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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

How to Tell If a Company Actually Cares About Diversity and Inclusion, According to Ellen Pao

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A lot of companies talk about diversity and inclusion. But it’s not always easy to decipher whether they’re also walking the walk.

Ellen Pao has experienced this firsthand: When she was considering a role at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, her future boss’s pitch to her included the fact that it “was one of the few VC firms with women, and he wanted to bring even more onboard; diversity was important to him,” she wrote in her memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. She took the job. But several years later, she sued the firm for gender discrimination.

When you’re looking for a new job, how can you try to understand whether a particular environment will truly be diverse and inclusive? How can you be sure that a company not only hires people from all different groups, but also values their contributions, makes them feel included in a meaningful way, and considers them the equals of other employees in pay and opportunities? If you’re trying to evaluate where a company stands in terms of progress—and to what extent it’s devoted to moving forward—how can you do that before accepting an offer?

These days, Pao is the CEO of Project Include, a nonprofit organization pushing tech startups to include more—more energetically and more broadly. We asked her for some tips on finding a company where diversity and inclusion are more than just talk—and where you can thrive.

3 Ways to Tell If a Company Really Cares About Diversity and Inclusion

So you’re looking for a company that takes diversity and inclusion seriously. What should you do during the job search and interview process?

1. Check Out Who’s in Charge and How the Company Presents Itself

It’s easy to say you’re working on diversity and inclusion, but if those words aren’t backed up with evidence, they don’t mean much. So look at who’s in charge, Pao says. Are there all kinds of people in leadership and on the board? Or do they all look the same? If the executives and investors are a homogenous group, it “indicates a lack of attention to important areas of inclusion.”

Then look at the company as a whole and its employees across all levels. “Go to the company website and look for diversity on the team,” Pao says. “Are there people on the team or in the photos on the website from different racial backgrounds?... Do they talk about diversity and inclusion anywhere on the website?”

2. Look at Their Track Record

One of the best indicators of what a company and culture are like in the present is what they were like in the past. So do your research on the company’s history. “You can do searches on Google for the company name and ‘harassment,’ the company name and ‘racism,’ the company name and ‘lawsuit,’” Pao says, “and see what kind of controversies they may have been involved in and see if you feel comfortable with how they’ve handled it.”

3. Ask the Right Questions

You can come right out and ask about diversity and inclusion in your interview, Pao says. “Like, ‘How do you think about diversity and inclusion?’ or ‘How is diversity [and] inclusion part of your company culture?’”

Want to dig deeper than that once you know for sure that they want to hire you? “After you get the offer, ask them to tell you about a hard situation involving diversity and inclusion and how they addressed it,” Pao says. “No matter how well-intentioned and how inclusive their values, there will be some hard conversations and issues that come up. And the biggest thing is not hiding issues, but addressing and resolving them in a transparent way.”

In other words, you shouldn’t expect that a company has never encountered any problems. Instead, you’re trying to gauge how your prospective leaders and colleagues react to those problems and talk about them. “That question can show whether the company is committed to having uncomfortable conversations and resolving issues or whether they kick the can down the road and try not to deal with it right away,” Pao says.

5 Red Flags to Watch Out For

Since it’s unlikely that anyone nowadays would come right out and say they don’t care about diversity and inclusion—most folks are smart enough to know better—you’ll also need to keep an eye out for potential red flags that may be more subtle.

1. They Blame the Pipeline

“I think it's listening closely to how they talk about diversity and whether they blame the pipeline,” Pao says. If they’re saying, “Oh, there aren't enough women out there, or there aren't enough black engineers,” or “It would be great if more of the computer science students were coming from underrepresented groups,” she explains, what they’re doing, at least in part, is removing the responsibility from their own shoulders and placing it somewhere else.

“See if they seem authentic and see if they are actually making an effort,” Pao says. “If they feel like there are external forces to blame, then they probably aren't doing much about it.”

2. The Office Doesn’t Look Very Diverse

You can hardly get a full picture of diversity just by looking around, but you can glean some initial and important clues. “See how many people from different groups are in the office as you walked through [and] whether they seem to be connected with other employees or they're sitting by themselves or they're not in conference rooms in meetings,” Pao says.

Consider inanimate hints, too, including decorations. “At Reddit at one point, all the posters on the walls were men,” says Pao, who was CEO of Reddit for eight months. “When we moved, I was like, ‘I don't think this is going to help us in trying to hire more people from different groups, so let's try to think more intentionally about the artwork we put up.’”

3. The Social Culture Makes You Uncomfortable

Find out what kinds of social activities are going on at the company. “Is there a heavy drinking culture, if that’s something that you’re not comfortable with? Often drinking cultures end up leading to uncomfortable situations and it’s often part of a lot of harassment situations,” Pao says. “So are you comfortable with having an open bar at the office? Are you comfortable if all of the activities are alcohol-related?”

4. You’re Expected to Spend All Your Time at the Office (and You Don’t Want to)

Does it seem to you like everyone’s expected to be at the office all the time, working long hours and socializing primarily with one another? Ask yourself whether that’s something you really want, Pao says.

“Or are you expected to form friendships and connections outside the office?” she says. “Which would give you more freedom to not have to fit in in a specific way at that company.”

5. The Interviewer Asks About Your Salary History

It’s now illegal for some or all employers to ask candidates about their salary history in several cities and states including New York City, Louisville, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, and Washington. The goal of such laws is to ensure that historically underpaid groups don’t see pay gaps perpetuated by employers basing their offers on past salaries. (If you live in a place covered under one of these laws, here’s what you can do if you get an illegal salary history question.)

But even in places where the law doesn’t prohibit inquiries about past salaries, Pao says she might consider it a red flag if someone asked. “That’s kind of, ‘I’m not paying you by what’s fair, I’m paying you by how little I think I can get you for, because you’re possibly not making as much,’” Pao says. “It’s not definitive, but that would be a red flag to me to understand what their compensation process is. Do they have bands? Where am I falling in the bands? What are they basing it on?”

No list of questions and clues can capture everything about how a company handles diversity and inclusion. It can be hard to tell whether a company is truly committed in exactly the ways you find meaningful before you actually start working there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to find out—and if you know what to pay close attention to, you can learn a lot more than you might think.