The 2019 Diversity in the Workplace Report takes a comprehensive look at the companies across the globe who are doing diversity and inclusion ‘right’. We spoke to the author, 32-year-old Vessy Tasheva, about why she created the report and what we can all learn from it.
You say that as a ‘lesbian immigrant in an inter-racial relationship’, you were frustrated when workplaces didn’t consider diversity and inclusion seriously – can you explain more about these experiences?
I’ve been in a company where an employee would make sexist, homophobic and racist jokes, and when I spoke to the leadership team, I was told it ‘wasn’t coming from a bad place’. When I pressed after further incidences, I was told that dealing with this was not a priority of the business. I felt that I was becoming to be seen as the problem, for bringing it up.
In hindsight, it was important that I addressed it every time, but I think I placed too much blame on the leadership team. My advice now would be to ask some questions, try to understand and try to inform in a calm manner. If someone is ignorant and you’re attacking them, that won’t change things. If you engage people in a conversation, you have a better chance.
So why did you decide to carry out the report?
I’ve had jobs where I’ve felt frustrated; places where, for example, I didn't feel I could speak up to question the strategy. Now I look back, I realise it was because I was working in a company that wasn’t inclusive. That's what prompted me to work as a career consultant – I wanted to help others find happiness and succeed in their jobs. However, this approach is limited to a person’s time and money. So I thought, what if I helped entire organisations transform? This was how the report was born: as a platform for companies to share their stories of how they've created an open and accepting culture, so we can learn from them.
Creating a D&I workplace is not just for the benefit of employees though. When you’re trying to innovate, which is especially the case in industries such as tech, gaming, media, finance and healthcare, you need to create an environment where people can speak up and disagree and criticise. And of course, a company needs to mirror its customer base to truly understand and serve them.
You included 10 companies in the report, ranging from 20 to 16,000 in size. What informed your selection process?
I wanted companies that would tell completely different stories, with some mature enough to have D&I strategies and others in the discovery stage, just doing a few initiatives.
TransferWise, for instance, is getting started with D&I. I wanted leaders from companies of similar and earlier stages to reflect on their own values and give them the courage to start making a change.
Companies don’t need to wait until they’re at 1,000 employees to start taking D&I seriously. There’s no correlation between a company’s resources and how diverse and inclusive it is. You can create an inclusive place to work without being a tech company with billions in revenue.
And which company did you feel was the most impressive?
I strongly relate to Atlassian's approach as it's data-informed and in that way similar to mine when I work with clients on their D&I challenges. In the report, their Global Head of Diversity & Belonging shared how they audit different aspects of an employee journey, such as the performance review process, to ensure people have equal opportunities to advance their career.
And among the companies with more than one hundred employees, Zoona – a financial services company for underserved communities in Sub-Saharan Africa – stands out for me. Zoona founders realised early that D&I can be a business strength for them, and embedded it in their business strategy. As a result, they have served three million customers and processed over $2.5 billion in transactions since inception. The Nike Foundation recognised them as one of ten start-ups best positioned to take girls out of poverty.
The values of company founders and the authority of a company’s D&I champion were, in your opinion, the two biggest success factors in creating a D&I workplace. So basically, it needs to come from the top?
Well in companies in general, change tends to ‘come from the top’, but then it’s delegated to somebody else to get the job done. It’s a case of, ‘Ok this is on our agenda, now it’s the responsibility of the talent, HR or operations team to sort.’ But it doesn’t actually work well if the leadership has no involvement beyond saying ‘D&I is important for us’.
It’s crucial that the leadership team’s values are aligned and they are genuinely interested in the D&I projects. If company leaders have a core belief that employees need to feel they can bring their whole selves to work – and take action – then D&I can flourish.