Don’t ask about diversity – ask these questions instead

If you identify with a minority community or consider yourself an ally, you probably know this story.

You recruit with a company that raves about how much it cares about diversity and inclusion. When you start the job you get a distinct feeling that, while the company might mean well, they aren’t as inclusive as they bill themselves to be.

During your next job search, you promise yourself, you’re going to identify whether a company is inclusive before you join, not hoping it is after the fact.

The issue is that as diversity and inclusion increases in profile, it becomes at once a huge corporate priority and a business line with (occasionally) not much behind it.

Inquiring minds who want to learn about a company’s approach to diversity and inclusion might not feel comfortable asking the question directly – or that asking directly won’t reveal the true answer. Perhaps you’re joining a young startup or small business that maybe hasn’t had the time to think about diversity and inclusion. It doesn’t mean they aren’t great places to work, but it does stop you from getting that answer by directly asking about diversity and inclusion.

Try these five questions instead:

What is the feedback culture of the company like?

By asking this question, you are hopefully uncovering how the organization, and its employees, respond when challenged, called out, or given constructive advice.

Diversity and inclusion, bluntly, can be messy and personal. An offensive comment or derogatory remark is not fixed by a “business strategy,” but by individuals standing up for themselves, allies supporting them, and management reinforcing the learning. All of this is predicated on people and their ability to take feedback.

If I can’t offer innocuous feedback to my colleague about how to approach a client or suggest they use a cool code workaround I discovered, I highly doubt I could approach them about changing potentially life-long held beliefs that are, however unintentional, discriminatory in nature.

Bonus points: asking this question will show that you are open to learning, a big plus for organizations.

How transparent would you say the company is when it comes to internal workings, strategic decisions, and corporate vision?

This question speaks directly to top-down communication, a crucial factor for creating an inclusive environment, but asks it from the perspective of the individual.

If the interviewer hymns-and-haws, offering a half-baked answer about how the company has a strong vision and everyone really supports it, you might have a problem on your hands where creating inclusive environments is concerned. Without clear and transparent communication funnels from the top down, employees get the message mixed. Good people are then not armed with the corporate messages they need to create a healthy culture on their team, and other folks who don’t care are not reminded of the vision and culture they chose to support by joining the company.

If the CEO can barely tell me why we are in business and where the company is going, there could be an even bigger challenge trying to get the CEO to talk about very personal, high EQ subjects like diversity and inclusion. If I can’t ask my manager a question about my work and get a clear answer or an honest “I don’t know, let’s figure it out together,” I’m even more concerned.

Note: You’ll want to cross reference this answer across a few folks at different levels – the SVP might feel the organization is super transparent while the new junior dev might say otherwise.

An offensive comment or derogatory remark is not fixed by a “business strategy,” but by individuals standing up for themselves, allies supporting them, and management reinforcing the learning.

If I have an issue – from needing a new mouse to wanting to talk over my benefits – how would I do that?

You may want to save this for a later stage (perhaps even after you get the offer), but it speaks to the processes in place for a company when things go wrong.

Every organization can be fantastic when business is good and compliments fly; it’s the bad times when biases seep through and facades fade away. If you ask about these simple accommodation processes and there are none in place or it is very ad-hoc, it could be a red flag because it signals the organization may not have thought about nuances and personal issues – the ones that need to be talked about when someone is concerned they are facing discrimination at work.

By offering a more innocuous example and a range of issues that are not connected (a new mouse would usually be IT, benefits would be HR), you get a better understanding of whether the process is ad-hoc or well defined. Sometimes you also figure out whether the individual knows the process at all, a good indication of the communications process at the organization.

What do you love about your job and what do you hate about the company?

Asking such a blunt question may not be your style, but bear with me for a moment. When you ask this, you learn more about the person you are talking to – sometimes even more than you’d learn by being friends with them.

What people choose to highlight as things they love or hate can tell a lot about the individual and how the organization trains your thinking. Also pay attention to body language – their lips might be saying they love how nice everyone is but their body language might be indicating that they are uncomfortable or seeking an innocuous answer to avoid the question.

This might just be their demeanour if they are not used to being asked this question, but it could suggest that honesty is either not fully allowed, not valued, or the real answer might scare you away – a big problem when you’re assessing whether you’ll be welcomed in that culture.

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What do you think is the greatest risk that the company is facing in the next 3-5 years?

Asking this question actually has two additional benefits beyond a proxy for diversity and inclusion: it shows them that you know how to think mid-long term and it shows them that you are concerned about the organization as a whole, not just your pay and benefits. Both are great for an organization because they need folks who can see the big picture at all levels of the organization.

On the diversity and inclusion front, asking about risks prompts a sense of personal awareness in the interviewer that will be crucial to you understanding their honesty in the other questions you asked. It shows that the individual you’re speaking to (or all of them throughout the process) are able to see some of the big picture as well.

When your colleagues are able to think long term with a big picture mentality, you will avoid the issue that, should you join and bring up an issue that arises, your concern is belittled. A big picture thinker will understand the broader ramifications of a seemingly simple incident, but they will also be able to help calm additional anxieties you might be feeling since they will likely have other experiences to draw on. 

Conclusion

These five questions are not a magic bullet by any means, but they will help dig into the corporate culture a bit more, helping you make an honest assessment for yourself whether you’ll be able to do your best work at the company in question.

If you’re involved in making your organization more inclusive, ask yourself these questions and see what your answers are – it could help you identify challenges in your own culture.

Do you have other questions that you think a great proxy for assessing whether a working environment is inclusive?

Follow Stefan on Twitter @stefanpalios

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