Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is the future of business.
It improves innovation and productivity… but only if it’s genuine.
Employers and peers are often slow to apply the contributions of underrepresented people. Plus, biased hiring and toxic workplace cultures can undercut weak DEI programs before they even get started.
So, how do you grow a startup that welcomes people of all backgrounds?
By learning from some of the worst diversity and inclusion examples of our time. These insights and tips will help strengthen your diversity initiatives for a more equitable startup.
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace—what’s the point?
Researchers say that “historically underrepresented groups often draw relations between ideas and concepts that have been traditionally missed or ignored.”
Breaking the status quo can help your company embrace new perspectives. This inspires the creation of products and solutions that appeal to a broader market and attract diverse clients.
Another study showed that diverse teams are “more resilient and able to respond to a shock to the economy.” They’re also more efficient than less diverse companies when everyone learns to work well together.
Still, marginalized people’s novel contributions are often “discounted.” This shows in the severe underrepresentation of entrepreneurs of color. The World Economic Forum reports that 77% of US startup founders are white or Caucasian. The same is true for 84% of those in Europe.
Plus, disadvantaged demographics have a lower chance of becoming high-ranking or long-term staff. This could hamper their influence in their discipline and career longevity.
Considering the “causative link” between diverse employees and innovation, shallow DEI efforts are a waste. Settling for the bare minimum leads to debacles like Netflix, Activision-Blizzard, and Buzzfeed.
What happens when DEI is superficial
A lack of diversity in the workplace is a serious issue that you can address as a startup founder. Still, many business leaders treat the problem like a fad.
Such attitudes make matters worse. Up to 11% of DEI programs can fail if implemented poorly or for misguided reasons. Here are a few examples of how DEI “commitments” don’t always translate to a safe, inclusive workplace.
Netflix caught chasing diversity clout
Netflix’s hypocrisy was exposed after a wave of layoffs that targeted mostly women of color. They were working on Netflix’s new website, Tudum, which had a few problems of its own.
Many Netflix customers said they’d never even heard of Tudum. The lack of awareness was largely the result of Netflix’s inconsistent promotion.
NPR writes of those laid off, “Most, if not all of the team were Black, Latinx, or Asian women.” They were only given two weeks of severance pay.
One person who was let go said, “They went very out of their way to hire high level journalists of color who have quite a bit of name recognition and a lot of experience and talent. In some ways, they were just buying clout to lend credibility to their gambit.”
All the while, Netflix seems to take quite a bit of pride in the inclusion efforts, even beginning an annual DEI report in 2021. On their Inclusion & Diversity page, they write:
Netflix’s greatest impact is creating empathy and understanding through the stories we tell. We believe more people deserve to see their lives on screen, and are committed to creating opportunities in front of and behind the camera for people from all backgrounds and cultures.
What did Netflix do wrong?
Statements and reports about inclusivity are all well and good. But the company’s actions make it clear that all this is performative. Netflix allegedly hired these women of color for their status and name recognition. The company then failed to provide meaningful support, only to later fire the team prematurely. All that considered, it’s safe to say the women were just hired for branding.
Such conduct hurts Netflix’s future efforts to position itself as socially progressive. The company will almost certainly lose some of its target audience’s trust.
Worse: Netflix has now demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness in its commitment to non-white or female employees. As a consequence, it may be more challenging to recruit such candidates in the future. This could hurt their innovative potential in the long run. (Not great for a streaming service with plummeting subscriptions and revenue!)
The dark side of Activision-Blizzard
Activision-Blizzard has been in hot water for a few years now. They’re trying to repair their reputation with the new “Level Up U” diversity-boosting boot camp. But their toxic company culture undercuts any efforts to clean up their act.
Level Up U is a new “in-house boot camp designed to transform underrepresented talent into game developers.” The website makes sure to display people of color and women to show off their attention to diversity. But none of this lands well after the onslaught of scandals and lawsuits that have been hitting the company over the last two years.
During an eSports event, Activision-Blizzard silenced a gamer, Ng Wai Chung (aka “Blitzchung”). Chung’s crime? He spoke out for Hong Kong during the city’s 2019 protests. The company also later announced that they wouldn’t work with two Taiwanese streamers who interviewed Blitzchung. Many saw this as Activision-Blizzard prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over human rights.
Even worse: Starting in 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigated and later sued the corporation for rampant sexual harassment and discrimination. CEO Bobby Kotick says he has a “conviction to create the most welcoming and inclusive workplace.” Yet, he reportedly perpetuated the toxic company culture. The Board voted to keep Kotick in his position, further angering employees and consumers.
What did Activision-Blizzard do wrong?
The nonstop scandals have lost the corporation millions in terms of legal fees and stocks. They’ve also done irreparable damage to the brand.
As a gamer, it’s almost impossible to talk about Activision-Blizzard without getting a bad taste in your mouth. Developers industry-wide have staged protests in response to the corp’s treatment of their staff. Consumers have called for boycotts.
Without a serious change in leadership and visible shifts in company culture, Activision-Blizzard just might be a sinking ship.
Buzzfeed’s hypocrisy on display
Buzzfeed has long positioned itself as socially aware and progressive. The company essentially built its entire brand on video series about life as a marginalized person or humorously busting stereotypes. But Buzzfeed never truly walked the talk of meaningful allyship to disadvantaged demographics.
That’s why Buzzfeed news employees have begun organizing to form a union. In 2015, a group of staff members met with the NewsGuild of NY “to discuss the issue of pay disparity, particularly in regards to women and employees of color.” In 2018, more than 50 employees participated in a meeting at the NewsGuild office.
Buzzfeed laid off mostly minority employees. Specifically, they fired Black women who hosted a podcast addressing racism and staff for a Muslim American podcast. Most of the departments that were “reorganized” were also the most diverse. Some believe they were set up to fail via a lack of available resources from the very beginning.
What did Buzzfeed do wrong?
Buzzfeed made a common mistake long before laying off their non-white, non-male employees. Sure, a lot of their content was presumably made in good faith. But at times, some of it came off as superficial and playing to stereotypes.
Some say that the company’s content also made them feel alienated. It’s true that conversations about diversity and inclusion will naturally be challenging. But they don’t have to pit demographics against each other or feed into “oppression olympics” (comparing which group is more disadvantaged than another), as Buzzfeed often did.
Such atmospheres hurt DEI initiatives. They give the wrong impression of what it means to challenge the status quo. The recent layoffs were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. They exposed Buzzfeed’s hypocrisy and undermined the credibility of leaders who challenge social biases.
How to do DEI properly
Believe it or not, not every diversity and inclusion strategy is destined to fail. There’s a way to do it well, in a way that boosts your workplace standards, public reputation, and innovative output.
These steps will help create a meaningful program that really improves company inclusivity.
1. Evaluate the program far in advance
Give yourself time. Time crunches for hiring invite you to fall back into comfortable yet possibly harmful patterns (i.e., the status quo) just because it’s easy. You must set time aside to develop a practical DEI initiative far in advance of the hiring season.
Plus, a time buffer allows the team to acclimate to the upcoming shift. This is ideal, as social change naturally brings “a little friction,” according to DEI practitioner, Evelyn R. Carter.
2. Start brainstorming solutions
Many people find it hard to understand the lived experiences of people in different demographics, cultures, and ethnicities. That said, strongarming or shaming them into DEI programs can backfire. They may express their frustration toward those groups. This feeling might also manifest in the belief that their way of life or beliefs are being attacked.
Because of this, it’s important to encourage people to engage with diverse colleagues at a comfortable but productive pace. It’s best to allow everyone to ask questions and brainstorm solutions together.
Guide these discussions with clear DEI goals. Carter suggests asking yourself: “What changes would I like to see in the company?” This isn’t just about changing the composition of your workforce. It must be a multifaceted effort to improve your company culture.
How do you envision creating a place where your non-white and non-male employees feel safe and welcome? Without a culture shift, your DEI initiative won’t work or mean anything!
3. Pay attention to the candidate pool
A Harvard Business Review study found that the makeup of a candidate pool strongly influences who gets hired. For example, when most of the candidates were white—“demonstrating the status quo”—study participants tended to recommend a white person for hire. When most were Black, they recommended a Black candidate. There were similar results with gender. In other words, the composition of the hiring pool changed the status quo.
The “status quo effect” was particularly high among people who scored high in unconscious racism or sexism. In other words, people who were relatively more racist or sexist were more likely to try to compensate for their bias by going with the new status quo. They would even rate non-white or female candidates higher than their white or male counterparts.
That said, it’s important to help your employees realize that “equity & inclusion” doesn’t equate to preferential treatment. It’s certainly not performative preferential treatment either.
4. Develop an accountability plan
“Any plans or policies are only as good as the people responsible for carrying them out,” says Carter. Hence the need for a solid accountability plan.
Without a mechanism to evaluate the efficacy of your DEI program, you invite dysfunctionality and potentially appear uncaring or as if you’re just checking a box.
Make sure that, when you carry out these accountability programs, you don’t bear down on people too much. Celebrate their wins just as often as you correct unwanted behavior.
Be generous with your encouragement when people apply the DEI process well. Validate your team and make them feel valued. Have regular debriefings to discuss progress (or lack thereof). This will give you opportunities to address hesitancies to positive follow-through, and to affirm those doing well.
Be equitable, be diverse… and mean it
Being genuinely inclusive to people of all backgrounds is difficult. It demands a lot of you: Learning sensitivities in social interaction, acknowledging privilege, and correcting behavior you may not have known is inappropriate. These are all deeply challenging tasks. But they’re well worth it.
Companies that implement—and sustain—successful DEI programs are in the best position to develop fresh, new solutions and products that are broadly applicable and economically resilient. But such success only comes with time and dedication.
As you grow your startup, assess the potential biases that might influence your brand and product development. Give yourself grace as you work to resolve any partiality or prejudice and surround yourself with authentic, like-minded professionals for a more inclusive future.