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4 Simple Steps To Building a Diverse Workplace: A Case Study

June 3, 2021

How Mailshake Increased Their Female Applicants from 8% - 25% in 4 Steps

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:

  • Their executive team transitioned from 100% white to 50% white and non-white; and,
  • Female engineering job seekers increased from 8% percent to 25%. 

Mailshake also experienced more intangible, but equally important benefits of increasing cultural diversity:

  • Increased job satisfaction and employee engagement; 
  • Better performance and decision-making because of diverse perspectives; and,
  • Employee retention increased with greater diversity.

Let’s back up and explore what led to Mailshake recognizing the need to make their company a diverse workplace.

The Mailshake team
The Mailshake team.

 

How Mailshake Accidentally Built A 10 Person Company That Was Dominantly White Males

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 Patel is the co-founder of Mailshake and a key champion behind making Mailshake more diverse.
Sujan Patel is the co-founder of Mailshake and a key champion behind making Mailshake more diverse.


The Decision To Make Mailshake More Diverse

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.

Benefits Of Hiring Diverse Talent

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:

  • Employees who believe their company supports DE&I report an 83% improvement in their ability to innovate.
  • Diverse teams are 60% better at making decisions. 
  • Companies earn 30% higher revenues per employee with inclusive talent practices.
  • Gender and ethnically diverse companies are 15% and 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, respectively.

 

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. 

Mailshake Homepage Screenshot
Mailshake, an email automation company.

 

Four Steps To Making Your Hiring Process More Diverse

Here’s how Mailshake increased diversity within their company by implementing these four simple steps into their hiring process.

Step 1: Diversify where your company sources applicants

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.

Mailshake would source candidates from job boards like:

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.

Kickstart Careers is a job board specially aggregated for emerging, female engineers.

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.

 

Step 2: Write job descriptions that are neutral and only include must-haves

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. 

Audit job postings for overly gendered 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. 

Remove the unnecessary requirements

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. 

Share DE&I efforts within job postings

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.” 

 

Here was the process Sujan and his team followed to make their job postings more diverse and inclusive:

  1. Start with a wish list and cross out everything that isn’t essential;
  2. Only include the three-to-five requirements that are a must-have;
  3. Remove masculine bias by peer-reviewing your descriptions; and
  4. Share your D&I efforts with candidates. 

Step 3: Remove unconscious biases during the interview process

Generally, people’s intentions regarding their hiring practices are not bad. However, unconscious biases are hard to spot until their effects are obvious. 

 

Everyone has a say in who's hired

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.

 

For more on unconscious biases watch Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO of consultnetworx, a staffing agency, address stereotypical hiring practices in her TEDx talk. 

 

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. 

Remove names from job applications

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:

Step 4: Provide mentors that will support new employees through onboarding and continued development

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. 

More benefits of providing mentors to diverse employees include:

  • Invites discussion around diversity issues in the workplace;
  • Provides direct lines of communication between business leaders and employees of diverse backgrounds;
  • Encourages mutual understanding of each other perspectives;
  • Develop new skills and gain access to new training;
  • Builds their professional networks;
  • Builds a strong company culture and a diverse workforce, 
  • And much more.

 

"Mentorship has to happen organically" - maybe not

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. 

Together's mentorship software makes it easy to run diversity and inclusion focused mentoring programs.

 

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.

 

How to Make Your Organization More Diverse and Inclusive

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.”

Source applicants by using female-focused job boards

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%.

 

Bringing diversity to all roles

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.”

Setting the example

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.”

Just get started in one area and branch out

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.”


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