WHEN UBER RELEASED its diversity report in late March, the tech and business press responded with a collective long sigh and declared the report more of the same. But the report was actually not business as usual; it showed progress in areas where larger tech titans are lagging.
The ride-sharing company has struggled to address issues of sexism and gender parity, with reports of harassment and discrimination. Uber’s diversity report shows that only 36 percent of the workforce are women. But there is one area where Uber leads, and that’s in its hiring of people of color. The latest diversity report lists a 12,000-person Uber workforce that’s 8.8 percent black and 5.6 percent Latino.
This is the first time a major tech company has provided diversity numbers showing black employees in greater numbers than Latinos. It’s also the first time a company’s black employee share has passed 5 percent, which is inching closer to the 13 percent of blacks in the US population. Uber’s percentage of Latino employees also exceeds that of many other tech companies.
For example, Uber’s workforce is more diverse than at Google, where 2 percent of employees are black and 3 percent are Latino, and at Facebook, where 2 percent of staffers are black and 4 percent are Latino, per those companies’ 2016 diversity reports. Uber is a younger company with fewer resources, partnerships, and money allocated to the cause of diversity. Given the tales of Uber’s hard-driving and intense culture, and sometimes questionable business practices—which would normally put a damper on recruiting—what’s the company’s secret?
Sure, prospective employees may be attracted to a pre-IPO company. But credit Uber’s success in diversity to the type of workers it hires. Bernard Coleman, Uber’s new diversity officer, says, “The company is largely operational, so there is more opportunity for people of color and women to join the ranks and ascend.” Because Uber relies on customer service and other operations-based and non-technical roles, it hires for more positions that don’t require STEM degrees.
Uber has been criticized for not following the lead of other gig economy companies, like Instacart, by providing its hourly and independent contractor workforce the opportunity to become employees. This gives the illusion of disproportionately penalizing people of color, which make up a large segment of the driver population. However, Uber hires drivers to fill support agent and management roles, which helps its diversity statistics. And the practice may gain traction even faster now, with drivers seeking to unionize and a Brazilian judge ruling the company must classify and treat drivers as employees.
When Uber hires a driver into a corporate role, it promotes growth and builds loyalty, and that bears fruit in retention. This model could be replicated in other tech companies that rely upon a large independent contractor base (e.g. Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash). Similar results could be realized with tech companies promoting their support staff to managerial or larger non-technical roles. If executives could partner with or sponsor pipeline programs and technical job skills-based training programs that attract black engineers, companies would get the skills they want, while the students would get real-world experience and a job after graduation.
Uber’s innovative candidate review process, called Bar Raiser, also ensures candidates receive a fair assessment. It also pushes interviewers to question their perception of candidates. After a candidate comes in for an interview, the interviewers gather to discuss the candidate in a meeting that’s mediated by someone who didn’t meet the candidate, doesn’t know the candidate’s ethnicity or gender, won’t work with the candidate, and has no vested interest in the outcome, according to MoMo Zhou, corporate communications manager. The Bar Raiser mediator, who receives training in order to participate in the program, leads the group in probing questions—have you talked to the candidate about this type of work, did you ask a follow-up question, why do you feel this way, consider another viewpoint. “The point is to have different views, different values, and different opinions,” Zhou says. “We consider what questions are asked? Are we assessing the right things? And what does culture fit really mean?”
Uber is making advances in this arena in a way that other tech companies have failed. The company’s diversity report pledges three things that are very much in line with the rest of the tech community: first, making more outreach and recruiting efforts to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions—schools where at least 25 percent of full-time are Latino—for more black and brown workers; second, better partnership and integration with the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and third, donating $3 million to organizations that support creating more opportunities and training for women and minorities in tech.
Uber and other tech companies can further increase their inclusion numbers by making inroads with organizations like MotherCoders, which provides training and childcare to moms who aspire to work in tech; The Links; and 100 Black Women and 100 Black Men, all organizations of degreed, professional, civic-minded African-Americans.
Since the tech industry is dedicated to disruption and novel concepts, companies that embrace these types of partnerships, and implement these hiring changes should see the same results. I know the industry is game for the challenge.