Global HR leader reveals the science behind belonging

by Emily Douglas27 Oct 2018

Software giant Atlassian is making a name for itself - not only in regard to its emerging technologies but its overwhelming commitment to inclusion and equality. HRD spoke to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity & belonging at Atlassian, who talked us through how her background prepared her for such an intense role and revealed once and for all how you can measure the ROI on inclusive hiring.

“If I had my way, my title would be a little different,” prefaced Blanche. “Firstly, I’m on a one-woman crusade to get rid of the word ‘diversity’. In our 2018’s State of Diversity report, it showed that people were more likely to associate underrepresented employees with the word ‘diverse’. There’s this assumption that diversity doesn’t include folks from majority groups. You’ll hear people make remarks like ‘Oh, I had a diverse candidate in here’ – when there’s no such thing as a diverse person. You can be underrepresented as an individual but not diverse - only teams are diverse. Instead, we talk about balance and belonging. A lot of companies are focused on the concept of inclusion right now, but as at Atlassian we simply don’t think ‘inclusion’ is good enough.”

Blanche likened the phrase to being invited to a party just because other guests dropped out. To be ‘included’ is like saying ‘Well, I guess it’s fine you’re here’. And it’s not acceptable, at least not in Blanche’s eyes.

“That’s not the party I want to hang out at,” she quipped. “Let’s focus more on belonging. Everyone can sympathise with that dread of not being part of something, of feeling unconnected. Compare that to a moment you’ve felt a part of a team, when you know your colleagues have your back. What’s more, when people feel that way their different perspectives influence not only the work they’re doing but also the products evolving out of it.”

Blanche’s enthusiasm for this ‘science of belonging’ is infectious, managing to steer well clear of any corporate jargon or buzzword generics. Her own personal background shaped this path she’s on to help Atlassian, and by extension other businesses, to embrace the shifting zeitgeist.

“I always say I’m a quadruple minority,” she laughed. “An LGBT, Latino woman with multiple disabilities. So, when you’re underrepresented yourself, there’s a real passion there. I’ve been so incredibly lucky in my life to get a good education, to travel, to work at incredible companies. My guiding principles come down to sharing opportunities to create easy access for others. What drives me to stay is the

enthusiasm I see around me every day. I have the title ‘Head Of’ but in reality, it takes hundreds of my colleagues to help bring this important work to life. And you can’t help but feel amazing when you see all of these fantastic ideas coming out from your employee base.”

All this commitment to investment in diversity doesn’t come cheap. And whilst it’s ethically and morally the right thing to do to promote an equal workplace, we do need to factor costs into the equation – specially any measurable ROI.

“Doing direct causal identification isn’t always possible,” explained Blanche. “We don’t know that one investment led to one particular dollar that Atlassian made. But what we do know is that building more balanced teams is a catalyst for greater innovation. Scott Page showed that diverse or balanced teams are more likely to find the solutions to prevalent problems, and the individual members of those teams actually become smarter in the process. For example, we recently went through a big brand overhaul. The team that worked on the illustrations and images were incredibly diverse. And what you see is that now, for the first time, our brand reflects the diversity of our global customers. That was a gap for us in the past. Now they’ve taken to including racial diversity, cultural diversity, age and body size, to ensure all of our customers were represented through us.”

In fact, research from MIT shows that when you believe your organization is a meritocracy, you’re actually more likely to make biased or discriminatory decisions.

“The sector overall has a very fixed mindset,” added Blanche. “Studies have found that companies which exhibit a strongly fixed mindset have been shown to have significantly less representation of women, ethnic minorities and older workers.

“One of the things we encourage at Atlassian is to encourage contributions of underrepresented people here – because we want everyone to imagine themselves as building the future. The best way to do this is to show them who’s a part of it right now – which isn’t just one type of person.

“For us, it always comes back to our values. Before I joined, I thought it was corporate spiel – but I’ve actually been amazed to hear the values being cited day in day out. We want our employees to go out of their way to help the people around them, whilst also having fun. Having a respectful, positive environment in a culture is something the industry needs to be mindful about.”

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