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Do enterprise social networks hold the key to solving the lack of diversity in tech?

It's common knowledge that the tech sector has a problem with diversity, but could enterprise social networks turn the tide?

For anyone with even a passing familiarity with the tech scene, it won’t come as a surprise to hear the sector seems to have a problem with diversity and inclusion. Gender representation, especially in senior management roles, continues to be unbalanced despite a number of interventions intended to address the issue.

The industry’s giants are cases in point, with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella promising an overhaul of HR following claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, and Google’s annual diversity report revealing more progress is needed. Change doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but the increased prevalence of discussions like these at least show an apparent commitment to improving the culture of the workplace.

However, in the wake of these positive steps from senior management to improve the culture and makeup of the tech sector, other news has shed a light on an additional issue. In short, in April 2019 an internal Yammer conversation at Microsoft went public, concerning staff who are openly questioning the value of diversity within the company. Over 4,000 members of staff getting viewed the post with over 600 comments, lines were drawn and sides picked, with management wading in to the debate to try and quell the maelstrom.  

Yet what is perhaps most interesting about this story is less the opinions of the individuals who have involved themselves in the issue, but more the means via which these opinions were shared – enterprise social media.

There is a good selection of these communication and collaboration tools on offer to companies of varying sizes, but whether it’s Teams, Slack, Workplace by Facebook or Yammer, they have the potential to be the vehicles that carry company culture, whichever form that may take.

These enterprise social networks are often praised with their ability to give diversity and inclusion a huge boost within organisations. Being able to communicate to your business more widely, and more importantly to listen and to be seen to act on this information, is hugely powerful and engaging. And when managed properly, a network is truly co-owned, everyone has a voice and you can hear from those who perhaps haven’t been heard from enough so far.

It really can work in practice too. One Microsoft employee used Yammer as a platform to publicly announce her gender transition, and to ask for the help and support of her colleagues to address her in a way that makes her feel comfortable, included and accepted. The response she received was overwhelmingly positive and supportive, demonstrating the progress made with inclusion and diversity and how employees were living the values of the organisation. 

Another example can be found at Rolls Royce, where a social network group focused on mental health and wellbeing has been transformational for the business. Ray Harrison, Intranet Specialist at the car manufacturer, spoke of how “It’s given people suffering from these issues an opportunity to raise awareness within their teams and organisation. That means the organisation talks more about these issues.” Talk was soon turned into action, with the brand now running bespoke Performance Culture training. As part of this, participants are asked to use a mood elevator, designed to allow people to pinpoint where they sit at any given time on a scale of feelings. The descriptor for the lower end was ‘depressed’. 

The enterprise social network gave people the chance to challenge this use of the word, and to ask if that was empowering sufferers, or if, in fact, it was supporting the stigma of mental health issues, and not acknowledging what it was really like to live with depression. In response to employees questioning the term, the label was changed to ‘deflated’ or, ‘overwhelmed’ to help with the de-stigmatisation of mental health in the workplace, offering a voice to those who wouldn’t have necessarily had one before.

Examples like these are numerous and it’s hardly a surprise when brands are keen to shout about them. Yet while there is a huge potential to effect positive change within organisations, the flip-side is companies need to be equally as responsive to opinions that might go against the grain or official company line, as recently demonstrated at Microsoft, or back in 2017 with James Damore at Google.

While it might not be ideal for stories like this to break into the public domain, the real issue at hand is one of culture. Just like in the ‘real world’ of wider society, fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion is no simple undertaking. It’s messy, there are conflicting views, and sometimes even the best intentions can go awry. 

Because, what is diversity after all? Mainstream media has certainly zeroed in on the idea of gender equality in terms of representation and pay, and combating prejudice on basis of race, religion or heritage has become increasingly well-established (although there is always more that can be done). But what the latest conflict coming out of Microsoft encapsulates is also a diversity of opinion that plainly demands acknowledgement. 

While it may seem preferable to have every employee singing from the same hymn sheet, a genuinely strong culture has to be able to withstand differing opinions and conflicting perspectives. And as one of the vehicles via which employees communicate and create workplace culture, enterprise social networks are key to developing this strength.

In other words, despite instances of ‘bad’ PR like this, it’s important to remember that even supposedly ‘negative’ groups and conversations are no less of a sign that an enterprise social network is delivering value. Besides, it’s surely better to be slapped in the face on Yammer than stabbed in the back on Glassdoor. It might not be the sentiment you’re going for, but it does hold a certain real-world legitimacy worth bearing in mind. Because while nobody wants to admit to having a problem with diversity, at least knowing about it provides the opportunity to address it and, ultimately, to resolve it.

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