You may also want to account for turnover related to employees who left a position but did not leave the company, such as in the case of a promotion or team transfer.

Example:

Similarly, having some hard data may reveal that referred employees are hired at more senior levels and tend to stick around longer, or that the Customer Service team members all have longer tenures. Don’t overinterpret the results, since there may be perfectly reasonable explanations for differences between teams and individuals (e.g., the Customer Service team was built out 1 year before the Marketing team.)

A note on turnover: it’s not all bad, and some of it may be inevitable. Your advisors and investors may be able to provide comparative data on turnover at comparable startups (stage, age, location, industry.) For reference, goTenna’s CEO gathered and anonymized turnover data for 4 NYC-based startups (3 were post-Series C and 1 post-Series A) and found that the average annualized attrition rate for all four companies was 31.9%. See the Resources section for more sources of reference data.

“My key takeaway? Employee turnover of anywhere from 15 to 8% is entirely compatible with fast-growing tech startups. This means that goTenna, with an average attrition rate of 32.5% over its seven years, is typical of similarly-situated companies. It doesn’t mean it’s ideal, but it’s certainly not abnormal.”

Source: “A data-driven look at turnover at tech startups — and how we reduced attrition by 65% in one year.”

c) Support the recruitment & hiring processes informally

You can help improve your company hiring processes even without being a hiring manager or part of the Recruitment/Talent/HR/People Ops team. This is particularly true if the organization is small enough that everyone’s still pitching in to help with sourcing, interviews, and recruiting.

Below are a few ideas of projects you can take on to lead the way and hopefully make it easier for hiring managers/HR to adopt new, less biased practices:

  • Review your JDs: (e.g., pass them through Textio) and present Textio’s recommendations to HR/hiring manager if there are systematic concerns
  • Facilitate discussions around hiring practices: Organizing discussion around hiring best practices can help foment hiring reform. It is not uncommon for most team members to never have thought critically about how hiring processes work. Some suggestions of topics to cover: the referral effect & where jobs are posted; implicit bias and how it might affect hiring decisions; resume blinding; hiring rubrics to evaluate candidates; the impact of how the JD is written.
  • Make sure your JDs are well-written to attract a range of candidates and provide clarity on the company’s expectations (see the Resources section for guidance on writing JDs)
  • Post your company openings on job boards that target a diverse set of candidates (see Resources for a few suggestions. You can also reach out to local colleges and bootcamps and find their career services team to let them know about jobs at your company so that you’re on their radar)
  • Make yourself available to guide candidates who might not be familiar with startup recruiting. Too often, JDs are perfectly intelligible to folks inside the organization but aren’t clear to those without access to the day-to-day company context. If you can’t get the JDs to reflect this in writing, consider taking the time to help candidates understand the context and catalyst for the role they’re interested in; the skills already present on the team vs those the hiring manager is looking to build more of, key stakeholders, and other qualitative and important elements of understanding a role as a candidate.
  • Before anyone meets any candidates for a role, draw up a grid of the experiences, skills, and attitudes important for the role. It’s easy to evaluate a candidate based on how they made the interviewer feel (which can often be disguised as “chemistry” or “culture fit”) instead of whether they actually meet the hiring manager’s needs. Design a simple rubric for how those might be evaluated, e.g., how will you gauge whether a candidate for an account executive/sales job “presents well”? Then, ask interviewers to use the grid to compare candidates more objectively. This may help prevent a situation of changing expectations, in which a candidate is deemed very strong on a characteristic that wasn’t named as crucial for the role, or in which another candidate is disqualified based on a perceived gap in skill/experience without evaluating the broader context of how their profile might add to the existing team’s skillset.

Here’s a simple example of the grid tool:

Recruiting & Hiring Resources

Job Boards:

** Note: many of these initiatives require that you put in potentially uncompensated time to do work that is outside of your strict job description. Make sure to set personal limits so you don’t burn out! **

Corporate initiatives

If you have support from leadership, or better yet, compensated time and people, you can help your company improve its DEI practices in a consistent, structured way.

Increasing diversity in your hiring pipeline often seems like the obvious place to start, but it depends on the stage your company finds itself in. If you are hiring hand over fist, then sure, focus there. If you’ve reached a steady-state, it’ll make more sense for your team to focus on retention, engagement, and culture.

Project Include covered many of these topics in its Recommendations and offers lots of succinct recommendations on this range of topics.

a) Recruitment & Hiring

  • Post on job boards that target a diverse set of candidates

HR should post JDs beyond the company website, Bookface, LinkedIn, and Angelist. Aim to be visible to communities that are underrepresented at your company. Better yet, your recruiters can create relationships at talent referral centers who know the groups your company isn’t naturally connected to, e.g., HBCUs, community colleges, bootcamps, etc.

  • Ask employees for referrals from broader networks.

Referrals are often an important source for candidate leads, especially at early-stage startups. But they can be rife with bias. When asking current employees for referrals, make clear that you are looking for a diverse set of referred candidates to encourage them to think more broadly about who might be a fit for the role and the company.

If employees do refer friends and acquaintances, HR should make sure to treat their referred candidates very well — not better than applicants that come in through other sources, but in a way that ensures that your employees will continue to be comfortable referring their friends. At a minimum, this means clear and prompt communication with candidates on status and timing.

  • JD rewrites: success metrics; focus on skills and not on proxies.

Job descriptions are often unintentionally written for an ‘in’ crowd and are full of company-specific or industry jargon. Test them out with advisors or people from outside the company to make sure they are understandable to outsiders. Remove gendered language — again, Textio is a great tool — and describe clearly the skills that are required instead of using proxies for those skills. For example, if you need someone who is analytical, has worked with data and built models to support your business development, customer support and product teams, say that. Don’t require two years of consulting or investment banking experience. Be clear about what success looks like for the position in the short- and medium-term.

In the same way, a university degree isn’t a great proxy for professional experience or skills (though taking certain classes may be.) Try to include the minimum of what’s actually required for the role instead of describing the person you imagine as a perfect candidate; you may just be surprised!

  • Making your company values clear and public

Posting a public D&I commitment statement is an important symbolic action. If you can get your founders and executives to sign off on a written description of your company values — and how they are implemented! — you’ll have a better chance of attracting people with whom those values resonate. You’ll also have done the work to figure out what your values are. Too often we go on the nebulous concept of “fit” to select candidates — which often just boils down to how the interviewers feel about a candidate — instead of a more rigorous understanding of what particular skills or experiences the candidate brings to the role and the company.

More Recruitment & Hiring Resources

Recruitment agencies/talent partners

(These require partnerships/engagement from Talent/People/HR teams, so may not be appropriate for very early-stage startups):

Tools

Textio

Case study:

Startups & Society Initiative: How One Early-stage Founder Successfully Hired Underrepresented Technical Talent

b) Compensation

The pay gap is old news. But compensation at startups takes multiple forms, involving usually at least cash and equity. Carta and #ANGELS partner to look at the data along gender lines in their annual Table Stakes study, and it’s not pretty:

Like in recruitment and hiring, it’s worth thinking about building out pay bands, clear responsibilities, and objective success metrics early on to minimize bias — even if it feels like it’s “too early.” Down the line, you’ll be glad you did. People Ops/HR should take the time to analyze the distribution of equity grants and/or options at your startup and correct any imbalance not attributed to other factors such as role and tenure. And founders should be clear-eyed about why they are bringing in a new hire at a more senior level than another if it’s not clearly justified.

There is a LOT of material covering these two aspects of compensation already, so we won’t belabor points that experts have already made, but we’ve listed useful resources below.

Resources — tools

  • Table Stakes
  • Compa.as — compensation analytics tool using AI to create accurate salary forecasts
  • 81cents — compensation and negotiation support and data
  • Syndio — data science to help leaders deliver equal pay across gender, race and ethnicity

Resources — research & data

Project Include’s recommendations on Compensating Fairly are particularly instructive:

  • Use benefits to shape company culture and scale them with your company.
  • Decide whether, and how, to allow compensation negotiation

Please look at the Project Include page for more detail!

Case Study: Radical Health

Ivelyse Andino, founder and CEO at Radical Health, is very aware of her business’s role as an employer and client. She expects that, for others to engage meaningfully with Radical’s work, they need to be paid. She has made sure to fairly compensate all of those helping build the business, including the consultants helping with curriculum development. She has also set up revenue-sharing with her employees: if they bring in new contracts for the business, they share in the business’s revenue.

c) Retention & Promotion

Turnover is expensive: Culture Amp estimates it can cost as much as 200% of an employee’s annual salary! It’s also demoralizing and inefficient, and if you’re working at an early-stage startup, you have neither money, energy, nor morale to spare.

People Ops/HR should conduct a retention/turnover audit as described above, and track this kind of data over time to help them determine where the problems, if any, are.

Research shows that for managerial positions, men are assessed on leadership potential, whereas women are judged on experience. Similarly, people ops should track promotions and similar metrics across the company:

  • Who is given the chance to take on challenging new assignments?
  • Who is asked to fill in when there is an urgent problem?
  • Who gets recognized and how?

Case studies (including some reference data for employee attrition):

Resources:

Once again, Project Include’s recommendations on Employee Lifecycle are helpful:

  • Use inclusive and transparent hiring practices
  • Make onboarding ongoing during the employee’s first year
  • Be thoughtful about inclusion when building teams
  • Use sponsorships to promote D&I
  • Share feedback regularly with help from inclusive performance reviews

Project Include also has a section on Sponsorships that is relevant to retention and promotion, especially of people who are part of underrepresented groups.

Tools:

Aspen Institute Cost of Turnover Tool

d) Employee Engagement & Culture

Employee engagement initiatives seek to regularly check in with employees; DEI data can easily fit into these efforts, and engagement data can be used to get a pulse on the state of DEI at your company. Ask HR if they will share aggregated/anonymized results.

If your company conducts regularly employee engagement surveys, make sure there are always DEI questions in those surveys, so you can track changes over time, and get good, consistent data.

Resources:

  • Pymetrics — behavioral science and AI to help companies build diverse teams
  • The Mom Project — helps women remain active in the workforce by working with employers who are committed to designing and supporting a better workplace.

Employee engagement/culture assessment tools:

Here is a comparison of the three.

Culture is the trickiest to pin down since it can include everything mentioned so far, and yet is intangible. It also changes from company to company, and sometimes from team to team. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to try to gauge whether your company culture is open to different perspectives:

  • Are nay-sayers still listened to when decisions are made?
  • Are introverted people given a way to share their opinion that is comfortable for them?
  • Do decision-makers consistently make a point to consider different viewpoints?
  • Are the decisions that are made by the management team taking in more information than the bottom line?
  • Do remote workers, or in these pandemic times, new hires who have never met the team in person, feel included and connected?

Resources

Project Include recommendations on:

By Claire Veuthey & Stoddard Meigs, members of the Grassroots Diversity Advocates group.

Keep reading:

Chapter 1: Getting Started

Chapter 2 (Events)

Chapter 3: Internal Initiatives

Chapter 4: External Initiatives (coming soon!)

Chapter 5: Metrics (coming soon!)

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Principal @ Rizoma Ventures. ESG & impact advisor, investor, and operator.

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Claire Veuthey

Claire Veuthey

Principal @ Rizoma Ventures. ESG & impact advisor, investor, and operator.

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