Cut & Polish

Webinar Follow-Up: How TA Leaders Can Drive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Aubrey Blanche recently discussed how companies can redesign systems to build balanced teams with proportional representation. Here's the webinar Q&A.

Last week, Gem invited Aubrey Blanche, Director of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, to discuss how companies can redesign their systems to build balanced teams with proportional representation, such that all members feel like they’re seen and belong. Aubrey is the inventor of the balanced teams approach to building proportional representation and a culture of belonging in the workplace, as well as the Balanced Teams Diversity Assessment in the Atlassian Team Playbook. We were thrilled to get to talk to her; and we hope to continue the conversation well in the future.If you missed the webinar, we highly recommend you check it out here.

For those of you who asked questions that Aubrey couldn’t get to in our time together, here are her answers below:

If "diverse" is an offensive word (I appreciate this point greatly!), should we rename initiatives to not be "D&I" or "DEI"? Any recommendations?

I personally talk about equity & belonging. I don't think "diversity" is a problematic term if you're using it to describe a group as a whole. But when you’re using it to describe a single person, “diverse” = marginalized, which isn't correct. In that case, “underrepresented” is a good term to use.

In a recruiting world that has been traditionally compliance-driven, what kind of resistance can we expect to your recommendation that we change from "diversity" to "underrepresented" or "balanced teams," especially when the agencies who audit our progress, such as the DOL and OFCCP, haven't yet made that transition?

Use the language that makes sense to compliance when you speak to compliance. Use real language otherwise!

If you have two top qualified candidates that have the same skills, etc. & one is diverse, can you select the diverse candidate as the tie breaker?

I've never actually seen this happen, as a point of fact. But yes, I would. Because in addition to their technical expertise, the underrepresented candidate (individuals cannot be diverse, and this language is offensive) brings a different lived experience which ultimately amplifies the knowledge set of the entire team.

I love the concept of designing for Black women and how that creates a culture and environment that supports a broad set of underrepresented groups to succeed. Do you have data that supports the statement? I suspect I'll be pushed on it!

Kimberle Crenshaw's work is phenomenal. The Diana Initiative also shows how Black women have actually lost representation in tech. But when pushed for data, I might suggest asking "Do you have data to prove that I'm wrong?" Don't always be the one who’s asked to show proof without equal engagement on the other side.

When designing equitable programs for specific URMs, at what point do you bring those URMs into the design process?

I offer the opportunity at the beginning, but I make it clear that they don't have to provide input. I also check with external experts.

Most companies that publish public diversity data (Apple, Facebook etc.) only show small (1-2%) increases YoY for hiring URMs; and in some cases the percentages go down. Is this considered a good thing or are the big companies failing in terms of increasing the percentage of URM hires? Is there a company that you know of that could be a north star?

Big companies are failing on average. I don't tend to benchmark against other companies; rather, I look at where we can improve year over year, and put all my energy into that.

What advice can you give on how to balance authentic consent and being community-driven? What is the best way to consult with underrepresented communities without putting extra work on them?

I ask directly, and ALWAYS say that participation is 100% optional.

How have you approached "interview fatigue" on your colleagues from diverse backgrounds while still achieving inclusive interviewing teams?

I don't always require them to be in interviews! Or, I make it a part of their role’s responsibilities and reduce other elements of their workload proportionally.

How can companies lean into ERGs without relying on them? For example, using people from ERGs to balance interview panels is a great opportunity for impact; but how do we avoid making that a burden?

Pay bonuses for ERG members who do more interviewing than average, and/or explicitly re-write their roles to include this work (e.g., reduce their other work proportionally).

You mentioned authentic consent and also the idea of "nothing for us, without us." Can you talk a little more about striking a balance there? How do we make sure we are pulling in the community but doing it in a way that's thoughtful and respectful to them?

I spend a lot of time reading what the community has already written online. Once I have an idea, I present that to the group to validate if it aligns with their experience / desires. And I make it clear that feedback is 100% optional.

What would you say if your company's leadership thinks you're too small to have ERGs?

I would first ask how many employees they think a company has to have before an ERG “makes sense.” Then I would challenge them by saying there is no size at which people finally get the “right” to community and the safe space to be themselves.

Often smaller companies won’t invest this level of care because “they just need to hire now.” What resources could we give to founders and hiring managers to begin to change their minds and teach them Aubrey’s brilliant thinking here today in a condensed format?

Send them the webinar! Also, ask them how much they estimate it will cost in $$ and productivity to hire someone who brings down the team.

Given that many people from URGs haven’t always had the same opportunities and sometimes won't have the ideal resume, how do you balance giving someone a shot and helping to elevate them with possibly creating more pressure on the team who needs to put in more work for ramp-up?

I don’t focus on "the extra work" the team has to do; rather, I pitch "the incredible opportunity” the team has to learn from the experiences of that candidate. I also highlight the fact that we also have to do "extra work" with people who are difficult or entitled. In fact, everyone we hire requires "extra work"; we need to drop the narrative that only certain demographics do.

What do you do when someone who isn't considered underrepresented asks the talent team if diversity hiring is reverse discrimination. What’s the best way to respond to such a direct question?

I first ask if they’re considering that what we’ve done in the past is discrimination. Because all the data actually shows that we have not created fair opportunities. What we’re up to isn’t “reverse discrimination”; it’s making corrections to historically discriminatory systems.

How do we convince our business leaders to focus more on skills than on degrees or previous employers?

Tell them that degrees correlate with wealth, not skill. Then bring them candidates without those qualifications.

Regarding "requiring special knowledge": I'm working on filling an engineering role for a niche area of robotics. How do you balance not requiring domain knowledge/unfairly filtering while also looking for the right skills for the role? Currently, we say that domain knowledge is not required and that we're looking for candidates who are willing/able to learn this domain knowledge on the job. However, I see this judgment vary by interviewer, and we’re still rejecting due to lack of domain knowledge.

Professional expertise is definitely a thing to look for. But are you asking trivia questions about robotics in the interview? Avoid the second one. In debriefs, don’t let candidates be rejected for things that you have decided are not qualifications. Have an all-interviewer calibration if folks are misaligned.

How do you tackle the issue of the "most qualified candidate?" There is a very tangible opportunity and experience chasm for underrepresented groups. How do we get hiring managers to hire on grit and potential to give them a chance versus hiring on experience, acumen and pedigree, aka hiring "the most qualified candidate?"

I think it's a strawman argument, and mostly bullshit. You are not hiring a bunch of individual geniuses, you are building a team. The idea of "qualified" is a construct based on biases and discrimination.

What would you say to hiring managers that say "top tier" schools have better learning programs?

I would say that's a fascinating fiction (studies show that a candidate’s educational background is one of the worst predictors of job performance); and I'd prefer someone who was innovative and creative and taught themselves. (I'm a graduate of Stanford and Northwestern… so I would say this with authority.)

Can you please speak more specifically about sustainable team balance vs company balance?

Individuals can impact teams. Focusing on that as the unit can be empowering.

Do you have any advice for teams who do not choose the assessment they have to use? For example the CCAT which in my opinion is much easier when you've had extensive standardized testing/practice in the past, which isn't always the norm in underrepresented communities. How can we help underrepresented groups feel prepared and unintimidated by these assessments?

Don't use these assessments. Make the case where, and with whom, you have to.

How can we target an underrepresented group (example: black women in engineering) without legal issues around showing favoritism for a certain group?

Targeting specific groups is not illegal.

One of our partner companies is encouraging their employees to "to increase the diversity of our candidate pool." Do you think this is appropriate?

Absolutely. Referrals should always include the question: “and what underrepresented people would you like to refer for our team?" It's not exclusive to ask for these also… to do otherwise is to perpetuate the problem.

How do I make a fair referral process?

Ask for URM referrals specifically. Reach out to those first (and then reach out to everybody else).

What are your thoughts on referral fees being higher for underrepresented groups? / What do you think about incentivizing referrals from underrepresented communities?

It's not something I love, but I also think it works. I push for structural change first, but I wouldn't criticize a company using this method. By definition, underrepresented peoples' experiences are rarer / scarcer in most industries, so they are more economically valuable (according to capitalism...).

In creating a structure, can't the structure continue to cause inequity? Won’t our unconscious bias and previous methods perpetuate the inequity that is in place? Don't we need to question and shake up that structure?

It absolutely can, if you build structure in without an understanding of how to build it equitably. (Tip: elite status symbols like degrees are a great place to cut… they don't measure much.)

How do we start the conversation with execs to understand their stance on this matter? What are the questions to ask?

How committed are you to building an equitable workplace? What resources and time are you willing to commit to this?

How do you encourage executives who don’t see that changes need to be made? I’m working with different team leaders on a team-by-team basis, but limited in what change I can effect without executive support. How do you change the culture from the top down with limited influence?

Ask the CEO. It's hard to do otherwise. But I would work more closely with the execs who get it. Let the changes in the org speak for themselves.

How do you train executive leaders to be empathetic and avoid personal biases when interviewing people of a different color?

Find ways to have them meet and interact with those people. Make it a required part of their leadership development.

How do we reduce bias in the evaluation of a candidate in the phone interview process? What are the best tools for recruiters in that step of the process?

Check out!

How can we train our panel on bias if we aren't necessarily qualified to do that?

Pay Black experts.

What are some of the best books you've read on DEI?

There are so many! Most of what I read is related to work; here's my Goodreads:

How can leaders create and sustain equitable recruitment practices that aren't dependent on individuals pushing for it to happen?

Build systems. And process docs. And point to them A LOT.

What objectives would you give to leaders for DEI? A lot of CEOs believe that this falls 100% on the shoulders of People and Culture teams.

I tell execs that if it's just People and Culture supporting these initiatives, they'll fail. But we will do what we can.

What is the role of leadership? Does this need to come from the top to be effective, or can groups within different parts of the company lead this effort on their own?

I think there can be a bit of success if it's not from the top. But it won’t be sustainable without the CEO’s personal buy-in.

What are some ways that you have influenced leadership to embrace the difficult conversation about racial discrimination and inequalities?

I am direct and honest: While I get that this is an intellectual debate for you, there are employees here who are deeply traumatized and affected by this. They have loved ones who are dying while people intellectualize this. Racial discrimination is pervasive, and if we do not directly address it in our organization, we are responsible for allowing it to continue.

I hear a lot about making a "business case" for DEI initiatives. While it's true that diverse and inclusive (or rather, equitable) organizations see better business results, I always feel a little sad about the idea that we need to justify this work in capitalist terms. How do you think about this idea and how do you respond to this kind of suggestion?

I use the argument if I have to, but also am clear with execs that that reason is not sufficient to win.

I’d love to know a good response for when someone in management says "we don't want to focus on any one group in our D&I activities, but to make sure that ALL of our employees feel safe and included." Which is a great sentiment, but what I'm actually hearing is "All Lives Matter?"

Try this: "That is the most effective way to leave marginalized people behind. The data shows that by focussing on anti-Blackness, we can help all people. If you have data that says otherwise, I'd love to see it." Or this: “Yes, all lives do matter. And Black ones are disproportionately impacted by violence. By saying ‘All Lives Matter’ you are actually saying ‘Black people's problems are not important enough to care about.’ Please stop."

I've heard feedback from candidates I send to clients that "structured interviews" where each candidate is asked the same question (a recommended practice) ends up being a very robotic, alienating experience for the candidate. Any thoughts on how to make a structured interview less robotic and allow for improvisation?

You can provide guidance on additional / appropriate probing questions. I'd also note that if an interview is robotic, the interviewer should consider how they’re delivering the questions, or how they’re engaging the candidate’s response. Structure = saying only what's on the paper and absolutely no other words. Remember, this is ultimately a human interaction. Think of how to inject your personality and warmth into it!

Do you have a list of the best places to share our open jobs and reach underrepresented groups so they can assess for themselves how equitable we are and choose to apply? (The thinking here is that applicants can be more engaged than targeted cold-prospects).

I haven't seen this strategy have any success for the companies I've hired for. Sourcing and network word-of-mouth has been far more effective.

After redesigning our hiring process, how can we measure how effective it is?

How many underrepresented people did you hire compared to the old model?

How do you track passthrough rates in the pipeline for underrepresented groups? Do you ask for EEOC data on the application? Are there other ways to do this?

Gem has some great features for this!

Do you track the pipeline through visual ID or candidates’ self-ID?

Candidate self-ID. Visual ID is weird and inappropriate. Though a solution like Gem uses algorithms to predict gender and race/ethnicity with a 95% aggregate accuracy. Race/ethnicity stats are only shown in aggregate for directional guidance on pipelines, and to limit unconscious bias against individuals.

In some European countries (France, for example), tracking gender or race is unlawful at the hiring stage. Do you have any experience or work-around for this ?

Where there is no data, discrimination tends to be worse. Follow all laws (nope, no work-arounds)… but start with culture.

This was so useful and dense with info. I want to integrate DEI more into our org, but I'm new at this. How do I make sure I'm finding great, current information all the time?

I personally follow DEI experts on Twitter and LinkedIn!

What other initiatives can companies be doing?

You can check out Culture Amp's plan at

What advice would you give for a budding DEI talent acquisition team to build a solid framework?

What was the name of the free resource for training on bias?

What is the source of the studies about job postings?

HP, in the 1970s. Sandberg referenced it in Lean In.

Can we share this talk with our hiring partners?


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Content Strategist
July 20, 2020
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