3 Tips for Optimizing Diversity at a Startup

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Oct 16, 2015
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

It is an unfortunate fact of professional life that the corporate world remains a stronghold of white, well-educated, and reasonably affluent males. In a recent analysis of Fortune 500 companies, some 91 percent of CEOs are white men, which is somehow a historic low. And within the testosterone-and-cash-fueled startup culture, the lack of diversity is even more blatant.

This is concerning, not least for the amount of qualified candidates who may be passed over.

But it is also confusing.

In my experience, a team that is built on diversity results in a more nimble office culture, and, ultimately, a more successful product. This has been validated by a number of studies, including this Harvard Business Review study which determined that companies with greater diversity out-innovate their peers. Research has also found that diversity drives greater employee engagement and increases sales revenue.

It’s settled, then. Diversity is beneficial. The question now becomes how companies can make diversity beneficial. Are there practical steps you can take to implement staff diversity, or capitalize on it once it’s an integral part of your company?

In two decades working at a series of technology startups, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some very diverse organizations. Hiring at my current company, Switch, and being an immigrant myself, having moved to the U.S. from Israel 12 years ago, was a reflection of the others in that diversity has barely been mentioned. I found myself simply surrounding myself with those who I thought would do the best job. In that way, creating a diverse office environment felt intuitive, almost an afterthought.

That brings me to my first secret of startup diversity: Ignore diversity, at least at first. Throughout the sourcing, vetting, and hiring process, diversity should be the farthest thing from the company hiring team’s mind. Always hire on merit, a word defined differently for different employers. Having said that, 65 to 75 percent of hiring is done within you or your employees’ networks — a number that is likely even higher in the insular world of startups — so keep in mind the types of networks you are tapping.

I kept this tendency toward homogeneity in hiring in mind when designing Switch, an app that allows jobseekers to search for jobs anonymously. Not only did I want to give currently employed people a chance to browse other positions quietly, but I wanted to level the playing field in an industry where CEOs are often overly concerned with hiring like-minded lieutenants.

So mindful, merit-based hiring pays off, but what about harnessing diversity to make a great product once you’ve got your staff in place? A lot of resources out there will tell you that steps like active listening and diversity sensitivity training are paramount. My secret? Evaluate diversity.

In a Harvard Business Review study of diversity and innovation, the authors identified two types of diversity: inherent, like gender, race, and ethnicity, and acquired, such as socioeconomic tier, education level, or place of origin. All of these fall under the greater umbrella of diversity, an important factor to keep in mind if you are working in a less blatantly diverse market.

Once you’ve evaluated diversity, encourage task-sharing between employees with varied inherent and acquired traits. Just as cross-departmental collaboration can result in more creative problem-solving, so can taking employees of varied backgrounds and putting them together to solve simple or complex problems and drive processes forward. This may at first seem counterintuitive. On the surface, having people with an ocean apart adapt seems like an increased drag on the process. But if you’re looking for a nontraditional route — and if you are a startup, chances are that you will be — adding these challenges is one of the best ways to raise the temperature in your creativity melting pot.

Now that you’ve got your startup operating at a high level, it’s time for the third secret: Temper diversity.

Once you’ve seen how a diverse team can add to the overall energy and innovative engine of your company, you may be tempted to prioritize diversity when making future hires, or assign projects arbitrarily in hopes of thrusting some more of that change and innovation energy. But these measures are artificial and will soon be exposed as such. Workplace diversity its virtues must be only a byproduct of your company’s organic growth, whether that is adding new employees or empowering existing ones.

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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