HR & Leadership

What Companies Should (and Shouldn’t) Be Doing About Diversity Right Now

January 11, 2021

Editor’s note: In light of the heartbreaking events that happened in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, we’re re-sharing this article.

On May 26th, one day after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, protestors marched in the streets of Minneapolis demanding justice. The day after that, activists held protests in cities all across the country, eventually expanding to reach countries all around the globe.

These events brought age-old problems to the forefront, and—even in the midst of a pandemic—they moved people to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, both individuals and businesses had to confront the deep-seated issues of racism, discrimination, and lack of diversity.

Some people and businesses are doing better than others.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Winston Tuggle, a senior HR business partner at HubSpot. As a Black man working as an HR business partner, Winston was able to offer unique insight into how his company’s response measures up. The short version is that he feels HubSpot has done a good job, but like most companies in Boston, they learned a lot of lessons the hard way about creating space for Black employees and putting in the work to drive change.

Take action

Everyone needs to start somewhere—and, as Winston stressed, action is always better than inaction. Taking action is hard. It can be scary. But it’s only by taking action and working through the discomfort that we can hope to effect lasting change. Words are not enough. Talk is meaningless. We need to get in there and do the work.

But where do we start?

No one wants to get it wrong. (Spoiler alert: Many of us will get it wrong, and that’s still better than doing nothing.) And the truth is that there is no one right way to tackle the complex, volatile and systemic problem of racism.

We can, however, learn from each other and find a way forward together.

5 things HubSpot did right

Since the protests first began, organizations from all industries and sectors have been making statements of solidarity, announcing immediate policy changes, launching long-term initiatives, and pledging financial and other support to the cause.

IBM halted investments in the facial recognition software used by police forces. Airbnb partnered with civil rights organizations to launch “Project Lighthouse,” which includes a dedicated effort to investigate and prevent discrimination on its platform. Netflix added a permanent Black Lives Matter genre to its lineup, and committed to donating $100 million to directly support Black communities.

In his HR role at HubSpot, Winston is close to both the larger conversation around racism, diversity and inclusion, and his company’s response to it. A big part of his job is supporting employees and managers as they navigate really difficult situations and conversations. He’s also directly involved in helping company leaders address employees appropriately.

He shared with me five specific steps that HubSpot took to address these important issues both internally and publicly:

1. Created opportunities for conversation

In alignment with the idea of action always being better than inaction, HubSpot took immediate steps. “As soon as the tragic event of a Black man essentially getting lynched for eight minutes happened, HubSpot responded by creating opportunities for people to process and discuss what had happened,” said Winston.

Some of these initial events went better than others, but the point was that HubSpot didn’t look away. Despite emotions being high, they made the commitment to address the painful issue head on, and they learned from each event so that the next one could be better.

“The initial conversations provided Black employees a safe space to connect, process and speak openly about our reaction to recent events, and also our experiences at HubSpot provide an opportunity to connect and be open and honest in a space where we’re not necessarily seeing each other often,” Winston explained. “It was an opportunity to talk about the events, and also our experiences at HubSpot.”

2. Provided allyship resources

In a complementary effort, HubSpot provided all their employees with an allyship guide that included educational content about how to be better allies and anti-racist. They also shared these resources publicly. They sent out an allyship guide that included educational content about racism as well as guidance around what not to say and how to appropriately and effectively address and acknowledge what Black employees might be feeling or experiencing.

These efforts worked well to give HubSpot employees a solid foundation to develop understanding and empathy, which ultimately leads to action.

3. Created a clear internal plan

HubSpot created a clear, strategic plan that included doubling down on some existing initiatives and launching some new ones. The plan was not only vetted by the company’s Black employees, it included a lot of ideas generated by Black employees.

The plan includes a major accountability element that will help the HubSpot team track and measure what they’re doing to address the Black experience for employees, customers, and partners over time.

4. Joined the conversation on social media

Within days of the first protests, HubSpot was fully engaged in the public dialog about the Black Lives Matter movement and why it matters. As we’re all learning, being silent is being complicit—and it only helps the oppressor, not the oppressed.

So, the HubSpot team took to Facebook and Twitter to make statements of allyship, invite conversation and share resources. They also made a point of amplifying Black voices such as Roberto Blake, Roxane Gay and Erica Joy.

5. Published a letter from our CEO

Finally, HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Halligan, published a letter on Medium titled Black Lives Matter: An Open Letter to Our HubSpot Community in which he shared how he’s processing what’s happening on a personal level while also talking about the broader responsibility companies have to walk the walk. The letter includes a link to a compiled collection of anti-racism and allyship resources, and a commitment from Halligan to revisit HubSpot’s progress—both wins and losses—each June for the next five years.

This commitment and support from top-level executives is important because creating real change requires changing the behavior of every single person in the company. And driving that kind of holistic change requires strong leadership.

5 things HubSpot did right

3 exercises any organization can use to open the conversation

HubSpot’s efforts and commitments offer strong examples of actions that might be applicable to a lot of different organizations, but many companies might still be unsure of how to get started.

As many brands have learned (sometimes the hard way), the stakes are high. People hesitate because they’re worried they’ll make a misstep and jeopardize the respect of their extended community.

But, again, taking action—even if it’s imperfect—is better than standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to address the issue. With that in mind, there are three exercises we can all do, as individuals and organizations, to ground our actions and provide a strong foundation from which to make good choices:

1. Look in the mirror

Before you do anything, take a good, long, critical look in the mirror. “Companies aren’t introspective enough about where there are issues,” Winston said. “They get caught up in what other companies did or didn’t do when what they really need to do is focus on themselves and figure out what they need to do—as a company and as individuals—to help drive real change.”

This kind of internal assessment needs to happen on two levels: grassroots and top down. At the grassroots level, give people the ability to have the necessary conversations. And then bring in the leadership to back employees up.

“If leaders aren’t brought in, your efforts will just be a bunch of one-off programs,” Winston said. “They won’t align with true business initiatives. You need leaders to use their power to drive change in their companies.”

2. Listen

In the business world, the standard way of tackling any problem is to get a bunch of people in a room and start whiteboarding a strategy. But with issues like racism, there’s an important step that comes before hashing out solutions: listening.

“Diversity and inclusion aren’t business issues you can solve overnight,” Winston said. “It’s a journey that’s going to take years and years and years. Progress to undo what’s been done over the history of the United States has been very slow.”

That said, Winston advises companies to take the time to listen: “The first step to getting the strategy right is to listen. And if you don’t have Black and Brown employees, listen to people outside of your organization. Read articles. Watch movies. Educate yourself.”


3. Measure your progress

As with any initiative, establishing the right benchmarks and KPIs is critical to holding the team accountable and ultimately achieving progress toward a goal. From the outset, it’s important to identify specific goals and the metrics needed to measure against them.

Winston warned that you can’t expect to see quarter-over-quarter or even year-over-year movement right away (again, this is a long game), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put the framework in place now to hold yourself accountable later.

You definitely should. HubSpot’s released its diversity data publicly over the past four years as both a commitment to transparency, and to hold the company accountable for driving meaningful change.

5 missteps to avoid

In addition to sharing HubSpot’s particular experience and thoughts on general actions people and companies can take to address systemic racism, Winston also had some words of caution. Sometimes, the most important information you can have is knowing what not to do in a situation.

1. Don’t avoid the topic

No one wants to get in trouble, but simply pretending the problem doesn’t exist (or, worse, assuming it’s someone else’s problem) never solved anything. Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable. That’s kind of the point.

As Winston pointed out, “The more people talk about race—over and over again—the more they lean into their discomfort, the better off we’ll be as a country and as a company and as a people. So don’t avoid the topic, even if you don’t know what to say.”

Winston suggested using “I feel” statements during difficult conversations to try to shift away from absolutes and soften the presentation of different perspectives. And he recommends initiating conversations on a regular basis to make them part of your company operating model and culture.

2. Don’t ask your Black employees for the “answers”

Another common misstep that Winston sees is organizations asking Black employees to figure out what the company should be doing. While it’s essential to involve Black employees in the conversation (and listen to them), putting the burden of developing a solution on them is completely inappropriate.

Black people are tired. While many white people are just waking up to the reality of systemic racism, Black people have been living in that reality for a long time. They should not be asked to bring everyone else up to speed or single-handedly fix the problems they’ve been battling for generations.

3. Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable

While Winston is clear that company leadership needs to be involved in addressing these issues, he’s not saying that they need to have all the answers.

“People feel like they can’t speak on the issue unless they know what to say,” he explained. “But the best thing a leader can do is say, ‘I know this is an issue, but I don’t know what to do. I’m going to take some time to figure it out and address it and make sure we get this right.’”

Being vulnerable and showing empathy go a long way toward letting people know that you’re really listening and really thinking about the issue.

4. Don’t do one-off programming

Don’t fall into the trap of approaching a deeply ingrained issue like racism with a surface-layer initiative that isn’t truly aligned with the company. Hiring a director of diversity and inclusion or starting a racism-focused employee resource group aren’t bad actions in themselves, but they need to be part of a larger strategy.

“If you actually want to drive real change, you need to put some investment behind it,” Winston said. “You need to put some energy behind it. You need to put some thought behind it. You can’t just launch a bunch of one-off programs that make you feel like you’re doing something even when they don’t move the needle in the long term.”

5. Don’t focus only on hiring

On a similar note, Winston said that it’s not enough to put all your efforts into hiring initiatives. People often make the mistake of thinking that they can solve a diversity issue with the right hiring practices. But the problem goes beyond that initial hire.

“I push people to make sure their environment is inclusive before they put more effort into hiring people from underrepresented backgrounds,” Winston said. “If your culture and your processes and just way of being isn’t setting someone up for success, you’re actually doing that person a disservice by having them come in, feel like an outsider and like they don’t have the right mentorship to be able to grow in the organization.” And that’s a recipe for failure on all fronts.

5 missteps to avoid

Get ready to be in this for the long haul

One of the biggest and least-asked questions about how companies should address diversity and inclusion is how to sustain ongoing efforts over the long term. As Winston pointed out, this isn’t a situation in which you can expect a quick win. We all need to be signed on for the long haul, which means maintaining momentum over a long period of time.

“I’m scheduling a tweet for six months from now that says, ‘Where is everyone? Is everyone still talking about this?’ And I guarantee it will hit well,” said Winston. “Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I worry that companies will lose momentum when this isn’t such a big topic of conversation in the news.”

To avoid having your efforts peter out, take two deceptively simple steps:

  1. Create a structure of accountability
  2. Share that structure widely, both with employees and the public

The idea is that putting something out there will motivate you to follow up and follow through because other people will be holding you accountable. It’s not enough to take action behind closed doors—you need to put yourself out there, take a stand and then make sure the issue stays top of mind.

As Winston said, this is a very complex problem for which there is no easy solution, and maybe no solution at all. But that doesn’t mean we just walk away. And that doesn’t mean that we do a little something now, in the heat of the moment, and then—when we can’t immediately solve everything—move on to the next thing.

This will be a long road, but it’s one we’ve been on all along. Some of us just didn’t realize it. Now that we know, it’s time to commit to the journey and make change together.

It’ll be hard work, but it’ll be worth it.

More resources

Partner at OpenView

Casey leads the end-to-end strategy & programming for OpenView’s network of industry experts, advisors & corporate partners. Her role is focused on creating connections between founders & their teams and the partners, advisors, board members & events they need to reach their goals. Additionally, she manages the OpenView portfolio peer networks and hosts the #WeeklyWalk series.