Back in the heady days of early March, 2020, before we knew we would be retreating to our caves—home offices—for the next year and change, the Leff team formally articulated a set of organizational values.
Several social and political shifts later, we’re beefing up our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures, starting with our team. But how do we and other small firms know if we’re on the right track, and what organizations can we learn from?
I connected with Haley Hammond, the learning and development manager at M1 Finance, a startup with more than 300 employees, to hear about their approaches to DEI and what lessons their experience could provide for smaller organizations. An abbreviated version of this conversation follows.
Mimi: So, it seems like a lot of DEI work has common goals, but no one quite knows the exact tactics that will work. What’s your team’s theory of what will make your company more equitable and inclusive?
Haley: DEI is not an extracurricular or bonus at M1 Finance. Operating as an organization that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive is integral to our success.
As part of an industry that has historically excluded different groups, we have to be intentional about recruiting, retaining, and developing diverse talent. While many parts of a company culture can happen organically, like inside jokes during all-company meetings or fun intermural teams, we know that we have to intentionally confront biases and create processes and structures that will make M1 an equitable and inclusive place to work. This includes development and training opportunities for all new hires and ongoing training to equip our teams to be comfortable having challenging but necessary conversations. We also use manager trainings to equip them with inclusive practices.
Mimi: Let’s talk about difficult conversations for a moment. How do you make sure that the difficult or awkward conversations, such as about an unpleasant interaction, are, in fact, taking place?
Haley: We can encourage our teams to have difficult conversations, but if they don’t feel prepared for it, it will never happen. So the first step is making sure that everyone feels equipped to be a part of the conversation and setting clear expectations for how the conversation happens. The second step is to create space. Our People Ops team creates a variety of spaces to hold these conversations and acts as a partner in solving complicated issues. For example, we have had difficult conversations with managers around performance review feedback, which were opportunities for managers to develop feedback skills.
Our employee resource groups and DEI programming also serve as spaces for difficult conversations. The ERGs have hosted discussions around TED Talks or articles that relate to their own professional and personal experiences. We recently held a two-part company-wide training with Ethos Talent on compassionate conversations to equip our employees with the skills they need for these conversations.
Mimi: You and I have discussed recent research that shows how minor bias (a small amount of discounting, in a mathematical model) produces really inequitable outcomes over time. What are your current plans and tactics for identifying and counterbalancing the effects of those types of insidious bias in the workplace?
Haley: That research did a wonderful job of explaining and visualizing what many women already know: the bias we face daily adds up. It adds up in ways that prevent us from advancing in our careers, and it adds up in the physical and emotional toll it has on us. While the research focused on gender-based bias, we also have to take into account intersectionality and the factors that multiply bias for women, gender non-conforming people, and nonbinary people of color.
Identifying and counterbalancing the effects of this type of bias are ingrained in the work of our People team. We run implicit bias training, but we know that it can’t stop there. We provide managers with support in hiring, developing, and reviewing performance for our employees specifically to mitigate bias. Our tactics include interactive DEI trainings filled with reflection and actionable steps and hands-on support, where we call out the potential for bias and help managers make changes to prevent it.
For instance, look at how we run our performance review cycle. Leaders on our People team meet with leaders across the company to calibrate their performance reviews with the rest of the organization. With a wider perspective, the People team can point out any concerns around bias and help each manager work through them. For this next performance review cycle, we will be providing coaching to our managers regarding writing reviews so that the feedback is fair and actionable. This coaching—and resources on how bias shows up—can help managers proactively check their own biases.
Mimi: One of the first times you and I discussed DEI, we talked about things like rewriting job descriptions, which the Leff team has done. What are some DEI actions that your team has taken, and how have they changed over time?
Haley: We did an employee engagement survey this summer. With remote work and our rapid growth, we saw an opportunity to improve the sense of belonging. In addition to our DEI task forces, which launched a couple years ago, we launched our ERGs, which create a space for members of different affinities to come together to have fun, support and develop with one another, and shape M1’s culture. These ERGs include Black@M1, Latinx@M1, Women@M1, Pride@M1, and Mental Health@M1. The groups have already planned some really exciting events: fireside chats, happy hours, and mental health training.
Our summer engagement survey also gave us a lot of insight into how people were feeling about benefits and overall work-life balance. Our HR manager, Liz Francis, did an overhaul of our benefits to expand coverage for our employees and their families.
One of the partnerships I am most excited about will support our employees that are growing their families. We partnered with ELANZA Wellness, another Chicago venture-backed start-up, to provide one-on-one wellness coaching around fertility and family planning at no cost to our employees.
Mimi: Do you have feedback from your teammates—especially new hires—about inclusion at M1?
Haley: Every new hire takes an onboarding survey within their first month at the organization. Some of the consistent feedback we receive is that new hires have felt supported throughout their onboarding, including on-the-job training and connecting with others—especially through our DEI task forces and employee resource groups. We also received feedback that, in a way, M1 has our own language, and it can take new hires a minute to catch up. This is totally fair! We are actually in the process of creating a little M1 dictionary filled with not just terms and acronyms that we use but also inside jokes.
I have been able to build relationships across the organization, so a lot of employees feel comfortable coming to me directly with feedback related to DEI. This has been helpful, but we also want a more complete picture of how employees are feeling about inclusion at M1, so we are launching our inclusion survey—an adaptation of our annual DEI survey—next week to find out what is going well and what we can improve.
Mimi: How do you plan to monitor your DEI progress? How much quantitative versus qualitative data will you use?
Haley: The inclusion survey will be a really useful tool in helping us monitor our progress; these surveys actually give us both quantitative and qualitative data. But the survey data are just a jumping off point. Our DEI progress will always be centered around our people: not just their needs but what will help them thrive.