jade rubick

If you want a good company culture, focus on equity


Washing machines for the elderly

There once was a company that made washing machines. They decided to make a model for elderly people. They worked hard and thought about everything an elderly person would want:

  1. Big dials that are easy to turn.
  2. Easy to read controls for seniors with poor eyesight.

They started selling this product. Customers surprised them by buying them across all sorts of demographics. It ended up being a popular product for young people.

Why? It turns out everyone wants easy to read dials and great controls. Washing machines are often in poorly lit locations. So designing for people with poor vision also helped many people in common situations. Designing for the elderly benefited everyone.

Under-represented groups are your canaries

Under-represented minorities (URMs) are your best leading indicator of company culture. They are the canary in the coal mine — able to give you insight into what sucks about your company. If you make things better for URMs, you almost always also make it better for everyone. Making an environment where everyone can thrive makes it better for everyone.

This is part of the reason having a homogenous team is such a bad sign in a startup. You lack observability for your cultural problems.

Offer to have people delegate work to you

Use this principal to your advantage. Focus your management work on problems your URMs identify as problems.

One approach you can take is to say to people that come from underrepresented groups in tech: “I understand that you’ll see a lot of things that are frustrating that you may not want to deal with. It’s exhausting to deal with that on top of everything else, and white guys don’t have to deal with those things. If you ever notice something that bugs you, and you’re willing to mention it to me, you can basically delegate it to me. I’ll do the work to improve things, and I won’t burden you with having to process it or deal with it.”

Doing this can feel dangerous. You will have to act on what people bring up, or you’ll burn a lot of trust. But you’ll also get access to much better information on your company’s problems. And if you’re willing to act on it, you’ll improve the company for everyone.

You should take a lot of care to not make this a lot of emotional effort for the person bringing it up. The whole point of this is that you’re taking something off of their plate.

They often don’t have a choice about having to deal with these problems all the time. So picking up some of the load from them can be a good way to build some empathy for what they face all the time.

Some actions you can take to improve your diversity, equity, and inclusion

I’ve seen some things that seem to improve the cultural health of companies. These things can make employees from all backgrounds love to work at your company.

I can take little credit for most of them. But I do have experience implementing them, and can share what I’ve seen work and where the challenges are. I haven’t seen many of these practices written about elsewhere. So I encourage you to implement and improve upon them. Share what you learn!

These are some things to do to improve your company culture:

  1. Implement pay equity
  2. Implement bias checks in your promotion process
  3. Modify your hiring process to optimize both for speed and diverse candidates
  4. Bundle your hiring
  5. Use OKRs to drive equity
  6. Write compelling and unbiased job descriptions
  7. Use holiday focus days

Image credit: Mike Lawrence

Jade Rubick

Engineering Leadership Weekly & Frontline Management

Point me at your organizational problems. I advise startups and help in a variety of ways.

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