Building Sustainable Diversity through Belonging & Inclusion in The Workplace
Welcome to the first episode of All About HR! The podcast & video series for all HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organizations and learn the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders.
Our guest is Lorraine Vargas Townsend, the Chief People Guru at A Cloud Guru – the largest online training platform for people interested in Information Technology. Lorraine is an expert in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and has made it her life’s mission to develop people-first HR policies to go beyond tokenism and build an inclusive, anti-racist workplace.
In this episode, we talk about everything related to DEI, from building an inclusive workplace, tokenism, unfair pay, to how it feels to be the only minority person in a boardroom meeting.
In this interview, we cover:
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- The key pillars of a successful, inclusive company culture
- DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to DEI
- Cutting out antiquated policies and addressing unfair pay
- How to spot and avoid tokenism
- 3 ways to increase diversity in your organization
The tech industry is not known for its diversity, yet A Cloud Guru has been named the Best company for diversity by Comparably. In a recent video shared by Lorraine for International Women’s Day, it is said that only 17% of the tech workforce identifies as female, and less than 10% of those women hold leadership positions. Watch the full interview to discover Lorraine’s insights on inclusive workplaces and their approach to inclusion and diversity.
Find out what you can do to speed up the DEI progress at your organization!
Neelie Verlinden: Lorraine, welcome to this very first episode of All about HR! I am super happy to have you as our first guest.
And I think what we could start with is I recently saw that someone describes their Chief People Guru – that was you – as ‘the bomb’. So I was actually wondering, what can you tell us about that description?
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Oh, my gosh, it’s so funny because I never go to Glassdoor looking for a compliment or expecting to see something nice. And my CEO actually sent me that comment and showed me that someone had said that. And I don’t know. Like, I just was so happy. And so surprised. It was such a good way to start my day.
Neelie Verlinden: Perhaps you can say a little bit about A Cloud Guru, for the people that don’t know the company yet.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Yeah, A Cloud Guru is a company that teaches the world to cloud. So basically, we help people gain new technical skills, especially cloud-based certifications, through companies like Amazon and Microsoft Azure, or Google. Basically, we give you additional training to help you have even more opportunities in the tech space, to earn better money, and get better jobs.
Neelie Verlinden: It must be amazing to be working in a company where the company is super aligned with what you want to do in the HR department.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Right. I don’t think there’s a lot of people who have the opportunity to wake up every day and do the work that they feel is what they were put on the planet to do. And to work for a company that is aligned to that same kind of calling. It’s something pretty spectacular when that happens.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. Lorraine, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about the culture at A Cloud guru as well, because I saw that you mentioned it somewhere as basically the company’s secret sauce. So I was wondering if you could tell us something about the culture at A Cloud Guru, and perhaps what its key pillars are in your view.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: We have a really special culture at A Cloud Guru, and one that’s really based on treating people like you care about them. On your first day at A Cloud Guru, someone delivers breakfast to your door. And your first meeting is having breakfast with your new hire buddy. And it sounds so simple. And almost silly, but in the totally remote world that COVID has forced us into doing like little small touches like that, it actually brings people together to make a deeper connection. I think that’s our culture. And we do have pillars that we talk about. We talk about hiring people who are humble or people who want to learn all the things. Obviously, we’re a learning company. So the learning orientation is very high in our organization. But more than just marketing, I like to point to the things that I see as evidence. We have a healthy mix of diversity in our organization. So even on the executive team, we’re half men, half women. We have people of color, we have gay people. Like it’s really interesting to see how lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds can work together and can inspire each other to innovate and collaborate more. And it really starts with our CEO and with our executive team. I think because they started there, and they built this culture on that team, that’s what’s filtered down into the organization. And you can see people being more vulnerable people making deeper connections, really, at every level. And I think that’s the foundation of who we are.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, beautiful. And this is also something that I would love to touch on a little bit later in our conversation today, because I know this is something that you are passionate about, of course, DEI, and I know that you have a lot of super interesting things to say about that. Perhaps a bit of a more general question to start with. When it comes to DEI, maybe it’s interesting to see what you are seeing that companies are getting right, or what is going pretty well, if anything, and what keeps going wrong when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I know that this is very different from one country to another and from one company to another. But maybe you can share something from your experiences with that.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: I think diversity is an outcome, diversity is a fact. And everyone can hire all different kinds of people, you know, and at a moment in time, you might have a really good number or representation that you can put on a graph to say like we’re a diverse company. But what you could potentially get wrong is if you treat everyone like shit inside the company, then you can have diversity at a moment in time. But as you go forward, you have a higher turnover for people of color, you have a higher turnover for women. And I had a friend who worked for a company that had great diversity on paper. They were one of these tech companies who would publish a report every year and put out their diversity statistics. But when you dug a little bit deeper into that company, women at certain levels stopped getting promoted. And they stopped getting promoted, because they stopped accepting promotions. Because at a certain level and above, in the company, women were treated very poorly. And in fact, women would start on the executive team and then just vanish overnight. And because I was working so close to that person, we had a lot of conversations to brainstorm and try to figure out what is actually the root cause and, you know, she told me a story of being in the executive boardroom, have conversations happening that are really impacting outcomes that were happening in the HR department. And the executive team – the men on the team didn’t like what she was pushing on. So they literally got up and went into the bathroom, to finish the conversation where she couldn’t follow them. And it sounds like an old-timey story, like something that would have happened during Mad Men, you know, where you literally get up and go make the decision in the place where the woman can’t go. But that was the kind of culture that it was. And so while they might have had good statistics, they actually had horrible outcomes inside their company. And so I think looking at diversity is just a snapshot. But when you start to look at inclusion and belonging, and the way everyone in the company can prosper and thrive, and you start to look at how you pay all different kinds of people at every level? What is the mix of people that you have at every different leadership level? Are all of the voices in the room equally heard and equally celebrated? And can every single person contribute their own unique gift in a way that feels safe, then you know that you have inclusion and you have belonging? And that actually leads to real diversity that’s sustainable and that makes a difference in your company’s performance?
Neelie Verlinden: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. And by the way, I love the little reference to Mad Men, because indeed, you would think of that series when you hear the story that you were telling. It’s unbelievable. I wanted to continue, I think here about unfair pay, because I had a thorough look at all the things that you shared on your LinkedIn feed, and there are many super interesting things. So I would definitely encourage everyone who’s watching this or listening to follow Lorraine on LinkedIn and to see what she’s sharing. But so one of the things you shared was an article, I think, on fastcompany.com. And this was related to unfair pay. And you said that it’s time to throw out antiquated policies. Well, first of all, perhaps you can talk about these antiquated policies, maybe one or two that you’re referring to here, and then how do you intend to throw them out?
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Sure, look, equal pay it’s really personal to me. Because I spent a lot of my career making half of what my male counterparts make. Really 48%. And it’s really interesting when a company decides to do something like that to an HR person, because we have access to the data, right? Like we can see what other people are making, we know what other people’s backgrounds are. And this was a company that I loved. It’s a company that I grew up in. It’s one who’s very committed to gender equality now, but when I was working there, it was just a bit, still old-fashioned, a bit paternalistic, and they were kind of in growth or evolution when it came to how they treated women. And so I spent 10 years there, and I had a nice career, right. Like, I started out as kind of a peon. I was an HR representative. And I quickly had an opportunity to move to France to lead executive development. I started up strategic workforce planning for them. I traveled all around the world and my career really accelerated because of this company. But still, when I would go back to my boss, or go back to people who are leading the rewards team, and I would complain about my pay, they would do this thing that really just makes me angry, which is like, yeah, we see your point, we see, and we value you. So here’s a 15% increase. Congratulations, aren’t you so happy? And when you know that you’re only being paid half of what your colleagues make, even though 15% is a generous increase by corporate standards, and by HR standards, it’s still just horrible, and it doesn’t feel good. And, you know, I had people who I really believed in, and people who I really followed and was inspired by, but they would tell me things like: “Lorraine, money isn’t everything”. And I just remember going like: “But you’ve got to be kidding. It’s just not fair. And the company is investing in me so much, why would you let me leave over, you know, something like money because I know the company values me and I also really love this company”. So it’s just so weird, it’s a very personal scar. And it’s just such a weird part of how corporations and particularly HR departments have instant institutionalized disparity between people. I think it was the first personal experience that I had, where the profession that I’ve chosen is really complicit. And, you know, doing things that are actually bad for people, so it’s personal. And so when I look at pay equity inside the companies where I’ve been, I really do say: Let’s look at what the market pays for that job. Because this person in front of us who we value and who we think is spectacular, they can literally go outside and get an offer for what the market demands. And if someone doesn’t do that, you have to quit. And I just think that’s also been a big message for me when I’m talking to other women when I’m talking to other minorities who feel like they have a pay discrepancy. At some point. You know, it’s not about your personal power anymore. It’s about political power, positional power. So if positional power comes into play, and the answer is just a cut and dry: “This is our policy, this is what we will do”. Well, now it’s on you to make the choices that you have to make to take care of yourself, to earn the right kind of money that sustains your family and sustains the lifestyle that you want. You have to be brave enough to make that decision. And you have to do it. Like that’s what you have to do for yourself as a person.
Neelie Verlinden: Thank you for sharing that story with us, Lorraine. First of all, however, I think that is also definitely not necessarily easily done. So I mean, you’re the chief people guru at A Cloud Guru. So you’re actually in a position to contribute to making a difference. But what would you say to HR professionals working in companies where they find themselves trying to fight for this but without results? How do you go about this? Perhaps you can give a bit of advice on that.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: I guess I have two pieces of advice. I would say one, stop making talking about money taboo. I think people should openly talk about money, talk about what they earn, talk about the stock options you got or you didn’t get. I think that’s actually one way that allies can help everyone else understand, you know, what’s fair and what’s the market. So I think just being really open and sharing with your friends with your colleagues, and it takes someone doing it first to make it less taboo. And I know it’s very unpopular for HR people, but a lot of things that I will say are unpopular for HR people.
Neelie Verlinden: Which is why we love having you as well Lorraine.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Thank you. But the other thing is always being interviewed. Like, look, this is not, this is not the 1950s or the 1980s. It is normal now to change jobs every 18 months, or even every year. So when you get a recruiter call, when you get an opportunity to interview. Don’t ever stop doing that. I don’t care how much you love your job. It’s a bit about networking, it’s a bit about practicing having those conversations. You don’t want to do something dumb like if you don’t actually intend to change jobs, don’t go all the way to the final interview, and then back out. But, you know, if you want to stay sharp if you want to always know what you’re worth if you want to always be able to talk about what you’re contributing, practice interviewing. And so interviewing will also help you at your performance review time. It’ll help you when you’re giving presentations. If you start to really hone in on like: what is my brand? What do I contribute? What am I putting out into the world? Things start just coming your way. And I’ll tell you what: I think 2021 is going to be the year of the job change. This is the year that people are hiring. This is the year that people’s talent is hot, this is a great time to practice interviewing.
Neelie Verlinden: Thank you so much. I think these are two fantastic pieces of advice. And these are the skills that are always going to be very useful for you within the company. So I really love those two examples. Thank you so much. I’d like to talk about something else. And that is tokenism for a moment. I know that you also have talked about this as well, when we were preparing for today’s conversation, of course. So there is an example that we came across actually quite recently, and I’ll share it with you. And then I’m super curious to hear your thoughts on it. And the example came from a lady that is giving coaching to companies. And so she was having a really great conversation with that company. And then by the end of the conversation, they said something along the lines of okay great presentation. You’re obviously a woman. But for diversity reasons, we would really like it if you have a black male as a coach within your company. So she was very offended by that. And she told them. And by the way, she also told them that she was going to share that story on social media. But we were thinking about that here at HR when we were preparing for this conversation. And we were like: Okay, this is definitely something that’s interesting to talk to you about as well, because I’m not saying that that’s the case in the example I just gave to you. But sometimes even well-meaning companies, they may be unintentionally guilty of tokenism. So, you know, how can they avoid that? What are your thoughts on that?
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: I think the story is from Tara, not the HR lady.
Neelie Verlinden: Yes, exactly. You saw it as well. Yes, yes.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Yeah, I loved reading her stuff. And I’ll tell you what I do because she and I have something in common. When people look at us, they make assumptions. You know, when people look at me, they think: Oh, that’s a white HR lady in her 40s and so I think I know who she is, right? Like, she’s going to be the one who’s telling us to follow the rules, or she’s going to be the one who’s really protecting the company. And they kind of put me in a box. And they don’t realize that, you know, I’m a first-generation American, my family is Colombian, I’m a lesbian, they probably really think that I’m straight. They don’t realize that I’m a high school dropout. And so probably, my perspective is really different than they assume it will be. And that’s the same for Tara. She presents a lot like I do, but she’s also a woman of color. She’s also a woman who has gone through big life events and who is trying to change the face of HR. And so by saying something like that: Oh, we really wish you had a black man. It’s just really bizarre and it shows you the bias that the person who’s talking to you has built into themselves and it shows you the assumptions that they’re making about you in front of them, without them even asking any questions or being curious or learning about who you are or why you’re in this work, and it’s completely offensive. So I think that I really related to her post a lot when I read it. But the other thing is when you are trying to do something, like, let’s just go find a black woman for this position, or let’s just go find someone of color or to put into this situation, you’re not even thinking about what they might go through, you’re not thinking about what challenges they would face or even what would be attractive to them, to make them want to come sit in your presumably, oppressive and exclusive environment. Because if you’re looking for that kind of tokenism, it’s because you have no foundation of belonging, and inclusion, or you would have never asked something so stupid. And so when you think about what happens to people, when they’re the only ones in the room, it’s really difficult. I can say it, as you know, being the only person in the room in the executive team, you know. Let’s say, let’s take the high school dropout point, where I worked at a company where everyone went to Harvard, everyone in the executive team went to Harvard. I’m in Boston, you know, if you are walking outside, in my neighborhood, if you just throw a rock, you’ll definitely hit someone who went to Harvard. So it’s a really interesting dichotomy to be in a situation like this coming from my background, and sharing space with this kind of an audience. And what happens when you’re at that table is that you are under a microscope. Like when you’re the only woman in the room, everyone’s watching your facial expression, everybody’s watching how you respond to stuff, and they’re waiting to judge it. You know, when you’re the only black person in the room, there’s actually a phrase, that’s called code-switching. And it’s what minorities are that people who don’t look like the majority have to do in order to assimilate to the situation where the majority is. So that’s like, where you hear stories of people of color, not feeling like they’re allowed to be angry, or to contradict things because there’s this stereotype of the scary black guy. And they need to make sure that they don’t seem dangerous when they’re in a situation at work, especially if they’re the only one. And so this whole idea of tokenism, it might be serving your diversity metric, but it actually then becomes harmful. And it becomes a burden to the people who have to live in these spaces alone. And I think since the murder of George Floyd, by the government I think all of this has sparked this outrage amongst minoritized communities, not just in the United States, but globally, to say we’re not willing anymore to assimilate to these situations where we’re being oppressed and excluded and the meeting made to change who we are as human beings. And so I think that we’re actually entering into a new phase, where people who have diverse backgrounds, who have diverse points of views, people who have diverse socio-economic backgrounds, they’re not going to be willing anymore to be the token. And so I think if companies don’t figure out how to drive inclusion, and to drive belonging, to remove systemic racism and oppression, from their HR policies and practices, from their hiring practices, from their pay and promotion practices, they’re going to start running out of workforce, because companies like mine, are going to be focused on this. So much so that we’re going to become a magnet and a beacon for diverse talent because they’re safe at our company, because they can grow at our company because they can thrive at our company. And so it’s more than writing a statement. So right now, across the United States, companies have spent a lot of time and money with their marketing department with social media to put out like, you know, a Black Lives Matter statement or, you know, stop Asian hate statement, or to change their logo to a rainbow color flag. And we all know that it’s bullshit. Like it is just something that they’re doing right now, to feel like they’re doing something publicly to offer solidarity to people who are actually legitimately being traumatized and harmed in our society. And what these companies really need to be doing is looking at themselves and going like what are we doing internally to perpetuate the power in our company sitting with the same group of people, the money in our company sitting with the same group of people, the promotion rate in our company, you know, favoring the same group of people. And so I think if companies would just spend a moment to really just reflect, and be willing to make bold moves, to throw out their processes, even if they don’t know what to do instead, but to really take a bold move to make equality and to bring a little bit of social justice into corporate America, it is going to be good for them, it will actually lead to higher profits, it’ll lead to, you know, more innovation, it’ll lead to more creativity. All of the economic studies have proven that that is based around diversity, diverse companies, and it outperforms all the other companies. So if you can actually build safe spaces where everybody can contribute, and where they can innovate, you’re going to lead to better business. So stop being so afraid of it. And HR people are the main blocker, they’re the main resistance, they’re the main area that kind of keeps us tied to our old ways. And what’s changing now, like it kind of started with #metoo, although I feel like #metoo started to fizzle out too fast. But I do feel like we’re having kind of a renaissance of what is the point of this function. And I think there’s a new wave of people, I like to include myself in it. But there are other HR leaders who are out there, and who are really trying to say, like, hey, our number one job is the health and well-being of our employees, it’s about helping them achieve the brighter future that they want to achieve. Because we know that’s good for the business. But our first concern is the people. And I think that’s why for me the title like Chief People Officer or Chief People Guru at A Cloud Guru, I think it really matters, I think it’s a signal to the people, it’s a signal to the company that, you know, we really are here for the people. And, yes, we are also business people. And yes, we care about keeping the business surviving, because if the business isn’t here, then we can’t pay the people and we can’t make great work environments, and we can’t, you know, help them to achieve the brighter future that they want. But for me, and I think for this next wave of HR folks, it is about throwing out the term HR, it’s about recognizing that humans aren’t resources and that if people aren’t at the heart of what you do, then you’re doing it wrong, and you’re not going to be able to meet the expectations that are evolving from the available workforce.
Neelie Verlinden: Lorraine, another thing I was wondering about is when do you think that tokenism ends and representation begins? Because there’s a fine line, yeah? And I can understand that organizations, they have to start somewhere or feel that they have to start somewhere.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: I was on this breakfast panel the other day, where there was an elected official, and she was talking about how important it is for women to run for political office. And one of the men in the audience asked, how can we be allies? Like how can we support it? How can we really be allies for women? And she said, step back. If you’re thinking about running for some office, don’t. Find a woman who you know, someone that you can support, and someone that you can throw your weight behind and go help her get elected. And I do think you’re right, there has to always be the first one in the room. And when I think about the opportunities that I’ve had in my position, I think I have had opportunities to bring up other people, to help them also come into the room. And so I bet there’s a piece of making sure that that first person that you put in the room also has space, and that they’re empowered, and that they’re able to bring other people with them, but also that they’re committed to bringing other people with them. Because sometimes that’s not always the case. And so I think it is a matter of making sure that the people who get opportunities and as you’re really trying to make a step towards diversity, that it is important to them and that they see themselves as people who have that kind of a mission. I think that’s important. It really matters to make sure that you’re putting people in places that want to bring others with them. They have to be the ones who are kind of pulling it. And I’ve always said if you want more women in the workforce, or you want more people of color, you want more queer people in the workforce, just put them in positions of power. And they will bring folks with them. At A Cloud Guru, we’re doing this really big audit to really make sure that we’re drinking our own champagne when it comes to inclusion and belonging and to make sure that all of our metrics reflect these ideals. And this philosophy that we’re talking about this morning. And I was so excited when I started to pull, like, what is the mix of diversity at the different levels of leadership in our company. And it is actually really great numbers, we outperform tech, we’re almost 50/50 at every single level in our organization, including the executive suite. And the reason we’re there is because our CEOs felt like it was important, like our CEO is an Australian guy. He’s, you know, in his 30s. He’s a white software developer, like he’s the most typical tech person that you would ever imagine and he and his brother started this company. But when you look at the executive team that they built, the fact that there’s so many women on it, there’s people of color, then you start to look at the impact that we have as we’re hiring.
Neelie Verlinden: So yeah, I think we are getting towards the end of our conversation today. I do have one last thing, though, that I would really like to ask you about. I was wondering if you have perhaps a challenge that you would like to leave our viewers and our listeners with something to implement in their everyday life.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Yeah, you know, another thing that’s happening during COVID is people are suffering. In the mental health side of their life, I think people who are lonely are really longing for connection. And they’re getting tired, right? Like, it’s just the pressure of being stuck in your house having lockdowns and then opening things back up and then getting locked down again. And it’s just this volatility that’s happening in our actual life. Forget about work, right, like, so forget about work. And just think about the human experience right now. You know, you might get sick, your partner might get sick. You have all of this pressure, and on top of it, you’re just completely lonely. And you’re expected to produce the same amount of work, you’re expected to have the same outcomes, it’s completely unreasonable. So when you think about mental health, right now, the best thing that you can do, as people and culture professionals, the best thing that you can do as a leader, and the best thing that you can do, as a human being a neighbor, or a friend, or a daughter, or a son, is to like actually connect to someone. And I think if you take a moment every day, to not just say like, Hi, how are you? to some other human being, but you actually say like, What are you afraid of? Or what are you excited by? And actually ask a bigger question. That’s deeper, that’s more personal, that’s more vulnerable. And, you know, answer it first. Like, tell people what’s going on with you. That will help you from a mental health perspective, but it’ll also help someone else. And I think that we’re not paying enough attention to the isolation and the loneliness that’s happening around us right now.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So the challenge in a nutshell is to try to really connect to someone else, to another person. So Lorraine, this has been such an interesting conversation. I really loved the things that we touched on. I think we could have gone easily for another hour. I mean, you have so many great stories and examples that you shared. Also, I think A Cloud Guru sounds like a really one-of-a-kind company to work for. So I’m really glad that we got to have this conversation together and that you were our first guest on All About HR, thank you so much.
Lorraine Vargas Townsend: Thanks for inviting me.