Angela Dhir, a senior HR professional and member of Diversity.VC, joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss how to manage diversity risk in quickly scaling organizations. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!
Jennings: Today’s episode is about The Risks of Scaling Quickly. An organization with a small headcount may have a strong, cohesive, and equitable culture. Everyone knows each other, every one’s accountable to each other. But as organizations start to scale up in headcount, that culture can start to break down in ways that can contribute to workplace issues and reduce workplace equity. Scaling presents risk for the entire organization, but those risks often fall unequally on women, people of color, and employees who come from other diverse backgrounds.
Jennings: Joining us today to discuss the risks of scaling quality is Angela Dhir. Angela is a senior HR professional and diversity & inclusion expert, as well as a member of the Diversity.VC team. Her HR experience and knowledge has been built up at some of the most high-profile global organizations, including Google and King, the digital gaming company. Her experience also includes the financial and investment banking industries. As a beneficiary of a Black, Asian, and minority program herself, she has experienced first hand the difference that diversity program can make.
Jennings: Angela, welcome to The HR Risk Podcast.
Dhir: Thank you for having me.
Jennings: Angela, before we jump into today’s topic, could you tell us a little bit more about your background and the work that you’ve been doing?
Dhir: Absolutely. My background is in HR and I’ve worked at many companies including Google, and King when it was a quite small startup. Diversity and inclusion is one of my passions. Not only has it been a professional passion of mine, it’s also been a personal passion.
Jennings: So you’ve been an HR professional at several organizations, and I believe King is the maker of a game, right?
Dhir: That’s right. Candy Crush.
Jennings: Candy Crush, a little game that listeners might have heard of. So you’ve had experience with organizations that have grown in terms of their footprint and their headcount. And our topic today is managing workplace equity and scaling organizations. Angela, as you’ve seen companies grow, both in your role now and in your past roles, how does the culture of an organization change when it goes from a few dozen employees to a few hundred, and then maybe to a few thousand after that?
Dhir: In my experience, what I’ve seen is it changes dramatically. Now I’ve worked in organizations that have been large, say for example, Google, and then have opened offices, which has expanded the headcount dramatically. And so when an organization grows, there’s a number of factors you need to focus on. One, how is it growing? Is it growing in one particular location? So whilst I was at Google, there was a lot of growth in EMEA and so that brought a whole range of diversity and different challenges. And while I was at King, we grew dramatically from a quite small headcount to a quite large headcount within the London office. So it does matter on a geographical scale, but each person that joins an organization impacts the culture, and so it’s absolutely fundamental that when you’re scaling an organization, you have this in day one: it will impact your culture.
Jennings: Are there any particular risks for women, for people of color, for people from other diverse communities in the workplace? And are there structural changes that occur as organizations scale that can contribute to those workplace equity risks?
Dhir: Absolutely. I think what I’ve seen, especially in the tech world, is that there’s this huge desire to scale up the headcounts. You can produce products or games or really, really ramp up. There’s a huge focus on just headcount. Double the headcount, let’s rush in and do these things. And so there’s a huge amount of pressure that goes with that. At the same time, there’s a number of people who may be involved in that recruitment process who may not actually directly know a huge amount about the organization. So if you’re outsourcing your recruitment processes and those individuals aren’t aware of the diversity policy that you may have, that’s quite a problem. So for me, one of the big things that organizations need to look at in the workplace is if they are outsourcing any of this recruitment process, they need to ensure that the recruiters are well versed in the diversity policy.
Dhir: Lots of startups, as well and organizations who are quite small, don’t actually have a diversity policy in place from the beginning. And so what you often see is that this happens at a later stage when the organization is really large. And this may be also due to resourcing issues. So if you have got a smaller headcount and you’ve got a small HR department, you may not be able to bring in a diversity and inclusion expert, for example. I think there are structural changes that when you’re scaling up that you need to look at. So there’s various points. One is recruitment. And onboarding is very important. So looking at what is the recruitment process, how can we remove unconscious bias from that process? You know, how do we source the talent? Where does this talent come from? Is this referrals from people we already know, or is this tapping into communities that have not got great connections there, ror example, people who don’t have a personal network. ?
Dhir: And also looking at other opportunities. So for example, if you look at working parents or the retention opportunities that could be leveraged here, hire returners or somebody who perhaps was a veteran. There are other talent streams that you can look at, but you may not necessarily have thought about. So I think absolutely there’s scope for work to be done here. But often the pressure of scaling quickly outweighs doing at it at pace and really being mindful about the diversity pipeline. So I think every organization should look at the employee lifecycle and I look at how they can eliminate bias from each step.
Jennings: Definitely. And it’s not an either or between scaling quickly and embracing the diversity policy and being mindful of diversity. A workforce that has a good culture around diversity is going to be more effective. So it’s a small investment as a company is growing quickly on the front-end, but it would pay dividends on the back-end in terms of just the effectiveness of the work.
Dhir: I agree with you and I think a lot of organizations, if they make diversity part of their business strategy, that will always be at the top of the agenda. So whilst they’re looking at business interactions, as well as employee interactions, it’s part of their business strategy. It will pay off. It will pay dividends. There’s been a lot of research around this. Diversity.VC is an organization that I’m part of. We have a founders’ toolkit, which basically provides tools for individuals to be able to implement diversity best practice from the very beginning as they scale up. I think having those kinds of tools available to people can be immensely useful, especially when you’re under the pressures of delivering products or scaling quickly.
Jennings: Right, and I’ve taken a look at the toolkit and for our listeners, whether you’re at a large organization or a smaller organization that’s just starting to add headcount, it’s a great resource, very accessible.
Dhir: So number one, “is diversity part of the business strategy?” Number two, “is diversity a value for the organization” and “does the recruitment process focus on value fit as opposed to cultural fit?” And I’d probably say number four is I think it’s also how diversity is embedded within the organization, not only as the employer brand to attract talent, but also what practice takes place. One of the things that I often hear about people when I say I work in the field diversity is that everyone sees us as something that is just a nice-to-have or lip service that people say that they do. So what actually goes on in an organization, that has a huge impact on whether you’ve got a diverse talent pool. If I look at other industries I’ve worked in, for example, banking and the legal profession, there’s not a huge amount of diversity there either. They’ve gotten to scale slowly over time and seem to have just the same challenge as, say for example, tech.
Jennings: That’s a good point, that industries that have scaled more slowly still have these issues, and it may be in equal measure. You touched on I think a good comparison point where some people in your experience view diversity as a nice-to-have, as maybe a branding exercise. I assume that you’ve also seen examples of companies that have been more sincere in their embrace of diversity. Have you seen differences in results, and could you compare the outcome that those companies have in terms of what their diversity programs and policies and efforts get them as business results?
Dhir: Absolutely. So I think it’s really interesting. I started off my career at PwC, which is global accountancy firm. And at the time there was a lot of criticism because it’d only hire kind of Oxbridge graduates and their recruiting was really driven around making sure that the academic background was one of the main areas of focus. But at the same time they were also investing in diversity. I was involved in a program that I’ve volunteered for and helped to run, which was to help underprivileged children in London to learn to read via a volunteering scheme. And this was to help children who basically had come to the U.K. as refugees. And I would spend time sitting and reading with them. And so what was interesting was, although we may not necessarily many years ago be seeing the diversity of the accountancy firms, they were definitely aligning their corporate social responsibility programs with their diversity ideal scenario for the organization.
Dhir: And eventually they progressed and looked at setting up employee networks, which I was involved in as well. And now they’ve become quite famous for flexible working. They’ve now introduced and have successfully addressed this issue where people who require flexibility because of their caring responsibilities or health issues are able to maintain remaining in the workplace and in their career, as well as juggling other aspects of their life. So it’s quite interesting to see that journey. Whilst I was at Ernst & Young, I launched the E&Y South Asian Network and I think what was really excellent about Ernst & Young was that they were continuously trying to improve and really listening to their employees. So I think one of the key things if you look at PwC is how you can impact underrepresented groups extended through your corporate social responsibility programs. Number two is looking at Ernst & Young and then saying, “okay, within our own talent pool, how can we tap into other diverse networks that we would not necessarily have access to?”
Dhir: And by setting up these employee programs and networks, which is sponsored by senior individuals, you can then attract other talent. So whilst I was there at Ernst & Young, I was able to help two or three people move roles who were thinking about leaving the organization. It was a huge plus to see that. And I see Ernst & Young was investing in diversity and making sure that it was celebrating the differences that people had. So two good examples. Whilst I was at Google, I was on the Top Black Talent program. And what that was looking at was university students and saying, “how can we help you to realize your dream to become an entrepreneur or perhaps to join Google?” And I was part of that mentoring program, which was brilliant as well.
Dhir: A lot of individuals of that program either set up their own businesses or joined Google as a result. There’s many opportunities to create pathways for underrepresented groups, to invest in communities which may not have the social or financial capital to have opportunities like everybody else. And then using diversity as a genuine attraction tool. It sends a message to people. And I think when you actually act upon the words that you have for your diversity policy and you take action, you become noticeable. I can definitely say that a lot of the people that I worked with at Ernst & Young remain there because they were very happy there and they’re able to retain the talent and help them progress. So that’s the other point that you have to look at: once you have the diverse talent in, how do you enable them and help them reach their potential?
Dhir: It’s all well and good that you’ve been able to secure them. But how do you make sure that they reach their potential, ensure that the performance management system is free of bias, have visible role models that people can see and say, “actually, I know this is possible because I can see it in front of me?”
Jennings: One of the important insights of that is that PwC and E&Y’s diversity programs and your diversity program can evolve and scale up itself over time. And so you don’t have to have the perfect program from the get-go. But it has to be something from the get-go and then it’s a matter of listening to your employees, particularly employees from diverse backgrounds, to help shape that and grow it to achieve some of those objectives, particularly around retention.
Jennings: You mentioned that before you talk to an organization, you like to get the views of several people on how they would describe their company culture. I expect that that’s probably going to be a different impression from different people. I imagine that different people having different conceptions of what the culture is could be pretty illuminating from the perspective of collecting that data, whether you do it via surveys or interview employees to get that information. But I think that would be pretty powerful diagnostic for where a company needs to go in terms of culture.
Dhir: There’s a lot of information out there. We should take an innovative approach and sometimes it’ll mean doing a bit of auditing ourselves. So is it a case that somebody within the leadership team, within the HR leadership team has a quick look at some of the applications that didn’t go through? That could be a different way of addressing the problem and actually questioning, “well why didn’t this application go through?” Often what you hear from a lot of disgruntled candidates is “I never heard back.” So who’s actually screening these applications? Does it make sense to have double-step process, not because we want to create more work, but just to see, what is the reason why certain individuals are not getting through and could there be any unconscious bias in that process? And then obviously I think the onboarding process as well, making sure that we’re successful and ask about the individual. Are we actually asking individuals about their drivers, what’s important to them? What would they like to see from a diversity perspective? And then it’s actually looking at what happens when they’re at the organization. What are daily interactions like at the workplace? Do they feel included and safe within the environment, where they feel like they can flourish and meet their potential?
Dhir: Then looking at progression. This can be measured. You can see which individuals are getting promoted and getting other opportunities, whether they’re lateral moves or whether they’re moving upwards. And what kind of support is available for these diverse groups to make this happen? I think one of the key things as well that you’ll see often is how people talk about diversity policies. Are there diversity policies in place, number one; number two, what happens when they are in place? How is this followed through and what does it result in? So quite interestingly, recently on a form, somebody asks for some advice about keep-in-touch days that we have in the U.K. for maternity leave, and hundreds of people responded on their experience of it. The employers all had very, very similar policies. But the actual experience of it was vastly different.
Dhir: So how are we training people managers to carry out these policies in a fair and reasonable way? And when we do that, we’re sending a message to people and saying, “we want you here. You’re part of the team, you’re included, you’re the same, in terms of equal treatment.” So I think that’s very important. Make sure as you scale, you keep checking that you go back and you check those processes and there’s policies and make sure they’re still in line with what you need. So if you look at the likes of Facebook and Google, when they first started I doubt many employees had a family. As things evolve, you need to keep up with that. So you’re going to have situations where your employees may have a family, or employees’ parents may become ill and they may need to become a carer. Or your employee has a mental health problem or crisis, and you need to make sure that you’re continuously reviewing those policies and making sure that they’re fit for the purpose and also fit for the organization. It’s not just a matter of getting those numbers and making sure you’re growing. It’s making sure that you’re bringing everybody along for that journey and addressing their unique and personal needs.
Jennings: It’s so important to keep in mind as a policy is being developed that this is not something that we can afford to just do and say that we did and put it on the shelf. We actually need to have a real commitment to following through with it. And I think to your point too, we can’t even just create a great policy and follow through with it without questioning and updating it based on the changing circumstances of our company and our workforce.
Jennings: Angela, if our listeners would like to learn more about this topic or continue the conversation, where can they go for that? And I’ll add a link to the founders’ toolkit and the VC toolkit on the show notes.
Dhir: I’m part of the team at Diversity.VC and we are trying our best to create a fairer and more diverse venture capital industry and tech industry, as well as larger ecosystems. So the best place to go is Diversity.VC.
Jennings: All right, great. And I will put a link to that on the show notes as well. Angela, thank you for joining The HR Risk Podcast.
Dhir: Thank you.