Part 2: Building Cultural Diversity at the Workplace Through Inclusion

*Editor’s note: Download our full Diversity and Inclusion Handbook for more than 70 pages of tangible strategies to help you cultivate diversity and inclusion on your team.

We believe passionately that diverse and inclusive companies make for more innovative, engaged, and happy teams, and we speak with forward-thinking talent leaders all the time who feel the same. We’re writing this series on how to cultivate diversity and inclusion in the workplace because people are ready for the next level of discourse around diversity and inclusion; one aimed at actual solutions. In it, you’ll find tactical advice, beneficial resources, and examples of what you can do today to make real progress in diversity and inclusion. Read our series introduction to see what we cover throughout the series.

Creating Cultural Diversity in the Workplace

Conversations about solving the diversity problem in tech typically start as, “How do companies hire more minorities?” But some of the most successful diversity efforts don’t start with hiring at all.

They start with inclusive cultures. Otherwise, you simply compound your diversity issues with retention challenges. If your culture doesn’t welcome and develop diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, what will make those hires stay?

I was the only woman at Lever for two years when we were getting off the ground. In my entire career in tech, I’d often been the only woman, the only minority, the only “outsider” with my title. It wasn’t until a second woman, minority, and outsiders joined Lever that I saw many of the challenges I had faced all along being the “only” one. And it had nothing to do with hiring. Rather, my thoughts back in those early days were about creating an inclusive culture that made Lever a place where talent of all different backgrounds actually wanted to work and could succeed.

Building an inclusive culture that attracts diversity is a business question as well. A study by McKinsey (just one of many such studies tying diversity to better business outcomes) found that gender-diverse companies were 15% more likely to outperform their national industry median, and ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to outperform. [Learn >ore: Improve Gender Diversity at Work]

Before jumping into allocating resources towards diversity recruiting, we recommend you first turn your focus inward. Stop and think about whether you have a culture that will help you retain all great talent, whether they happen to be underrepresented or not.

From our internal efforts at Lever and in speaking to leaders across many companies, we’ve found two elements that serve as the backbone of inclusive cultures. 

Equality in the day-to-day

Every company will claim to be a meritocracy, but it takes a hard, honest look at yourself to determine whether all of your employees truly have equal access to rewards and opportunities. Realizing you have room for improvement shouldn’t be shameful. Most organizations do. It’s what you do with the realization that matters.

Who’s picking up the slack for administrative work?

Many companies and HR teams have rightfully focused on compensation and promotion policies as a driver of equality – and I’ll visit that topic later in this blog series. But fairness also manifests itself in smaller things, like who’s taking on more of the extra administrative work, planning team offsites, and even doing chores around the office. In their joint piece in The New York Times, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant noted that women end up doing more of the “office housework,” and get little payoff for it. “Someone has to take notes, serve on committees and plan meetings — and just as happens with housework at home, that someone is usually a woman.”

I saw this unfold at Lever shockingly early, when we were around 10 employees. There was a lot of work to be done that was nobody’s job: the communication, organizational, and operational work. For a while, I fell into a pattern of running around, handling as much as I possibly could on top of my “normal” workload, cajoling and nagging people to do what I asked to share the load. Eventually, I noticed other women on the team similarly picking up a lot of the slack and chores. I realized it wasn’t just about me; it was about gender.

Once we noticed it, we changed it. The whole team — men included — was receptive to hearing about the situation and generating ideas to fix it. We even created a dish duty rotation, to make sure the whole team shared in that responsibility.

What behavior do you reward, and how are promotion decisions made?

Consider who’s being listened to, recognized, and promoted in the organization, and how those decisions are made. Is it the people who put in the most time in the office? The ones who self-nominate for promotions? The loudest voices in the room? If so, who are you inadvertently holding back? Employees with childcare responsibilities may need more flexible hours. Meetings are often dominated by a few assertive voices, so people with softer communication styles may have great ideas that go unheard. And as Sheryl Sandberg notes in Lean In, women are less likely than men to nominate themselves for promotions, so they may lose out on advancement opportunities.

They key to equality in the workplace is looking at all scopes. Even the most well-intentioned companies can find discrepancies between the equality they want and what’s actually happening within their organizations. Only when you open yourself up to finding these inequalities can you take steps to fix them.

Feedback loops, open communication, and empowerment

Lever has grown a lot in the past few years – 10x since we first started talking about diversity in our team three years ago. That scale has made evolving the culture a necessity, but also a challenge. As we’ve grown, the culture has become less and less something I can directly impact or solely control. And that’s as it should be; company culture that is truly embodied by its people isn’t built from the top down. Your employees know better than anyone else what’s working and where there are areas for improvement, but that information won’t emerge unless you ask them.

Every company with serious intentions to support diversity should create safe spaces for employees to share their concerns openly. They should know who they can go to for questions, ideas, and criticisms related to diversity and inclusion, and it must be someone with visible support from leadership.

One way to do this is to create programs where employees can share their experiences in a supportive space. Initially at Lever, we created a diversity and inclusion task force, and every month, an employee would volunteer to lead a session. We’ve hosted forums around “beginners’” education for diversity and inclusion supporters (white men feel passionately about this too, and want to know what part they can play), and discussions about hidden parts of our identities. We held one session called “A Soundtrack to a Life,” in which people shared songs that were meaningful to them, which was a surprising vehicle to open the conversation to an acknowledgement of the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of employees’ upbringings.

Every taskforce meeting ties back to diversity and inclusion in some way. Some meetings let us directly discuss ways to improve diversity and inclusion at Lever, while others simply help us gain an appreciation for where our colleagues are coming from. They all contribute to an ongoing effort to make Lever a place where every employee can belong.

We also recently created our first position dedicated to diversity and inclusion fulltime, giving us the opportunity to listen even closer to feedback that Leveroos give us about current efforts or ones that they would like to see come to fruition.


Culture is self-reinforcing; you tend to get more of the same unless you make a concentrated effort to change it. But you can change it. Culture is serious business, and people care about it. From the C-suite to management and employees, everyone will want to hear how to make it better.

Preserve the aspects of your culture that are unique, remove those that stifle creativity and innovation, and introduce elements that empower diversity of thought and expression. Pay close attention to who you hire, promote, and fire, and how you run meetings, make decisions, and celebrate wins. All of this affects how well diverse employees can thrive.

Ultimately, the most powerful sign that you are an inclusive place to work is when underrepresented minorities and women can look around and see people like themselves succeeding. Are there people from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions? On promotion paths? If that’s happening, then you really have proof.

For more, read our next post on setting the right diversity goals, and download our Diversity & Inclusion Handbook for hundreds of impactful tactics like the ones above.