A good hiring culture / pipeline is not on demand

Yesterday one of my roommates and I talked about the lack of diversity in tech / startups. 

In particular, we were thinking out loud about pipeline problems. In plain English that just translates as: how to get a set of good, qualified applicants who aren’t all white, male, and from upper economic tiers. 

This is a fairly regular conversation for me. It’s also something I’ve worked on in startups and corporate, at times directly via hiring and at times by supporting other people involved in or responsible for the process. 

Even the best founders / tech companies struggle with this. It’s common to hear people say that they are open to having a diverse hiring culture….and then find out that they don’t know how or aren’t willing to make the effort beyond posting jobs in a few obvious places. This is usually followed by wondering why they seem to get the same type of applicants. 

Other people have written extensively about why you might want to have a diverse hiring culture with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories, so I won’t do that here…if you are looking for stats and research for the whys, here’s a good / fairly comprehensive resource created by Brittany Laughlin, GM of the Union Square Ventures Network and multiple times an entrepreneur. 

What I’m interested in is the mindset / strategy that startups can employ to ensure a pipeline that is both broad and deep. In general this is something you have to create yourself and that is dependent on communicating, sharing, and living by a clear set of values internally and externally. Brittany also wrote about that recently, and it’s a good read. 

Ironically, the startups that exist to help startups hire people often fail at increasing diversity / improving pipeline quality. There are a few reasons for this, but I believe the biggest is quite simple: you can’t run algorithms / predictive software on people that aren’t even in the room (in this case, room = the arena of online applications). 

And even when companies do go out and bring someone new into that room, they often don’t do anything to change the implied and literal rules of the room itself .

This can be exhausting and dehumanizing. If you’re first black woman in a company, for example, it’s likely you’ll be expected to represent your gender, race, and religious / spiritual beliefs…sometimes in vastly contradictory ways. Erica Baker wrote about this in direct terms, and I’d suggest reading that for a clearer picture of the costs.

What all this leads to is that if you want a good pipeline full of extremely talented people that spans gender, race, religious, sexual orientation, and other categories, it’s simply not going to show up at your door with the tap of a button like Uber or Lyft. 

Here are a few things to think about that will help you create a good hiring culture…

Start somewhere, and commit to getting better.

Many startups refuse to talk about the makeup of their team. This is understandable for a number of reasons, but it’s also a mistake. 

It’s much better to acknowledge where you are, where you want to be, and which experiments you intend to undertake to get there. One of my favorite examples is Etsy, who started doing this 3 years ago.

As a company with extremely high numbers of female customers, they decided it wasn’t ok that their engineering team was mostly filled with men. They didn’t really see any obvious answers for how to change this, but they committed to working on it anyway. 

And that’s precisely the point implied by Etsy’s initiative — having a culture that you truly, deeply want is not easy. It takes work, humility, and it takes the willingness to act where other people are only willing to offer an op-ed.

The other thing that’s critical to committing to get better is to be honest as you grow, or fail. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that people who might someday work for your company are watching to see if what you say you are and what you do actually match. That matching is the heart of what it means to have integrity, personally and professionally. 

Sidenote: if you don’t already read it, Etsy’s engineering blog, CodeAsCraft, is phenomenal. If you’re into the technical side, here’s an interesting post on measuring server-side and front end performance. If you’re more on the ops, product, or marketing side, here’s a good one on why everyone at Etsy does an engineering rotation.

Figure out what an invitation looks like.

One of Ety’s investors, First Round Capital, also dug into the pipeline problem a bit more with an excellent post about what it takes to invite women engineers / how to optimize team collaboration.

The main challenge here is that you might not really understand what’s important to groups of people you don’t already have but want to include on your team. So you have to ask. And not only do you have to ask, you have to listen, and you have to be willing to create an invitation in the form of you mission / values, job descriptions, and work culture. 

Invitation is particularly important because if you want a truly inclusive culture, people have to choose to be there. If they don’t want to be there you’re wasting time and money, yours and theirs. 

You can be good or right: choose one. 

A question I often ask myself (personally and professionally) is: do I want to be good or right here? Because often you can’t have both. 

This is a bummer because humans like being right. But on an even deeper level, it’s about controlling structure…and when you invite people into your hiring process and/or company, you’re inviting them to define for themselves how they might grow. That’s just as important as excellent operations, engineering / coding or marketing skills. 

Being good means committing to growing with your team, and that includes being willing to adjust how you collaborate, and what people are responsible for. 

All of these things work best when you have a direct stake in increasing the quality of your hiring pipeline. They are not necessarily convenient, or easy to work on. But when it comes to culture, if you don’t create a framework it will create you.