Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield details approach to sustaining an inclusive workforce

 techcrunch.com  4/17/2018 5:00:52 PM 

In light of the tech industry’s last year of one sexual harassment scandal after another, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield says the company has had active conversations about the issues. However, Slack has not made any specific policy changes at the company. While no overt cultural issues at Slack have hit the mainstream, Butterfield says he recognizes that Slack is not immune from them.

“As we get bigger and we exist for longer, the greater the likelihood that the actual problems of the world will be present in Slack too,” Butterfield told TechCrunch.

He added that he’s proud of what Slack has accomplished but that he also wants to be careful not have Slack put up on a pedestal.

“We exist in the actual world — if we all agree that this world has some systemic issues, and it’s sexist and it’s racist — that’s not going to stop when people walk into our office,” Butterfield told me. “I don’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it. There are things we can do about it but people are coming in here with their own life experiences.”

Part of that action is around continuing to release diversity reports, which Slack is doing for the third time today. Slack is still a predominantly white workplace, but the company has made some progress in the areas of global employment of women, women in technical and leadership roles, and representation of black and Latinx people.

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Slack’s workforce is now:

  • 44.7 percent female, up from 43.5 percent last year
  • 12.5 percent underrepresented minorities, up from 11.5 percent last year
  • 6 percent underrepresented employees in leadership positions
  • 8.3 percent LGBTQ
  • 1.4 percent identify as having a disability
  • .85 percent identify as veterans.

While Slack doesn’t break out intersectionality itself, a closer look at the EEO-1 report makes that possible. Slack says it didn’t break this out on its own due to the lack of statistically significant results. I, however, find it socially significant.

For example:

  • Slack employs just 19 black women, 21 Latina women and 16 women who identify as two or more races
  • White women make up 54.6 percent of Slack’s female employee base
  • Black and Latina women each make up just .03 percent of Slack’s overall employee base.

Notably, Slack does not have a chief diversity officer nor anyone specifically tasked with overseeing diversity and inclusion. The company has considered bringing one on board, but Butterfield says he wants diversity and inclusion to be a “companywide responsibility that everyone is engaged in,” he said. Still, Butterfield said that could change in the future.

Meanwhile, Slack has been home to a number of outspoken diversity and inclusion advocates, so it’s notable that some of the more prominent ones are no longer there. The likes of Leslie Miley, Erica Baker and Leigh Honeywell — three people from underrepresented groups in technology — have gone their separate ways. They all said they were moving on as a progression of their careers, but it’s worth pointing out that Slack is not immune to some of the problems that exist in the wider world and the tech industry (as Butterfield mentioned to me). In Baker’s farewell Medium post, she hinted that upward mobility was a challenge at the company.

With that in mind, Butterfield says his job is to inspire people and reiterate that diversity and inclusion is important to him and “deeply baked into how we want to operate,” Butterfield said.

Slack tracks its attrition rates, and as a whole, Slack has an attrition rate of about 8.5 percent annualized, Slack VP of People Robby Kwok told me. Miley left last January, followed by Honeywell in April and Baker in June, but Slack says it does “not see anything that is out of the ordinary based on any one of those categories” (country, job level, job function), Kwok said.

“I think, more broadly, treating each other well, treating our customers and our contractors well, but basically setting the standard of behavior overall, that ideally will have a positive influence on businesses across the board to the extent that we’re successful,” Butterfield said. “Because when people see success, they copy what they think the ingredients are.”

Some of Slack’s more proactive measures include partnerships with Code2040 and the Transgender Law Center. Slack has partnered with Code2040 for the last few years around hiring, but this year it’s taking the partnership some steps further. Slack will continue to serve as an employment partner of Code2040 while also helping to create a curriculum to help their engineers be more successful once they get hired at any tech company. With Transgender Law Center, the idea is to create and deploy ally training specific to the transgender community.

“I think we’re a generation behind on policy and legal issues with respect to trans people versus where we are with the first couple of letters of LGBTQ in the U.S.,” Butterfield said. “There’s a lot of open policy questions.”

Transgender Law Center, Butterfield said, has the expertise while Slack is able to offer some of its employees to contribute to the curriculum’s development. Once the curriculum is developed, the idea is to share it with companies all over the world, Butterfield said.

“Because that was one of the conversations we had really early on with Ina Fried, that there wasn’t a playbook,” he said. “If you were a business owner or executive and you wanted to do a better job supporting trans people, there wasn’t any kind of resource to turn to to learn how to do that, so I think that will be a really impactful effort.”

Slack has also confirmed equal pay and promotion rates across gender and race. Based on Slack’s analysis, Kwon said the company did not have to make any changes to compensation or promotions.

Since its inception, Slack’s goal has always been to not be “one of the places where people fall out of the industry,” Butterfield said. “This is not a complaint about the pipeline, but there are fewer experienced black software engineers in the hiring pool than there are black people in the population. The only way that’s going to change is if people land in environments where they can thrive and they can be successful and can bring people in from their networks — they can act as mentors.”

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