The summer of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd brought racial tensions to a boiling point, forcing America and the rest of the world to confront the country’s history of violence and prejudice against African Americans. In response, companies rushed to announce diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments and establish or improve their DEI or HR teams in order to address the inequities that underrepresented minorities face in the workplace.
However, these initiatives are not new. The challenges that minorities face in tech have been a topic of discussion for over 20 years. In fact, businesses were only accelerating a trend that was already underway. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people with the title “head of diversity” doubled, while jobs for “director of diversity” and “chief diversity officer” climbed internationally by 75% and 68%, respectively, according to LinkedIn. 53% of the Fortune 500 now has a chief diversity officer or other equivalent, with 60 of those roles having been created since May 2020. Despite an investment in hiring for these roles, these leaders are often left with no budgets to execute their initiatives, leading to little progress in actually improving diversity since 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology companies experienced a period of hypergrowth as consumers became more reliant on technology while stuck at home. Companies hired quickly to meet these increased demands, but as the pandemic winds down and the economy slows, tech companies are now laying off the excess staff they hired during the pandemic. According to Layoffs.fyi, there were 154,256 employees from 993 global tech companies laid off in 2022. Twitter’s new CEO Elon Musk cut its workforce in half, Meta announced around 11,000 job cuts in November, and Amazon laid off 18,000 employees in Jan 2023 – just to name a few of the layoffs occurring in the technology ecosystem.
Unfortunately, employees from underrepresented backgrounds are often disproportionately affected by layoffs, despite being in an industry that is predominately dominated by men. At tech companies, more women and underrepresented minorities are employed in non-technical departments such as communications, marketing, HR, etc. These roles are traditionally seen to be more dispensable than engineering or product roles, and the individuals in those roles are often the first to face layoffs, as they are deemed less essential to the overall business.
In other cases, tech companies are applying the last in first out approach to layoffs. If the company’s focus was hiring for diversity in the last 2 years, they are likely to disproportionately impact women and underrepresented minorities through this layoff strategy.
The question is, how can companies do better? Below are questions that leaders should consider:
- When planning for layoffs, leaders should consider the demographics of roles being impacted. Look at what your team composition will look like after layoffs – have you negatively impacted inclusion?
- Look at the impact of the layoffs on the folks who are currently leading your DEI initiatives. Do your employee resource groups still have leadership in place? Who will ensure that DEI goals and initiatives are still top of mind?
- Are you clearly communicating the layoff decision, and taking into account what your remaining employees will feel? Will your remaining employees feel the layoffs were fair and equitable and that the company still cares about inclusion? This reflection is especially important to consider with your underrepresented employees.
- Are you offering equitable amounts of severance pay or at least setting minimum severance amounts?
To fulfill DEI commitments made in 2020, companies should evaluate their culture and assess their current challenges and level of inclusivity. They should ensure that DEI is operationalized into all aspects of the business and not just a nice to have. Despite spending billions on diversity efforts in tech, the revolving door of underrepresented minorities leaving the industry continues. To address this, tech companies should:
- Train their leadership team on inclusive leadership and hold them accountable
- Create an inclusive culture starting with defining core values aligned with inclusion
- Propogate this culture across all processes and functions.
- Creat awareness both internally and externally. The first touch point with any prospective employee is the interview process. Read How to make your interview process inclusive
- Take the core values from step 2 and operationalize them into all aspects of their business including company OKRs, performance reviews, and inclusive meeting practices.
Achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the tech industry is a long-term and collaborative effort that requires a paradigm shift in a lot of aspects of how we run our businesses. Tech companies should focus on building a holistic and sustainable approach to DEI, rather than simply focusing on increasing diversity. To address the systemic nature of the problem, the tech industry must also implement early intervention measures to tackle inequality. While the current state of DEI in tech may appear bleak, companies can actively resist this trend by committing to long-term and systemic change.
About the author: Jossie Haines, is the founder, CEO of Jossie Haines Consulting. Jossie has over 2 decade of experience in Engineering and has led technology teams in organizations like Tile, Zynga, Amex, NetApp. She’s extremely passionate about inclusivity in tech organizations.