Everyone deserves an inclusive workplace. To be seen for who you are and made to feel a part of something is a fundamental courtesy every business should extend to each team member. And most want to — even a business entirely motivated by profit can recognize the statistics that show employees perform better when they buy into a shared sense of mission.
So, why are so many companies terrible at creating an inclusive culture?
At Table XI, we’ve put an enormous amount of energy trying to answer that question. We know diverse perspectives make the best products, so we need those voices in the room. For years, we’ve made a concerted effort to build an inclusive workplace culture — and kept track of our tactics — but there’s always work to do. We’ve improved our diversity recruiting practices, but we wanted to make sure that when our new hires arrived for their first day, they felt like a part of a team. So we dug into the problem from the beginning.
You can’t promote inclusion in the workplace without understanding the people you want to include
What might be the biggest block to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is obvious in retrospect: you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s all well and good to say you want an inclusive workplace environment, but unless the people making the decisions reflect the entire company, things are going to be missed.
Lean In has a classic example — after running to a meeting from a faraway parking spot while uncomfortably pregnant, Sheryl Sandberg asked her bosses at Google to add pregnancy parking. They immediately said yes, that it had just never occurred to them before. And it would have continued not to occur to them if she hadn’t been on senior management and in the room to ask for it.
To get better, the management team — and the whole company — needed to dedicate themselves to truly learning what everyone needs to feel secure and comfortable at work. We started by collecting quantitative data. We analyzed inclusive workplaces, brought a consultant in to interview our alumni, and surveyed our peers and our people. Then we turned inward, dedicating ourselves to learning how to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace with three types of listening we could tackle in a year: Feedback, performance reviews and training.
Area 1: Supporting diversity in the workplace by supporting better feedback
Years ago at Table XI, good feedback was no feedback — if you didn’t hear anything, you were doing a good job. It seemed sufficient at the time, but when you’re promoting inclusion in the workplace, you need a system that works for all personality types. For some truly important reasons, certain people are better at raising their hands, soliciting attention when they do something right and calling out problems when they see something wrong. Others can find that behavior difficult, even painful, and so they too often faded into the background at Table XI.
We started with little ways to introduce positive feedback in a daily way. We adopted a Slackbot to easily give people kudos for how well they displayed Table XI values. We added shoutouts to all our company events. We even created physical trophies people get for great work — that they have to then pass onto someone else at the end of the week. Then we moved on to improving feedback in the most formal setting: performance reviews.
Area 2: Improving diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace with new performance reviews
Our current performance reviews don’t do much to create an inclusive work environment, in fact, they don’t fully work for anyone. Right now we have reviews on people’s employment anniversary. They’re anonymous, they’re long, they often end up getting delayed — everyone pretty much hates the process. Not to mention that collecting feedback only once a year leads to recency bias, not something anyone wants when it affects their compensation.
We’re still in the process of developing a performance review system that assists in creating an inclusive workplace, but we already know a few things. The first is that we need to separate performance from feedback. We’ll do that by switching to three sessions — a formal performance review that sets your level, and two sessions that provide feedback. In the first, we’re experimenting with having a coach interview people and synthesize feedback, and in the second, we’ll have career mentors do the same, advising the individuals they support on what to stop, start and continue. We’re also moving everyone to a standardized schedule, which will make it harder to keep punting reviews further down the calendar.
Once that new performance review process is in place, we want to look at how we level our employees so the path for growth is clear. Right now our levels aren’t clearly defined. When we started, we rejected strictly defined levels to stay flexible and customize each individual’s career path to their needs. The tradeoff, we can see now, is that for people who aren’t privileged or confident, creating your own path feels scary and unavailable. We’re working on a new system that provides clarity and just enough structure so people can know how to grow and advance, while still making room for people do things outside the norm.
Area 3: Getting everyone involved with inclusive workplace training
Increasing opportunities for feedback helps with creating an inclusive work environment — now there are plenty of channels to surface good and bad behavior. But we also have to make sure everyone was equally capable of communicating and hearing that feedback.
To help, we brought in Katie Gore of Speech IRL, a speech therapy firm that specializes in training teams. She had come in a few years before to lead a workshop on providing specific, actionable feedback, and it was so helpful we brought her back to do an entire series. She helped everyone understand how to respect and respond to different communication styles, and helped us all practice giving constructive feedback, even when it felt uncomfortable. Then we assigned homework, having our career mentors practice with and support their mentees between workshops.
Still, we ran into problems. After the second session, the homework asked everyone to deliver a piece of constructive feedback. It proved too large a step, and in the third workshop we pivoted, encouraging people instead to ask for advice. We learned from our people that inviting feedback feels a lot safer than offering it unsolicited. We’ll continue to work with Katie on future sessions around interrupting, making space for remote people and other ways to improve our communication.
We’re also making sure we use those new listening and speaking skills. We brought the entire company together for a day of unconscious bias training at our last company retreat, and we’ve followed that up with monthly diversity and inclusion forums. We survey the team for any topics they want discussed — or presentations they might want to give, and then bring everyone together for a monthly lunch. So far the topics have touched on supporting people through loss, understanding Catalunya’s fight for independence and considering how to bring inclusivity to AI.
Using all that learning to identify our next inclusive workplace practices
At Table XI, we list things out, prioritize, focus and repeat. That’s the process by which we build products, and it’s also the process by which we build accountability for inclusion in the workplace. Change only happens when it feels authentic. Everyone on our team is a lifelong learner, so it was natural for us to use education as a tool for creating an inclusive environment. What’s comfortable more easily becomes habit, so we can keep the pace as we continue to get better. When you’re talking about long-term cultural change you can only take baby steps — even when it’s frustrating to feel so far from the finish line, it’s how people learn.
Still, building an inclusive workplace won’t happen if all the teaching takes place in a vacuum. As we learn, we act, improving our benefits, overhauling our onboarding process and changing the way we recruit — all of which you can read about in our article on diversity recruiting. We also continued the efforts we started years earlier, using our social events to foster an inclusive work environment by balancing team drinks with family-friendly outings and stacking our movie nights with films that featured diverse female leads.
Like we said at the top though, there’s always more work to do. We’re continuing to test and iterate on all of our inclusive work practices. And we’re not stopping with education any time soon — we’re even opening that learning to others. We’re sharing the conversations from our diversity and inclusion Slack channel on Twitter, hosting regular dinners with Katie Gore to help others better communicate and partnering with FWD Collective to bring more inclusive events to Chicago’s tech and business community.