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How job seekers can tell whether a company is serious about diversity

Companies are making a lot of noise about DEI practices, but many are more talk than action. Here's how to spot the workplaces committed to promoting serious change.

Like most software engineers, Lianna Newman wants to get hands on the latest tools, be part of a committed, collaborative team, and have a positive influence on the products being worked on. Yet, because Newman (no pronouns) identifies as a nonbinary person of color, this wish-list sometimes takes a back seat to concerns about a company's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices when coming into a new workplace.

The existence of employee resource groups (ERGs), diversity in the executive suite and among other employees, and investments in ongoing DEI training are all telltale signs that a company is serious about DEI and not just paying lip service by talking it up to shareholders and the general public. But beyond formal initiatives and investments, Newman looks for a deeper commitment that a company understands its business motivation for tackling DEI and is willing to address organizational issues that may have led to workplace inequality in the first place.

"It's important that a company understand they can't become diverse and equitable and inclusionary simply by employees attending a one- or two-hour training once a month," Newman says. "This work is constant, and it can be very painful. It's not about changing your company logo to a rainbow version for Pride or sending out a 'Happy Kwanzaa' message when most don't know what the holiday is. It's wanting to see a company display a true connection and understanding of what it takes to do this work."

If recent headlines are any indication, efforts to tackle corporate DEI issues have been extensive these past few years, especially in the wake of global backlash following the murder of George Floyd. Yet, beyond all the noise heralding diversity and inclusion, real change has been slow to come, and the tech sector is no exception. According to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, the high-tech sector employed a larger share of white people compared with overall private industry (69 percent vs. 64 percent) but a much smaller percentage of African Americans (7 percent vs. 14 percent), Hispanics (8 percent vs. 14 percent), and women (36 percent vs. 48 percent). Within the STEM community, LGBTQ professionals face a raft of issues less prevalent among their peers, including career limitations, social exclusion, harassment, and devaluation of their knowledge, according to research from the University of Michigan and Temple University.

Please read: Good news for IT diversity efforts

Lack of representation and ongoing workplace challenges are why Newman and other minority STEM professionals favor DEI-friendly companies when evaluating potential employment. "You can't really remove the DEI stuff unless you're part of a group that affords you that privilege," says Newman, who is also the founder of the Black Mental Health Support Group at Out in Tech, a nonprofit community of LGBTQ tech leaders, and a Howard University Master of Social Work candidate. "However, when you're talking about someone who's nonbinary, very visibly queer, and a Black person, the ability to be selective isn't always an option."

DEI building blocks

For those on the outside looking in, ESGs or business resource groups and the appointment of a chief diversity or inclusion officer are fairly reliable markers that a company is striving to elevate DEI issues through shared communities and by creating forums for open discussion. HR organizations, with support from the executive ranks, are fully onboard when they are actively recruiting tech talent from diverse pools such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as well as promoting partnerships with diversity-focused organizations such as ITSMF (Information Technology Senior Management Forum), which is focused on developing Black IT leaders, and Year Up, a nonprofit committed to ensuring young adults gain equitable access to education and economic opportunities.

While those engagements are crucial steps to building a more inclusive and welcoming enterprise, potential job seekers also need to look beyond such checkbox initiatives to establish whether a company's executive suite and its employee base match its public outcry for diversity hiring. It's also important to engage with current employees, either through in-person company visits or through online forums and networking groups, to determine if the culture truly lives up to the claims for an inclusive and equitable workplace.

"There are plenty of structural things a company can do, and it's all good stuff. But when push comes to shove, when a candidate is deciding where to go, they'll want to reach out to people that work there and ask questions that get beyond the marketing blitz," says Charles Gray, partner and head of the U.S. technology officers practice and board practice specialist at Egon Zehnder, a leadership advisory firm.

That's particularly true among the high-level IT executives that Gray places in leadership roles. These CIO, chief diversity officers, and board-level candidates expect company leadership to be able to articulate their business reasons for elevating DEI issues, whether it's to improve innovation, better reflect their customer base, or elevate bottom-line results. "It can't come across as shallow or the flavor of the month," Gray says. "It starts at the top if a company is really serious about this, otherwise it comes across as form over function."

At Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the business case for being unconditionally inclusive is continuously and consistently made clear throughout all corners of the organization, according to Aisha Washington, HPE's CDO. The message from HPE's top management is that diversity and inclusion are inextricably tied to capturing the wealth of ideas and perspectives necessary for creative thinking and advancing the innovation needed to change the way people live and work.

But inclusion and diversity go beyond any check-box item—it needs to be ingrained in culture because it's the right thing to do and because it drives value for customers and partners, Washington says, pointing to HPE's global sponsorship program for women. "The key thing is to make sure diversity and inclusion permeate culture," she says. "It's not focusing on the numbers but on the experience of all your people—not just minority groups, but the majority as well. It's about creating an environment where people feel they belong and can bring in the best version of themself. That's when an organization truly wins."

Changes start at the top

Infusing DEI into HPE's culture starts with setting tone from the top, with CEO and President Antonio Neri making it clear that the need for diversity is directly aligned to the company's core business strategy and is part of the corporate fabric, including measurements and accountability for senior leadership. At the same time, HPE has myriad initiatives to promote DEI practices, including tying senior vice president compensation to diversity goals and devising an inclusive interview process that calls for at least two qualified diverse candidates and at least one diverse person on the interview panel for every open position. HPE is also committed to supporting student scholars at HBCUs in the U.S. over the next five years, including multiple scholarship opportunities annually. The company also maintains an active partnership with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, which provides advocacy, guidance, and training for members of the equal justice community, Washington says.

"Diversity and inclusion is part of everyday business and is at the forefront of how we do things," she explains. "It's how we think about everything, and that's critical."

Alejandro Reyes, digital director of smart operations at power company AES, advises up-and-coming IT professionals who care deeply about DEI issues to do their due diligence, leaning on sites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor to get the inside skinny on a company's diversity hiring track record and how its culture stacks up in comparison to others. Yet the real proof of a company's commitment is reflected in the diversity of its management team. That was Reyes' personal litmus test for DEI when he joined AES, a requirement the company passed with flying colors, since its CEO hails from Venezuela.

"That the CEO of the company is Venezuelan—that was something that definitely encouraged me," Reyes says. "You can get information about a company, but a lot of times it's just words. Looking at the management team gives you a good idea of how diverse the culture really is."

Companies with a diverse slate of middle managers also offers greater opportunities to find mentors and sponsors that understand the unique challenges of minority or LGBTQ hires and have shared experiences they can learn from. Eric Brown, senior manager of enterprise identity and access management at SAIC, was able to benefit from a CISO mentor as he rose through the ranks, which helped steer him on a career path in enterprise cybersecurity. Now that he leads a team of 18 employees, he's committed to paying it forward by promoting diversity to enable more dynamic problem solving.

"Different points of view really make a difference," Brown says. "Leaders need to focus on people's skills versus who you think they are. Looking at quality of character is one of the biggest things any company can teach its leadership."

Please read: Diversity in risk taking: Why every voice matters

Companies taking DEI seriously must take steps to prepare the organization for the change that occurs when marginalized groups are empowered to speak up about what is and isn't working. Newman, who makes it a point to get involved with ERGs whenever possible to find community and contribute to the DEI agenda, says equal attention must be paid to helping the non-minority population be invested and, more important, comfortable with the change, which oftentimes can put people ill at ease if diversity issues are outside their wheelhouse.

In the end, prioritizing diversity makes a company a better place to work, but it's also smart business. That's especially true for IT organizations that are tasked today with transforming the enterprise and advancing the digital agenda for all employees. Says Newman, "I think people forget that without diverse voices in the room, technology can end up exclusionary and actually create more of a divide."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.