Three Things to Look Out For as Slack Chases Diversity

The fast-growing workplace chat startup Slack has gotten a lot of press in recent months for its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Just today, it made headlines again with the announcement that it had hired Leslie Miley, the former Twitter engineer whose outspoken criticism of his former employer has helped guide the public conversation on diversity in the tech sector, as a director of engineering for its growth team.

In a recent profile of the company in the Guardian, Jemima Kiss chalked up Slack’s deep interest in diversity to its unusually gender-balanced leadership, describing Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield as “propelled by a team of formidable women” who have experienced the tech sector’s notorious sexism firsthand. Now at the helm, these women are applying years of experience to build a better company for their people and customers:

Slack may be small – less than 1% of the number of employees of Google – but its slightly older, more experienced management team is instinctively challenging recruitment processes they know haven’t worked. Merci Grace, Slack’s group product manager for growth, recently worked alongside an external recruiter who asked which three colleges she should recruit from.

“I had to explain that we don’t do that, because all you are doing is pulling people out of a funnel of privilege. We want people who are kind and empathetic and smart.” Grace is one of many senior Slackers with an arts degree, and started her own games company. She felt ground down by the implicitly masculine culture, she says; one hiring manager said he hadn’t given a job to a woman because he wanted “an alpha dog”.

Along with many others on the staff (Slack typically hires people in their early 30s rather than their 20s), Grace has been through the phase of working 18-hour days and sleeping under the desk, and come out the other side. Yet the pervasive culture of working extreme hours persists. “Just because your ass is on a seat doesn’t mean you’re working. If you’re brain dead after 6pm, go home. You can work like that for only so long.”

As a researcher in the diversity and inclusion space, I’m excited to see how these women’s efforts pan out over the coming years and as their company grows. In particular, I’ll be looking out for answers to these three questions:

First, if Slack brings more women into leadership roles than its peers, what will this mean for gender pay equity across the organization? As we have learned from large tech giants like Amazon and startups like Buffer, a company can eliminate pay gaps within specific roles and levels of experience, but without many women in the senior executive pool, men still make more money in the aggregate.

Second, what will Slack’s leadership do to maintain their progressive edge and diverse workforce representation as their organization grows?

It’s possible that other women, seeing the focus on diversity and inclusion at Slack, may defect from other companies or startups to join their team, but that kind of people growth won’t be enough: If they really want to make diverse representation a formal priority at the organization, the Slack team will need to rely on more than branding statements and splashy headlines. They will need to train hiring managers and HR business partners on how to handle situations like the “alpha dog” scenario Grace describes. (CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council Members can learn more about empowering HR business partners to combat bias here.)

Third, what will all this mean for their profits? As a much-discussed McKinsey report showed in 2015, increased workforce diversity is correlated with higher business returns. This is true of gender equality, but racial and ethnic diversity shows even greater potential as a profit driver for companies who are able to include and harness their workforce’s full power. Slack has made a point of focusing on both of these issues in tandem; if they can show that this focus has been profitable, their peers in Silicon Valley will notice.

Although there is great potential here, depending on Slack’s growth, it will take many months or years to see the results. For the moment, the team is relying on knowing what not to do, rather than promoting tried and true answers. As Anne Toth, Slack’s head of people and policy, tells Kiss: “We want to build the kind of company we want to work at. To show that you can break a mould and be successful.”