5 ways to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment

Story by Meg Cressey 
Photo by Olivia Hall

There’s no question that tech companies have a diversity problem: According to Business Insider, among 23 of the country’s top tech companies, African Americans made up less than 10 percent of employees at all but two, and all of the companies had a majority of male employees.

So it was refreshing that the theme of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry ran throughout the Seattle Interactive Conference this year.

As Todd Bennings, a senior product designer at Starbucks, noted in his SIC session, “This isn’t something that should be left to the people who are underrepresented. It’s something we all have to do.”

So, as marketers and storytellers, what can we do?

Storytellers are not “doctors saving lives on an operating table,” said MJ DePalma, senior global channel marketer and content strategist at Bing. “But [as storytellers] we can change minds and opinions on the way people are treated and seen.”

DePalma and Bennings’ sessions provide valuable insights and actionable items for improving diversity and inclusivity, both at the larger company level, as well as within a specific team role.

At that micro level, Bennings said UX designers in particular can create a more inclusive environment. First, designers love creating curated, personalized experiences for their customers; that means they need to practice empathy and understand who their customers are and what motivates them. The way designers tackle products also provides opportunities to have the tough conversations about diversity and inclusion. And at the heart of their role, UX designers are human-centered.

“Our job is to fight for the user, who cannot represent themselves,” said Bennings, meaning designers already have plenty of practice speaking up for people who aren’t in the room when decisions are made. “In other words,” Bennings said, “you are made for this.”

Pulling back to the macro view of a company, DePalma presented a business case for increasing diversity in an organization. Companies with higher levels of diverse employees are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above median; they see productivity go up 20 percent, and see employee turnover decrease 20 percent. Although these kinds of numbers resonate in business settings, both DePalma and Bennings noted that no one should have to make a business case for diversity.

“Diversity isn’t good for business,” Bennings said. “It’s just good.”

Companies as a whole also need to practice what they preach. DePalma used Subaru as an example of a company that gets that credo right. Subaru found a niche market in lesbian consumers, and embraced it. They quickly began targeting their ads to that community. But they also practiced what they preached: Subaru was one of the first U.S. companies to offer domestic partnership benefits to employees.

So, how can you create a more diverse, inclusive environment at work and out in the world? DePalma and Bennings suggested a number of actions you can take today:

  1. Take unconscious bias training (like this free eLesson from Microsoft), or take an implicit bias test from Harvard’s Project Implicit.


  1. Form employee resource groups. Microsoft has a number of resource groups, including groups for LGBT employees, women, Hispanic/Latino employees and people with disabilities, all of which have the goal of creating networks of support and building a supportive work environment.


  1. Extend your company’s code of conduct beyond the office walls. “There’s no ‘work life’ or ‘personal life,’ DePalma said. “There’s just life.”


  1. Make sure that a multiplicity of perspectives are represented in your next project meeting.


  1. Prepare to feel uncomfortable. That’s OK! Change is tough. Your own perspective might be challenged, and you might fact conflict or push back from coworkers.


“Storytellers have the ability and responsibility to make positive change happen,” Bennings said. “This is a long-term thing. Keep testing. Maybe it’ll happen in version two, or maybe version 13.” Above all, he said, we have to keep trying.

“Being an ally means action,” said DePalma. “It means showing up.”

Alex Stonehill5 ways to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment
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