Viewpoint: Uber's New Four-Step Guide to Inclusion and Diversity

By Bernard Coleman January 11, 2018
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It was quite a year for Uber in 2017: a year of revelation, reflection, re-evaluation and practical steps toward optimistic reinvention. In short, it was a roller coaster ride of epic proportions. 

When I first arrived at Uber last January, I spent my first few months talking to anyone and everyone who wanted to chat. I was on an intense fact-finding mission to understand the culture, both the bright spots and pain points. What I found in nearly every interaction were people who cared passionately about inclusion and diversity but who were paralyzed by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and who, therefore, missed opportunities to speak up or express support.    

Many technology companies have an important goal to do something innovative and groundbreaking with their inclusion and diversity (I&D) program. The reality is that HR cannot be innovative if we don't have a mastery of the basics. What inclusion and diversity efforts ultimately suffer from is not being intentional, deliberate or strategically comprehensive from the outset.  

I quickly realized that Uber was at an inflection point. We needed to intensify our focus on inclusion by making sure we are building an environment where everyone is welcome and that accentuates belongingness and values uniqueness. 

We decided to approach inclusion and diversity in a holistic, intersectional way by focusing on four key steps:

  • Individual employees: We want employees to feel an increased sense of belonging and be able to both model and mirror inclusion. 
  • Systems: We want to create systems that decrease bias and improve fairness and equitable treatment, no matter who you are or where you are from.
  • Leadership: We want leaders at every level to understand why inclusion and diversity matters and amplify the message throughout the company so that it becomes fully embedded in our DNA.
  • Citizenship: We want to do meaningful work at our jobs, make a difference in society and plant seeds to positively impact others. 

These four steps cannot be done in isolation but instead must be accomplished in parallel to be most impactful in creating change. I&D is continuous, and the work is never ending, so the effort must be meticulously comprehensive. It's also important to accept that there will be bumps and bruises, as well as lapses and setbacks. But progress comes from iterative innovation, big and small, that helps repel reversion.  

Each step is critically important and interlocks with one another to functionally create an unshakeable foundation to build on.

Empowering Individuals with Tools to Support I&D and Be Allies

We started by rolling out two major initiatives to give our employees the tools to take action on an individual level: a "Why Diversity Matters" (WDM) training program and an Inclusive Actions Index. The WDM was developed by Breton Krafft, a member of the I&D team, using real workplace examples from UberHue (Uber's resource group for black employees) and Women of Uber to help employees no matter where they were on their I&D journey to learn why inclusion is important and how it impacts our work environment and the industry at large.

Since April 2017, we've visited 25 cities around the globe and trained nearly 3,000 staff. The WDM in-person workshop combines academic, anecdotal and work-based examples to make an immersive experience that draws in the audience and fosters a dynamic dialogue and discussion. It's incredible to sit in a room with a hundred people who don't know what to expect and to see so many heads nodding up and down and people eager share their own stories. As we moved from city to city and country to country, we took care to modify the content with local teams to ensure it was culturally appropriate and resonated with the audience. 

Our second initiative, the Inclusive Actions Index, is a starter kit with practical, actionable tips to help create inclusion and avoid doing or saying the wrong thing. With input from our employee resource group members, we were able to develop 50 actions that anyone could use based on the situation and their level of comfort. We are now looking to expand this effort globally. 

Reviewing and Revamping Our Systems to Reduce Bias 

One of the hardest challenges to tackle is institutional bias—the way systems and processes have a tendency to reflect human biases. Systems should instead act as the check and balance to individual actions and contribute to making the workplace more equitable and fair. 

From a hiring perspective, effective systems correct broken processes, help avoid bias and create more opportunity to find greater pools of talent. We focused our initial efforts on the end-to-end hiring process to examine every part in the overarching recruiting system. For example, we rewrote over 1,500 job descriptions using a service called Unitive. Research has shown that job descriptions can unintentionally exclude diverse applicants based on how they are worded. We also examined our hiring processes and instituted structured interviews to ensure that each candidate was asked the same questions and judged against the same competencies to decrease subjectivity in the process.

Another important shift was to move away from the phrase "culture fit" because we found that hiring managers used that as a proxy to eliminate candidates who were unlike them. We now use the phrase "culture add," which more accurately reflects our intent to welcome and encourage differences and see that as part of what makes Uber great. 

Engaging Leaders to Be Champions and Role Models for Inclusiveness

Leaders drive the agenda and help dictate culture, norms and direction, while setting the tone of the company and being responsible to the organization, teams, the board and customers. It is critically important that leaders understand, from the workplace to the marketplace, why inclusion and diversity is important to Uber's lasting growth and success. It's about more than words. Companies need demonstrable actions that staff can see and know that the organization's leadership is committed to inclusion. 

I call it the "see/say problem": employees, drivers, partners, couriers, riders and the general public look for indicators of a company's values. It's one thing to state a value, but those values must be followed by a corresponding action. At the end of the day, people can see through inauthentic gestures. Organizations can say what they will do, but they must also deliver on those promises. 

At Uber, our leaders are tying inclusion and diversity back to their goals and are making commitments to drive change. It's well-known that leaders must have a demonstrable stake in moving the needle on progress, and the data shows that absent committed leadership, organizational change is much more difficult to achieve.  

Working in Partnership with Our Communities to Advance I&D 

To ensure that employees feel fulfilled about their work while also making a meaningful difference in every facet of their lives, we created a citizenship initiative to encourage philanthropy, charity and investment in the communities we live and operate in.

We've begun partnering strategically with organizations that will help us deepen relationships to develop and expand the science, technology, engineering and math—STEM—talent pipeline for the long term. We're mapping out more ways to demonstrate our commitment to internally enhance our practices and assist in our culture shift.  

We are a company that operates in more than 630 cities and 80 countries, but we function in communities and the impact we have is immeasurable. To celebrate the cities we serve, we developed an outreach service effort this past September in which we held 10 events in San Francisco, as well as another 50 events in other offices globally. The week-long efforts were designed to help charities such as the Jessie Rees Foundation, National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Operation Gratitude, whose mission is to thank our troops and veterans. 

As part of this initiative, all staff now have citizenship goals that not only align with their personal values, but also allow them to fulfill their need to contribute to the greater good. According to a Fortune magazine poll, "nearly two-thirds of people between the ages of 18 and 34 were at least somewhat more likely to want to work for a company that gave to charity than one did that not." We understand that staff need to see and feel the commitment to the community and know that their collective effort spans beyond the product to authentic philanthropy. 

A cultural shift of this magnitude requires an all-hands approach, and everyone's effort is integral to its development and ongoing sustainability. It is intellectual arrogance to think that this process ends or that just moving numbers is success. I&D is a perpetual effort, without end.  Success is progress. 

Bernard Coleman is Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Uber in San Francisco and former member of SHRM's Government Affairs staff.

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