Companies that aren’t intentionally hiring for diversity will quickly slide into a homogenous workforce. Mailshake, an email automation company experienced this first-hand. After building their company for four years they realized that it was mostly white males. They wanted to become a more diverse company and they did so through a simple process that any company can replicate.
This case study will break down the process into four steps, but first, let’s look at what Mailshake accomplished after creating a diverse workplace:
Mailshake also experienced more intangible, but equally important benefits of increasing cultural diversity:
Let’s back up and explore what led to Mailshake recognizing the need to make their company a diverse workplace.
Sujan Patel is the co-founder of Mailshake and a marketing leader who builds SaaS companies. He’s helped hundreds of companies grow with his most recent venture being Mailshake.
He grew up in southern California where diversity wasn’t something he thought about. His school and neighbourhoods always had members from diverse backgrounds. It wasn’t until co-founding Mailshake that he realized diverse organizations aren’t built unintentionally.
In their first four years, Mailshake was like any other startup. They were hustling to keep their business running, serve their customers, and grow their team. They didn’t actively think about diversity while growing the company until after four years Mailshake had 10 males, one female, all of which were white except for Sujan who’s Indian.
“We looked around the room and it wasn’t diverse enough. We all felt like, ‘what the heck?’”
Sujan and Mailshake’s CTO, Dave Donaldson knew they wanted to make their organization more diverse. And they wanted to start with engineering because that was where they were having the most difficulty sourcing diverse candidates.
“When you look at your own company-wide Zoom calls and see mostly white males, you realize pretty quickly that you have to do better. More diverse employees leads to other perspectives and experiences, which leads to building better products, and ultimately a better company.”
In order to change they had to contend with the fact that women are underrepresented within engineering. Women make up only 13% of the engineering workforce in the United States according to Harvard Business Review. In addition, women are also less likely than men to apply for roles where they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications.
If it wasn’t challenging enough, a LinkedIn study on job search behaviours between men and women revealed that “women tend to screen themselves out of the conversation and end up applying to 20% fewer jobs than men. What’s more, women are more hesitant to ask for a referral from somebody they know at the company.” The problem with creating diversity within a company starts with the hiring process.
Mailshake wanted to do better than the industry averages and Dave knew that in order to introduce more gender diversity into engineering roles they had to do so intentionally. The benefits of having diverse talent on the team were clear and to remain competitive Mailshake had to change their company to bring equal opportunities to diverse groups.
There’s no benefit to an organization where everyone is the same. It stunts innovation and leaves companies uncompetitive. It’s well documented that diverse organizations are stronger. The benefits of diversity include:
Making Mailshake a more diverse and inclusive workplace was the right thing to do and Sujan knew the change would start with their hiring process. Sujan and Mailshake’s leadership team wanted Mailshake to be an example of how other organizations could become diverse and inclusive without having to adopt complex and resource-intensive diversity initiatives.
Here’s how Mailshake increased diversity within their company by implementing these four simple steps into their hiring process.
Building a startup requires speed and talent. And finding the best people takes time which startups don’t always have. Sujan captures the pressure startups face to find candidates when he shares that they “need roles filled yesterday.”
“We didn’t think about diversity in hiring [early on], we just needed roles filled.”
For that reason, it can be easy to ignore taking diversity into account when sourcing candidates.
The combination of overwhelming pressure to find the right people and having a shortage of diverse talent leads to a monoculture company.
“We had a pipeline problem. Not enough women were applying for engineering roles.”
The solution Mailshake found was to find diverse talent on job boards that support females.
Using these job boards worked so well for Sujan and his wife that he decided to create his own as well. He created Kickstart Careers to provide another outlet for women to find jobs from top tech companies.
Using these platforms and other job boards to source female and minority candidates helped fix Mailshake’s pipeline problem.
After building a more diverse pool of candidates, Mailshake transitioned to adjust the language they used in their job postings to attract diverse talent.
Sujan and his team found that Mailshake’s job descriptions had language with a masculine bias. For example, their job descriptions would include masculine language like “you must have a strong background in…” rather than “have a working knowledge in…” This would stunt all their efforts from using diverse job boards as non-male candidates could be put off by the language.
To solve this problem, Sujan tasked a female copywriter to review and edit their job descriptions. She coached Mailshake’s team on how to write more neutral job descriptions. Additionally, they would circulate the posting around to their team (especially to other female employees) and get their feedback. The result was job descriptions without gendered bias.
In addition to adjusting the language of their job descriptions, Mailshake removed elements that weren’t truly necessary for someone to have in order to succeed in the position. Because women tend to self-disqualify themselves if they don’t meet all the job requirements Sujan didn’t want to risk losing high-quality candidates because of a laundry list of unnecessary skills and experiences.
You may have come across memes that show job descriptions asking for more years of experience with a particular tool than the tool had actually existed. There are several reasons for absurd, mile-long requirements like inexperienced hiring managers or companies willing to wait for a perfect candidate that doesn’t exist.
Sujan wanted Mailshake to be as welcoming as possible to female candidates or candidates from diverse backgrounds. To do this, they started with their wishlist of skills for the open position. Then, they would cross out all the nice-to-haves and only include the essential skills and experiences. Sujan share’s the change their hiring philosophy underwent:
“Remove all things that are non-critical to the actual job. Identify the 3-5 must-have skills and only include those.”
This change in philosophy goes against long-winded job requirements that are unreasonable and unnecessary. They weren’t making their job requirements more lenient, they were being more honest about what they actually needed.
After they had a job description without bias and only included the essentials, Mailshake would share a section on their efforts to become more diverse and inclusive in the job descriptions.
“It isn’t a canned PR blurb. D&I is critical to us at Mailshake. The paragraph [at the bottom of the job description] sums up what we changed about our hiring practices.”
Generally, people’s intentions regarding their hiring practices are not bad. However, unconscious biases are hard to spot until their effects are obvious.
Sujan and his team wanted to make sure that everyone in their organization had a say in who they hired while also removing any biases. Any candidates that passed their first-round review by the leaders and managers would have their names and locations removed before being reviewed by the rest of the team.
The decision to practice blind recruitment led to candidates receiving objective feedback based only on their skills and qualifications.
Since Mailshake was a smaller organization at the time they could self sensor each other for unconscious biases, but as organizations grow it becomes more difficult without having guardrails to guard against bias in recruiting practices.
Many companies, in recent years, will incorporate tools that remove names, locations, sexual orientation, and other characteristics that could lead to an unconscious bias among recruiters. They’ll use blind hiring software like:
After Mailshake made their hiring process more inclusive and diverse, they began pairing new engineers with mentors during their onboarding period. Connecting both new and seasoned employees is critical to driving diversity and inclusion through mentorship. It provides visibility to diverse employees and gives them guidance that is crucial to their continued professional development.
Mentorship can be misinterpreted as something that happens organically and can’t be forced by companies, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Talented employees crave development and want to have people in their network they can go to for guidance, advice, third-party feedback, and counsel. But it can be awkward to ask someone to be your mentor - even more so if you’ve just joined the company and you’re a diverse employee who may feel the pressure of having different backgrounds.
Many companies organize employee resource groups (ERGs) for this reason.
Employers encourage inclusive workplace diversity by introducing mentorship programs because it ensures everyone has a mentor. Starting a mentorship program should be a high priority for employers serious about not only making their applicant pool more diverse but also building an inclusive corporate culture.
When reflecting on their company before they made their team more diverse, Sujan admits that the problem of diversity and inclusion can be overwhelming.
“The problem of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is so big that it deters people from starting. In fact, The problem was much more simple than we thought.”
Through diversifying where they find new applicants by using female-focused job boards, removing bias, using neutral language, and providing mentorship opportunities to all employees, Mailshake increased their female engineering applicants by 25%.
Moving forward, Mailshake has begun seeking out more diversity in its sales roles following the same recruiting process. Sujan notes that they are trying to change slowly but sustainably starting with its hiring process.
“It’s not solved, but we have a process. This process helps us write better job descriptions, place applicants in the right places, and interview them without bias. These simple efforts help to level the playing field throughout our organization.”
Mailshake wants to be an example for other companies that want to make their organizations more diverse. Sujan reaffirms the simplicity of the challenge saying that,
“We spent three weeks and tripled the diversity in our candidates.”
Sujan’s advice to other businesses building diverse and inclusive organizations is to not think about solving the whole problem but just get started in one area and branch out from there. In doing so, you’ll quickly make a difference that your teams and employees notice. We’ll leave you with a reflection from Alessandra Colaci, VP of Marketing at Mailshake.
“The moment I realized how Mailshake truly has made an impact on diversity is when I was describing the company to a friend. I mentioned the actions the leadership team takes to increase diversity and it was like a breath of fresh air talking about how different the culture felt compared to other companies I’ve worked for. What has made a difference is specific actionable steps and a process to follow when hiring at Mailshake.”