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Build an Inclusive Culture Before Recruiting for Diversity

Lever CEO Sarah Nahm speaks about the state of diversity and inclusion

A woman standing in front of a screen with the words talent innovation.
​Lever CEO Sarah Nahm

San Francisco-based Lever, one of the so-called next-generation talent acquisition systems upending the traditional applicant tracking system because of its integrated approach to hiring, is gaining recognition not only for its technology, but also for its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The company's gender balance is 50-50, its workforce is 40 percent nonwhite, and 53 percent of its leadership and 40 percent of the board of directors are female.

Lever held its first Diversity & Inclusion Forum in September, where it brought together brands like GoDaddy, Uber and Lyft to showcase best practices in recruiting for diversity.

Lever CEO Sarah Nahm spoke with SHRM Online about the momentum behind diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and what inclusion really means.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to Diversity]

SHRM Online: What is the state of recruiting for diversity presently—and how far has it come? 

Nahm: When we founded Lever in 2012, it was rare to find people investing in diversity or who even saw it as a challenge. Since then, it's been year after year of momentum. The quality of the conversation has shifted. There was a time, about 18 months ago, when companies woke up to the concept that it's not just about hiring for diversity, it's about building an inclusive workplace, that the two concepts go hand in hand. Diversity and inclusion is no longer just a niche concern for HR, or just tech companies or just among women. It's now front-page news. And it's going global. I didn't see that until this year.

There's still a long way to go but the trend is really promising and accelerating year over year.

Another trend I've found is that among organizations where talent is a driver of their business, there is a huge interest in investing in diversity and inclusion. Companies are realizing that if they can't retain women in their tech roles, for example, they've created a cost problem, an operations problem, a strategy problem. For talent-centered employers, diversity and inclusion has become mainstream. 

SHRM Online: What does inclusion mean to you?

Nahm: When people hear "diversity," most people think race, gender—qualities that remind you of the census demographics. Inclusion is company-specific. What are the intentional choices we're making about who we are and who we are not?

Of course, companies have been engaged with the idea of culture for some time. And if you were to break down culture into its components, inclusion is a key part. In many ways, one lens of looking at your culture is understanding what you are explicitly inclusive to and what you are explicitly exclusive to. Those choices will tell you what kind of identity and culture you have, who will resonate within your culture, and what kind of people will be your highest performers. It will also tell you how to drive policy to make sure you're not unconsciously making decisions that go against your intentional choices.

For example, what kind of communication styles are you inclusive to? Are you supportive of both extroverts and introverts? How are you making decisions and running meetings? Is it important for your career tracks and performance evaluations and promotions to only promote extroverts, the loudest or most vocal people in meetings, or is that something you're just letting happen? To understand culture, you must understand your definition of success and document it so that it's transparent. On day one, new employees should be able to come in and know what the attributes that drive performance are, how decisions are made and what criteria management is looking for to promote.

SHRM Online: What are a few recommendations for recruiting for diversity?

Nahm: I would first stress that an organization needs to build an inclusive culture before it starts recruiting for diversity. But once you've got the culture where you want it, there's so much opportunity for companies to recruit with diversity goals. A lot of people say that diversity is a pipeline problem. I would say that companies can absolutely find the talent they want if they are willing to be intentional about it. Companies can be proactive by going outbound and building relationships with diverse talent pools so a diverse slate of candidates can be considered. Second, make sure the recruiting team is diverse. Not only recruiters, but hiring managers, and anyone who takes part in the hiring process. If you have a diverse group of people making the hiring decisions, you're automatically diversifying the points of view in the hiring conversations. Third, start early with talent development. One of the ironic consequences of so many companies investing in hiring for diversity is that it has gotten really competitive to hire diverse talent. You've got to get more creative, and build personal relationships with talent when they are still in school, in boot camps or working in other industries. Send your people to meetups on certain topics, or send them to conferences to tell their story and the story of the company. Candidates want texture and authenticity. If you can match that appetite for authenticity with things you are doing that are authentic, you will have an edge over competitors that are just trying to fill a diversity quota.

SHRM Online: What are some of the lessons you've learned working toward your diversity goals at Lever?

Nahm: The hardest lesson was how long things take. I was the only woman at Lever for two years, when we started with a dozen people. It was frustrating to try to take things that were just buzzwords and really make it show up in our day to day. We certainly tried to make it a priority during those early years, but I saw us deprioritizing a lot of things we had committed to as a team.

A continuing hard lesson is understanding that whenever you take on a new diversity initiative, the previous ones don't just go on auto-pilot. You've got to keep investing in it. We spent a lot of time diversifying gender on our R&D [research and development] teams, and then realized our sales team had an incredible gender misbalance. There was one woman closing business as an account executive. We went to her and asked her what she would like to see done about that. She ultimately became an inspiring success. That experience taught us the power of storytelling to launch D&I initiatives. The first thing we did was tell her story. We published it to all of Lever's different channels. Organically, it became a powerful way for us to signal our intention to candidates we were talking to in our talent pool, women out there who didn't know about Lever and to our own employees. A year later, the sales team has around a 50-50 gender ratio between men and women.

It's tough, because when you care, you can look around your company and quickly see all the things that you might call gaps or imperfections. The depressing part is that it takes a long time to create change because you're talking about people's behaviors and mindsets. You have to have patience and stick with it. The companies that continually invest in this are the ones leading the way. 

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