You Have a Choice: Diversity and Inclusion Doormat, or Change Agent

Last year was a milestone for underrepresented groups across industries when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and the flurry of “me too” stories that were told to the world.

Susan Crowler, Ellen Pao, and Salma Hayek, to name a few.

As a female people-operations professional who has worked with various clients in the tech industry for nearly a decade, these brave, true stories brought front and center in the media are near and dear to my heart, partially out of empathy, but also some relatability.

Over the past several years, it has been very rare for me to speak out about my personal opinions related to diversity and inclusion issues, because admittedly, even though I am a white woman in the male-dominated tech world, I still feel some level of what may be considered “white privilege guilt.” This guilt makes me sometimes feel like an imposter and like I somehow don’t fully belong in the discussion.

While many of these stories have found their way into the spotlight and have increased awareness, ambiguity is still greater than any sort of clarity on what’s actually being done. “We still have a long way to go,” should no longer be an acceptable response.

Yes, companies, VC firms, and the entertainment industry seem to be taking a higher level of responsibility than they did in prior years. Some companies like Salesforce, Intuit, and Adobe are leading the industry and doing better than others in terms of diversity statistics when it comes to gender specifically. The game-changing personal memoirs, in particular, have arguably been the most influential calls to action, and have helped bring communities together closer than before. Regardless, these improvements, while still great wins, are simply not creating change fast enough.

There is an obvious, significant missing stakeholder who hasn’t yet had an influential voice in the diversity and inclusion dialogue, yet no one seems to be talking about it. We commonly call out the tech giants for releasing pitiful diversity numbers. We also hear infuriating sides of the story from engineers like the unfortunately famous ex-Google employee, James Damore. Where there needs to be much more raw, blunt, no B.S. dialogue added to the discussion are from those of us at the frontlines and in the trenches of these challenges: recruiting and people operations.

Let’s revisit Susan Fowler’s story for a moment again and look further into the case of Uber. From Recode: “It’s most glaring overall problems seems to center on how the human resources role was conceived at Uber by its brash and commanding leader Kalanick. The issue: He felt the function of HR at Uber was largely to recruit talent and also efficiently let go of personnel when needed, according to sources.”

Given the moment we are at in history, we are in a unique position to be true diversity and inclusion change agents, but only if we have the courage to have very difficult conversations. Granted, Uber had a reasonable amount of turnover in HR prior to its downfall, and I would bet pretty confidently that many of the HR leaders left because of the lack of impact they were capable of making there. However, there were many people on the inside who did stay and stayed quietly, being doormats and allowing completely unethical situations to continue. This is the type of passive behavior in HR that needs to stop everywhere, immediately.

When was the last time you heard a recruiter or HR generalist speak up publicly because they witnessed sexism impacting a hiring decision? How about when the idea of hiring a diverse team was rejected? Perhaps when a diverse candidate was qualified for a promotion, but it was given to someone else not nearly as qualified? Or what about the head of people/talent who have worked alongside founders who still do believe that HR’s only function is to hire and fire and not be given a seat at the table? Honestly, I can’t think of one article or interview I’ve seen featured where HR has spoken out directly on these topics.

What could’ve happened if someone in HR at Uber spoke up before Susan Crowley and others had no choice but to say something? Uber’s future could have been a bit different, hypothetically speaking.

Our industry must change. I am talking about the type of change where you truly advise your hiring managers, speak up, educate, and really push back when you hear these comments, regardless of if you are speaking to the CEO or a hiring manager. And when I say push back, I mean letting them know that this is not acceptable and you will not continue moving forward with the process if something doesn’t change.

Yes, I understand that is uncomfortable and scary. You deserve to feel scared and uncomfortable, because losing your job when going into a heated discussion with leadership is 100 percent a possible outcome, especially when you aren’t even close to seeing eye to eye.

That’s exactly what I did; I quit. I’ve actually quit clients on more than one occasion to uphold my professional integrity. I won’t work with hiring managers whose only care about diversity is not ending up on the wrong side of TechCrunch.

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The disheartening thing here is that as a recruiting strategy consultant, I’ve witnessed that these types of comments are the new norm in the wild west that Silicon Valley has become. It is not a secret to me why HR hasn’t spoken up more on the topic. It is not because we don’t care, generally speaking, if this is your field of choice, it is something that is at least moderately important to most of us. People are scared to be real about what they have experienced, how they have been treated, and likely don’t feel it’s worth putting their reputation on the line and dare I say it, risk the liability of a lawsuit (gasp!). I know that our industry is small and we talk amongst ourselves. But isn’t it time we start talking about it so the rest of the world can hear and help?

Truth be told, some of my personal stories outside of what I’ve witnessed in HR have some deeper roots than what I am choosing to share here, but that is not the story I have chosen to tell today. I will, however, share that because of my collective experiences which have confirmed for me that that in general, elitism is unfortunately very alive and well in Silicon Valley, as a people operations professional and egalitarian, I choose to be a diversity and inclusion change agent.

If you still need more motivation about the impact you can make in diversity and inclusion as one person in people operations, below are several reminders to help you get started.

  • There is no one other role within an organization who has direct access to hiring and talent management discussions with executive leadership. Use that power wisely.
  • Without our help, companies simply cannot hire. Let that sink in for a second the next time your hiring manager tries to put off prioritizing diversity initiatives or dismisses your recommendations.
  • You do not need to have a background in diversity and inclusion or be a minority yourself to drive change in this area. In the future, if we are all doing our jobs right, there won’t even be a real need for a “head of diversity and inclusion.” Do the best you can with the knowledge you have and when in need of support, seek it from your network.
  • It is your responsibility to advise and facilitate these discussions with all your hiring managers (including stubborn founders, hiring managers who are living in the past, and the ones who frankly don’t care). Each conversation will be different, some more challenges than others, but it is critical that the conversations happen. This applies to both recruiters and people operations folks.
  • When you are interviewing for a new position, make sure you ask the hiring managers you’d support and the HR team about their view on diversity and inclusion. Ask them about their diversity numbers and what programs they have in place to promote diversity and inclusion. If you get a sense that it isn’t a priority for them, don’t take the job.
  • If you don’t believe in the culture that is being built within your company, don’t stay. You aren’t making any waves there and there are many progressive, forward-thinking companies to work for that will hire you.

Be tactful about how you tell your stories to others, but do make sure to tell them. They are the most powerful resource we have. When you do share with others, make sure to remind them that they too have a choice by asking them: “Doormat or change agent, which one are you?”

Jenna Luthy

Jenna Luthy is a recruiting strategy consultant and freelance writer living in San Francisco. She is founder of ​DNA Talent​, a boutique recruiting consulting firm and co-founder of the ​Silicon Valley Recruiters Association​. Her writing focuses on the intersection of hiring and career coaching.