Fostering Inclusion in Tech: Engaging with Staff

Fostering inclusion in your organization doesn't just come from leadership; it's important to also engage with your team. Here are some tips to do that successfully.

Demographic trends point to the United States population fully transforming into a multi-racial majority by 2044 (United States Census Bureau), and some states already have no majority. All companies, including ours, face the same challenges—evolving to meet the needs of new audiences, new clients, and new board and staff members, and we all seek improved ways of communicating and collaborating when implementing new technologies.

Benefits accrue as teams become more inclusive: 

  • When staff members belong to, contribute to, and take ownership of being a unified, dignified, modern team, the staff benefits.
  • When clients, supporters, and donors believe in the company's work, the clientele benefits.
  • When management commits to more inclusion, the business benefits.
  • When the end product cycles through more diverse viewpoints, the targeted audience benefits.

Benefits arrive in the form of increased opportunities, more client work, and the ability to make a measurable difference.

Provide mechanisms to address intentions clearly

If channels do not yet exist, determine which communication methods best address concerns for the makeup of the team. For example, implement an internal newsletter or recurring e-mail from the executive team with regular open Q&A sessions. Lullabot offers a monthly Town Hall in an "ask me anything" style, with any question available to be asked of any executive manager. 

Designate a Slack channel, use discussion boards, foster existing Microsoft Office Groups or Google Groups discussions, or put small group sessions into rotation on the calendar, and stick to a schedule.

Listen and learn

Do issues already exist? Are ad hoc whispers happening behind closed doors? Determine an appropriate way to listen and truly hear what teammates have to say. Schedule designated time: listening sessions, facilitated discussions, or open conversations. Ensure that executive leaders show up and remain present with respect to potential criticism, harsh opinions, and overwhelming feelings. 

Remember to keep ears open and continually educate the team on how to be more empathetic and understanding. At the annual Lullabot retreat, our team self-organized to share books and resources related to different technical topics. You can also foster informal or formal mechanisms to spark conversations.

Lead with fortitude

Discussions about inclusion often surface hidden assumptions and bring up strong emotions. Leadership teams signal commitment to the importance of keeping these discussions open when the CEO, President, or Executive Team messages all staff with an invitation to scheduled in-house meetings and also offers a follow-up plan — including clear opportunities to give feedback and get involved — for all employees. 

Concerns always exist, and conversations can sometimes be fraught: what makes the difference is how leadership decides to deal with those completely understandable concerns.

Identify a senior leader

Creating a team or committee works; however, do not make this unpaid labor without a clear directive. Designating a senior leader within the organization as acting or titled head of inclusion efforts makes a difference in signaling the importance of the topic within the organization's culture. Provide this leader with a team and give them the authority to write and implement policies, allocate resources, and investigate issues. Cultivate participants from across the organization to advise the team. 

Formalize how individuals will reach out

Reduce exposure and encourage greater transparency by determining —and clearly stating — how team members may best communicate their concerns. Let all parties know what to expect regarding any stated issue and its documentable response within a pre-arranged specified timeframe. Leadership teams demonstrate their awareness of the seriousness of potential problems when they clarify processes across the organization, address concerns in a responsible and orderly manner, and follow up continuously. No one wants to be blindsided: foster conversations and expected follow-ups as soon as possible.

Assign an ombudsperson

In cases of conflict, an ombudsperson approach may work for the organization. This neutral third-party investigates, collects documents, conducts interviews, and reports personnel issues to leadership. Cases of harassment, bullying, and intimidation require swift review. 

Clearly define and publish expectations of workplace conduct

A published code of conduct makes expectations clear. When all parties may reference a code of conduct that expressly states the desired behavior, as well as clear consequences for behavior that deviates from the desired conduct, misunderstandings or obfuscations, can be avoided entirely.

Consider publishing the company code of conduct publicly (Alphabet aka Google code of conduct) for greater accountability to staff, shareholders, and other investors, advisors, the media, and communities/clientele served.

Clarify actions taken in any investigation of harassment

Harassment requires special mention and guidance (EEOC). Here are checkpoints in a reported case of harassment:

  • Investigate immediately.
  • The inquiry must be prompt, thorough, and impartial. 
  • Interview targeted individuals, offending individuals, and witnesses maintaining written documentation of all discussions. 
  • Communicate with targeted individuals regarding steps taken. 
  • Check in to ensure that negative behavior has ceased. 

Furthermore, if the investigation reveals that harassment has occurred, take steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, prevent harassment from recurring, and prevent retaliation against the targeted individual(s) or complainant(s). Legal counsel will assist with developing overarching policies for the organization.

Offer training, support, and continuous education on DEI issues

Every individual, at all levels of the organization, deserves an opportunity to learn continuously. Paid time off or in-service days to participate in help everyone within the organization get on the same page about presented materials. At Lullabot, we offer ongoing required paid training through Insperity workshops, with annual renewal.

Consider integrating unconscious bias training (here's an example of Facebook's online training), mentoring, or coaching into ongoing efforts.

Support employee resource groups

Employee-led resource groups formed around shared interests, issues, or background may be a positive way to create a healthy work environment and increase recruitment and retention. By supporting these groups with budget and assistance in setting a charter, determining the mission, vision, values, and infrastructure, and providing office space and time to participate, the company signifies its intent to support employee interests.

Implement feedback loops

Designate multiple ways to give feedback, both anonymously as well as named, and determine the team's stated timeframe and methods for responding. Give staff and clients a mechanism to surface complaints, suggestions, or issues, and ensure that the staff knows that raised points will be reviewed, addressed, responded to, and potentially incorporated back into daily practice. Feedback Labs offers mechanisms to work on all aspects of the feedback loop cycle.

Consider a mechanism such as a regular "Pulse Survey" to help determine issues by asking scale items such as: "On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to continue working with us over the next two years?" Or, add the option to choose "Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree" with a statement such as, "I feel like my current position offers work-life balance." Or, present multiple-choice answers to questions such as, "Which benefits do you most value?" Make space and time to process the inputs you receive, then discuss, make recommendations, implement incremental changes, and re-submit the survey in a continuous cycle.

Conduct baseline surveys, collect and publish data

A number improves when it's measured. Understand the baseline to better track progress over time and aim for goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. For example, a pulse survey helps determine employee satisfaction, approval of leadership, Net Promoter Score, or demographic data. Pulse surveys over time give insight into how policy changes affect scores.

How well does the team fulfill the needs of individuals living with disabilities, veterans, older adults, women, and minorities? Ask and find out. Consider circulating reports internally, or publishing the data widely (TechCrunch industry diversity report) for additional accountability.

Match the population

Review the board and leadership makeup — does staff match the population served? If not, the company may already be "out of touch" with its audience. When any published list of board members, staff, or supporters appears homogenized, clients and supporters may take pause. Make sure public-facing staff represents the desired audience and speaks to, resonates with, and is sensitive to, client and customer needs. 

This is an area in which we are continually improving at Lullabot, and where the rate of change is tied to the overall rate of growth for the company overall.

I'm grateful to my colleagues James Sansbury, Marc Drummond, and Andrew Berry, for reviewing this article and for their thoughtful comments and feedback on these suggested tips.

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