7 secrets of highly diverse companies

Diversity's a major issue in IT, but some companies just seem to 'do diversity' better than others. What's their secret?

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Diversity (or lack thereof) in the IT industry is big news, and companies like Intel, Facebook, Google and Twitter are announcing they'll make greater effort to attract, hire and retain candidates from underrepresented groups, as well as publicly monitoring and tracking their results. But it seems some companies' initiatives are more successful than others. So, what makes some firms so good at improving diversity?

They use technology effectively

There's plenty of recruiting software solutions aimed at helping companies attract and hire a more diverse workforce; one such option is Entelo and its Entelo Diversity solution. Entelo Diversity works in conjunction with a company's existing suite of recruiting and hiring tools, which leverage big data, analytics and social media data to screen and source candidates. "Entelo Diversity is a Web crawler that uses a proprietary algorithm to aggregate profiles from publicly available information," says Entelo CEO Jon Bischke. Its solution uses what's already indexed to create a more in-depth profile of a candidate, and then look at certain data points that could signal whether candidates are male, female, black, Hispanic or a veteran. For example, is the candidate a member of the NAACP? That could signal they're African-American. Or, if the candidate was a member of a sorority during her college years, the assumption it's a female.

Related Story: Are tech giants really diversifying their workforce?

They make education and training a priority

Most employees, in any industry, attend at least one diversity-focused training in their career. But one-off seminars and day-long continuing education classes are often forgotten as soon as attendees walk out the door. The trick is integrating diversity into the daily experience at work, and helping employees develop critical thinking around issues that affect them, their co-workers and the business as a whole. "A lot of our training goes into helping clients apply diversity awareness and apply that on a daily basis in their organization, make it sustainable," says Rafael Solis, co-founder, senior vice president of product and chief marketing officer of collaborative learning solutions platform Braidio. One exercise they use in trainings is to have attendees pretend they're seated on an airplane with an empty seat beside them. Then, participants are shown a series of pictures of different potential "neighbors" and they are asked to notice how they react to certain people. This, in turn, allows Braidio to expand on that -- from race, gender, ethnicity, age, dress -- into their own biases and assumptions and how they might or might not bring that into workplace interactions with peers, customers and with management.

They constantly question their own assumptions and biases

Companies that "do" diversity well aren't afraid to examine and acknowledge their own preconceived notions, assumptions and biases, and then work to address those if they're negatively impacting diversity in the workplace. These organizations are continually asking themselves if they're unconsciously excluding potentially great talent because of unconscious bias, and then looking at what they can change internally to rectify those blind spots. Charles Eaton, CEO of the Creating IT Futures Foundation, the philanthropic arm of CompTIA, which aims to increase diversity in all areas of the IT industry, shared a particular anecdote about one particular client who was very concerned that he wasn't hiring many women -- this client ran a small managed service provider and was very engaged in hiring more female engineers. When Eaton's team started looking at his interview process, it turned out that the first question he was asking everyone in an interview was, "What kind of gaming rig have you built?"

Related Story: How unconscious bias impacts IT recruiting and hiring

It's human nature to gravitate toward what's familiar, and to repeat what's been successful in the past; seeing your biases and understanding their impact on diversity is a crucial factor for success. "In this case, he'd hired a few very successful, very high performing male engineers who happened to be avid gamers. They both had their own custom-built gaming rigs at home; this person had made the assumption that, to be a great engineer, you had to have this interest, this skill set, and wasn't aware until we talked about it how negatively it was impacting talent acquisition," says Eaton.

They work hard at being diverse

Unconscious biases, the IT skills gap, incredible competition for talent, cultural mismatches, a lack of diverse applicants, a homogenous pipeline - working towards diversity is hard work. Companies that succeed in diversity recruiting and hiring know that diverse candidates aren't just going to show up on their doorstep; the company has to make an extra effort. "You must actively search for and recruit from underrepresented groups. Are you looking into the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers? Do you have a corporate partnership with Women in Technology? Look hard at local chapters of these organizations. It'll require more effort and energy, but that's what it takes," says Eaton.

Related Stories: CIO.com's Women in Tech

They recognize a broader definition of diversity

For enterprise training solutions platform Mindflash, an emphasis on unorthodox leadership is where diversity starts, and that "outside the box" mentality filters through the whole organization. Diversity here means not just race, sex or education, but work experience and background, too, says Mindflash CEO Donna Wells. Two of the company's recent hires include a former restaurant manager and a professional cyclist -- not exactly the prototypical IT background.

Skills can be taught; attitude and demeanor, communication, teamwork and negotiation. Those are much more endemic and harder to teach "We've learned we can have great success, great outcomes by focusing on attitude and soft skills during the interview process. We look for passion, discipline, innovative thinking, problem-solving skills and teamwork, and then we know we can train for the rest of the tech skills," Wells says.

They get buy-in and commitment from the entire organization

It's great when a company's CEO and executive leadership makes a public commitment to increasing diversity; when they release their current internal diversity statistics, admit they have 'a lot of work to do' and vow to do better. But that kind of organizational change must be echoed through the entire organization, or it's just lip service.

"Emphasizing diversity has to be intentional, and there has to be buy-in from the entire organization. It can't just be the CEO -- there's not enough transparency in that office for accountability. It can't just be a grassroots effort, because of that same lack of accountability and a chance their hiring preferences will be overruled," says Eaton.

They put measurements and metrics in place to track success

To solve the accountability problem, companies like Pinterest, Facebook and Intel have put specific initiatives, metrics and rules for diversity hiring in place -- like the Rooney Rule, which requires at least one woman and one underrepresented minority must be interviewed for every open position, or for every senior position, at a company. A key part of maintaining diversity and measuring the success of such programs is data and accountability.

Programs like these are a good first step. Braidio uses metrics to track engagement for their classes, and also success and completion. They offer toolkits for attendees that will help them directly and immediately apply what they have learned in their day-to-day work life. "All of these are ways to make sure diversity isn't just an afterthought, that it's front-of-mind for everyone, every day," says Solis.

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