The coronavirus pandemic has forced companies around the world to close or scale back their workforce, putting millions of people out of work. As the suddenly unemployed look for new jobs, they will, of course, need to consider things like salary, benefits and working hours. But they may also want to ask what their potential employer is doing to create a more diverse and inclusive environment.
We spoke with two consultants about the steps job seekers can take before and during the interview process to help determine if a company values diversity and inclusion in the workplace – and if those values will remain relevant as we adjust to our new normal of working remotely.
Minda Harts is founder and CEO of The Memo, an organization devoted to helping women of color take control of their careers by providing access to resources and real-world advice on career development. She is also an assistant professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and author of “The Memo – What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.”
Sarah Saska, PhD, is the co-founder and CEO of Feminuity, a business consulting firm working to fuel innovation by helping companies create more diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures. She's also an academic, whose doctoral research into the relationship between diversity and innovation provided the inspiration for Feminuity.
Here is our interview, edited for context and clarity.
Wiley: What can job seekers look for before the interview process to give them clues about whether a company is committed to diversity and inclusion?
Harts: It's best to do your due diligence ahead of time. Many of the issues we face inside toxic work environments might have been avoided if we did some early research. Browse their website "About Us" page. Does that page give you a sense that diversity, inclusion and belonging is important?
Saska: There's been a lot of debate about diversity and inclusion statements. I often find that organizations are quick to include the statements and imagery on their website or related materials before they've done the work. It's almost like false advertising. A diversity statement on a website is something I would encourage prospective candidates to not take at face value, and instead, look for other clues to determine whether it’s sincere.
Harts: Another resource is a new site called Dipper, a digital safe place and community for professionals of color to share their workplace experiences, whether good, bad or indifferent. Also, consider doing some discovery work on the workplace culture by connecting with past or current employees; ask them candid questions regarding diversity and inclusion inside the company.
Saska: The whisper network is powerful. There are Slack channels for trans folks, women and other groups of people, and those are sometimes the places where people share their experiences, which can sometimes act as a warning to other folks.
Look for other cues – reviews on Glassdoor and the company's social media. If an organization is thoughtful in how they run their social and digital communication, there will be inclusive language and consistent conversations. It won't just be an initiative for the queer community during Pride Month; Black History Month won't be limited to February. It will be ongoing throughout the year.
Wiley: What about job descriptions? What should people look for, and how can companies write more inclusive job descriptions?
Saska: When it comes to job descriptions, we don't like to indicate that specific types of education are needed – unless they really are. For example, if you need a lawyer you probably need someone who has a law degree. But we're now all wearing different hats and continuing to evolve our skillsets, so don't mandate a bachelor's or master's degree unless it's necessary for the role.
Harts: I think it is important for companies and organizations to consider eliminating any unconscious and conscious bias within their job descriptions. For example, could the job be done by someone who doesn’t hold a four-year degree? This could ultimately alienate an entire demographic who might excel in the position if they had the opportunity. I love it when I see the added wording of “or commensurate with experience.”
Saska: Also, try to work toward accessible language. We run our [job descriptions] through platforms that give us a sense of readability. If there is a word that we can simplify or a sentence that we can break down into a couple of smaller sentences, we do that.
Some words and phrases are probably best avoided in job descriptions. The typical ones are "ninja," "rock star," "expert" and words that are somewhat ambiguous or signal the quality of perfection. I also think it is important to avoid ableist or ageist language and to have a way for folks to indicate if they have accessibility needs that can be met throughout the process.
Wiley: What kinds of diversity-related questions should candidates ask during an interview?
Harts: Does the company have an employee resource group? Ask about their diversity and retention statistics over the last few years. These are questions that you should not shy away from asking if diversity and inclusion are important to your career growth and health.
Saska: We've been a fly on the wall through hundreds of our clients’ interviews over the years, and it has been fascinating to watch this process. I see people ask, "What does your organization do as it relates to diversity and inclusion?" I find that question is a bit too easy because it lets someone rattle off the company spiel. Ask that question, but then keep going from there. "What has your organization done in the last 12 months to advance inclusion internally?" or "What is your organization doing to ensure that your product is meeting accessibility requirements so that it's inclusive for a global and diverse population?" I like targeted questions.
Wiley: Should candidates ask a company for numbers on how many people from specific groups are employed within the organization?
Saska: These are helpful questions, but it also depends on how much power a person feels they have in the situation. Many people are in precarious situations and desperate for employment, especially at a time like this. If it feels right, I would ask, "What's your gender ratio overall and is this also reflected at senior levels?" It’s also great to get more granular and ask for intersectional data. "How many women who also identify as part of the LGTBQ community work here? Or how many men are active caregivers? What percentage of men have taken parental leave?”
Harts: A candidate should ask for diversity numbers if this is a critical factor in deciding whether or not they want to take the position. I believe there is no harm in asking – it could be really telling how the potential employer responds to the ask.
Wiley: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, more people are out of work or working from home while caring for their families. On top of that, they're job searching and interviewing on the phone and through remote conferencing. What are some cues that a company will be sensitive to the needs of a diverse workforce in this context?
Harts: This is the first time in history that so many generations are working together in the workforce, which means there are a variety of skillsets and experiences to take into account. How flexible is the potential employer willing to be and are they providing resources for all their employees to thrive under new working conditions? During the interview process, ask specific questions that will make work work for you. For example, if you don’t own a personal computer, will that affect your chances of securing that job or will they provide for you the resources you need to work from home?
Saska: There are ways that organizations can signal their ability to be thoughtful. For example, at the start of the meeting, do the interviewers normalize the fact that many of us are balancing caregiving in new ways? Do the interviewers remind everyone that it’s okay if kids or pets might pop up in the background? Also, what tools are they using? If the interview is on Zoom, are videos turned on? Or have they integrated an API to provide closed captioning throughout the interview? Technology is connecting us, but thoughtful organizations are also finding ways to use technology that are accessible and inclusive. We can think about what companies could do differently.