Slack’s Unique Diversity Strategy Offers Some Lessons for Silicon Valley and Beyond

Slack’s Unique Diversity Strategy Offers Some Lessons for Silicon Valley and Beyond

The workplace communication and collaboration software startup Slack has garnered attention within the tech sector for its all-in approach to diversity and inclusion, issuing diversity reports at a faster pace and with more detail than their big-company competitors and making a point of giving its D&I commitment lots of visibility. Last month, Slack released its diversity report for 2017. The report touted a few victories, such as a 48 percent female management team and underrepresented minorities making up 12.8 percent of its technical staff, while also stressing the continued work it has to do.

In a profile of the company’s D&I program at the Atlantic on the occasion of that report, Jessica Nordell looked at several aspects of Slack’s approach to diversity that make it stand out from the crowd. One of these idiosyncrasies is that unlike many other tech companies, Slack doesn’t have a Chief Diversity Officer or other designated head of D&I:

While studies by the Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin, and colleagues, suggest having someone overseeing diversity efforts can increase the numbers of underrepresented groups in management, other measures, such as mentoring programs and transparency around what it takes to be promoted, are also important; a diversity chief alone may not be enough to make much of a difference. At Slack, the absence of a single diversity leader seems to signal that diversity and inclusion aren’t standalone missions, to be shunted off to a designated specialist, but are rather intertwined with the company’s overall strategy. As the CEO, Stewart Butterfield, has said, he wants these efforts to be something “everyone is engaged in.” Indeed, as the research by Dobbin and colleagues shows, involving employees in diversity policies leads to greater results.

The first lesson here is not “don’t have an appointed head of D&I,” but rather that there’s no one right way to structurally advance D&I. The Dobbin study makes sense because the D&I chief position ensures there’s always a voice in the room, but if any organization thinks they’ve solved D&I by creating a head of D&I role, they are sorely mistaken. In our work at CEB, now Gartner, we’ve seen organizations make progress with a large, singularly focused D&I function, or with a small but connected D&I function; with D&I reporting to HR, to the CEO, to the General Counsel, or to the Corporate Social Responsibility function.

We’ve seen progress at organizations (like Slack) without a dedicated function at all, where organizations create a D&I council, or representative group leaders dedicated to enabling the D&I function and championing organizational D&I initiatives, across HR and the business. In fact it’s frequently these executive councils that take on large-scale business issues directly, as we saw in our 2018 D&I Agenda Poll that over 80 percent of these groups are tasked specifically with aligning the D&I strategy to the overall business strategy.

(One organization we’ve profiled in our research, Iota, achieves shared ownership of D&I across HR with a designated point person from each center of excellence within the function. CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council members can read the full case study here.)

Most heads of D&I will agree that the end goal is D&I being embedded and built into the organization, across both people processes and business processes. Having a head of D&I in seat doesn’t mean that isn’t the desired outcome; it just means you have an authorized agent to enable and monitor the organization. Many D&I leaders say that they are “working themselves out of a job” as shorthand to note that their responsibility is to develop sustainable practices for the business to own and participate in. (All of these D&I leaders agree, however, that there is so much work to be done, and that this is such a dynamic space, that they will have an important role in advancing D&I for many years to come.)

A second lesson here is how Slack makes a point of embedding D&I awareness into its processes. One popular tech sector practice the startup eschews, for example, is the “whiteboard interview,” which puts candidates on the spot to solve a coding problem in real time in front of hiring managers or their whole prospective team. These interviews are meant to give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skills objectively, but as Nordell notes, “tracing one’s thought process with a dry-erase marker in front of a live, skeptical audience can create extra stressors for people from underrepresented groups”:

So, from the beginning, Slack forwent whiteboard interviews in favor of a blind code review—modeled on the blind auditions that orchestras hold—in which candidates are given a problem to complete at home. All personal identifiers are wiped from each candidate’s homework, which is then evaluated against a rigorous checklist. Not only does this help eliminate stereotype threat, but it assures candidates they’ll be judged fairly. When it became clear, last year, that this approach presented additional challenges for candidates who cared for children and didn’t have dedicated time for homework, the company shifted gears again. Candidates now have the option to do the assignment in the office if they prefer.

None of Slack’s approaches here are brand new: Many organizations and platforms are rethinking how to mitigate bias in recruiting, often with technological solutions—some of which are creating new problems of their own. We have seen a variety of approaches as organizations experiment to remove bias from sourcing and selection, such as making unconscious biases a little conscious by requiring hiring managers to watch a five-minute video on the eight most common types of bias before going into every interview. Where Slack looks to be making the most progress is in coordinating to realize the changes required to advance D&I throughout the company. This is where we see many organizations, with or without a dedicated D&I function, really struggle.

As a final lesson, Nordell’s profile concludes with the point that Slack’s commitment to inclusion has shown benefits to employee morale and engagement. Whereas some tech companies see D&I as a tradeoff with growth, Slack’s leaders consider it part of their growth strategy. While the business case for D&I has been built soundly from every angle, it’s still refreshing to see an organization prioritize D&I as the growth driver it is.