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Storytelling About inside voices with Ekow Sanni-Thomas
Welcome to the Use Case Podcast, episode 137. This week we have storytelling about inside voices with Ekow Sanni-Thomas. During this episode, Ekow and I talk about how practitioners make the business case or the use case for purchasing inside voices.
Ekow is an expert in all things DEIB and incentives. Before founding inside voices, Ekow spent 13 years in corporate finance, largely in real estate, in London and New York. Initially, inside voices was started due to exclusion and racism he experienced firsthand at companies with active diversity initiatives in place. His experience was that they walked the talk, but they did not perpetuate practice through culture and had no accountability to prove this.
Founded in 2020, inside voices is aptly nicknamed “Glassdoor for diversity.” It’s a platform in which employees can anonymously report company racial DEIB performance. This gives candidates a place to review companies from the inside and protect their safety. Additionally, it allows organizations to receive honest feedback from their employees about the state of DEIB within their organization.
His passion to expose racism and inequality within businesses and protecting marginalized individuals really comes through during the podcast.
A few questions we answer today: When addressing a grievance with discrimination, how do we decide whether to focus on the individual responsible or the system in place? How have customers responded to the type of feedback they get from employees? How does a company reconcile unintended consequences of inadequately executed initiatives?
Give the show a listen and please let me know what you think.
Show length: 26 minutes
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Welcome to RecruitingDaily’s Use Case Podcast, a show dedicated to the storytelling that happens or should happen when practitioners purchase technology. Each episode is designed to inspire new ways and ideas to make your business better as we speak with the brightest minds and recruitment in HR tech. That’s what we do. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup and you are listening to the Use Case Podcast. Today, we have Ekow on from ‘inside voices’ and we’re going to talk about the use case for inside voices i.e. the business case for why you would purchase inside voices. Before we get into that, let’s do some introductions. Ekow, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and inside voices?
Sure. Hi William. Thanks for having me. My name’s Ekow Sanni-Thomas, the founder of inside voices. My career is actually in finance. I spent 13 years in corporate finance, largely in real estate, and I effectively grew tired of seeing myself as the, or being the only black face in every room I went into. I’ve worked for firms in London and New York, and I consistently found that there was a lack of representation and particularly a lack of representation at the top. I saw even companies that were able to hire diversely, not able to get those people to stay and promote them. And after the murder of George Floyd last year and the protest that followed, I saw every company releasing statements that were very similar about what they were doing and their dedication to anti-racism and Black Lives Matter. But I knew every company wasn’t doing the same thing, and I realized that without transparency, we are really at a disadvantage, there’s no true accountability.
There’s no way for job seekers of color to protect themselves from organizations, workplaces that really aren’t going to value them despite wanting them because they realize that diversity is competitive advantage hiring. So I set up inside voices, which is an anonymous employee review site, which allows people of color and engaged white allies who care about and think about diversity to review their company and say how the company’s performing at diversity, equity and inclusion, what it’s really like to be there. And then our key question is would you recommend this company to a person of color and why? That’s where we really get the context and the, we get down to the nitty-gritty about what’s this company really like and is this a safe space.
What I love about this and what I love about what, the mission. I mean, I wish we were further along, stated and covered, but we’re here now. And so we have to a deal with where we are is, you really, it’s easy to say that you’re for diversity and inclusion. It’s so easy to put, throw something up on a careers page, put it in a job description, et cetera, and then not follow through. But you mentioned recruiting folks, having them stay so engaging them in retention and then promoting them and doing internal mobility. And years ago, those things were happened behind the veil. No one would know that they would happen or didn’t happen, et cetera. And one of the things I love about you pulling all this stuff and making it transparent is that it’s now out in the open.
So now we’re not going to have any secrets. Secrets are going to be out in the open, we’re going to then, and you know what, the good thing, the good news about that is you can fix it. Now that you know that this is a problem, you now have a wonderful opportunity to fix it. And what the last thing, I think is, I want to get your take on toxic environments. So, one of the values I see of inside voices is not just, because you mentioned at the very end, that created a safe space, which I think is absolutely critical, but it’s also avoiding the places that are absolutely toxic without knowing that they’re toxic.
Yes, and that’s really what drove me to create this. I was actually at a firm that had a very good reputation for ESG, so Environmental, Social and Governance. And racism and anti-racism really falls into the S in ESG. But I realized from being inside the company, that they actually weren’t really paying any attention or even doing what I would consider to be the bare minimum. And I was actually going through, I was in a toxic work environment myself. I was actually going through, I was being discriminated against at the time. And despite being very vocal and basically spearheading diversity at that organization at the time, when I raised a grievance to suggest that I was actually personally suffering, they tuned me out. And I just found that without transparency, without people having to account for the fact that the message, what they did can be heard and remembered, companies aren’t actually accountable to anybody.
So despite what, their reputation doesn’t actually have to match up with reality. And I think, really, the part that is clear, that became clearest to me in that was that I think generally leaders, particularly leaders that are not part of minorities, that are not part of groups that are traditionally oppressed…
… Underestimate the number of negative interactions related to that protected characteristic that a person needs to experience to feel like they no longer want to be part of the company. I think they think that anti-discrimination policies are probably not perfectly effective. I’m sure nobody believes that their policies are working perfectly, but they think they’re doing enough to protect them from a reasonable level. And they think there’s going to be some and that’s just by the by. And I don’t think companies are really realizing that the difference between what the leader thinks the organization represents and what the people on the ground are experiencing doesn’t have to be huge for you to have a significant problem in retaining people of color and minorities.
And so really what we wanted to do with this is expose that gap, expose that difference and try to crowdsource ways to fix it, by being specific about the issues that people are facing in these environments. Whether it be explicit racism from infrequent members of other teams, whether it be feeling like there are no opportunities for people that look like you, whether it just be feeling like the organization does not tailor anything towards the fact that you are different and represent the things that you care about. These things can have an impact on how different people feel included within these organizations and that needs to be expressed and shared so that we can try to fix the problem.
I love that. Let me ask you a quick question on your personal experience, because I want to use that as a way of talking about it for other folks. You had a grievance, you went to your manager and you obviously got tuned out. Now, on one side of my, there’s a sinister part of this, right? They’re just racist, bigots, misogynists, whatever. There’s just a sinister side, right, and then there’s another side of this that I don’t know, because you were in the situation is they just didn’t know what to do.
They were as paralyzed as you were, they just didn’t know what to do. Now, that’s not an excuse and it nor shouldn’t be an excuse, but what did you, first of all, what do you see? Because you have a wonderful vantage point of actually being able to see this stuff on a day-to-day basis. What do you see when someone airs a grievance, I know that some of it’s sinister, okay, we all live in the same world. Some of it’s going to, some of it is sinister and going to be sinister, but some of it’s not. So what did you feel at the time and then what do you see?
So I think there’s two things there. First is, I think it’s important that when we’re talking about these incidents, is that, yes, the person that was doing this to me, I do think they had personal bias and that was impacting the way they were treating me.
But for me it’s not. And I think it’s important that when we think about these issues, we don’t focus on the individuals. I think we need to focus on the systems that are allowing these individuals’ personal biases to impact the decisions that are being made on behalf of the organization, right. Just because you have people with bias within the organization, doesn’t mean your organization has to make decisions that are impacted by that bias. There’s no world in which we’re going to get rid of all the racism in the world. Companies should definitely not be tasked with doing that. It’s just not fair.
But companies do need to be responsible for what happens under their watch and who they’re putting in positions of power and what training and what education and what controls there are to make sure the decisions those people are making reflect the decisions that are in line with the values of the organization. So that’s the first thing about the incidents that’s individual.
Then onto, do they know or can they figure out what to do? I totally agree with you. I think the issue is that they don’t know what to do and that’s really difficult. And I think when they don’t know what to do, they err on the side of, well, unless we have definitive proof…
Right, exactly. It feels like the safest thing to do, very similar to the way our justice system treats rape, right.
Without definitive proof, we’re just going to err on the side of, well, sorry, we can’t help you.
The thing I would say is we’re talking about, I’d say pretty much every single company, especially every large company has this problem to an extent. So we’re talking about companies that are creating self-driving cars, putting people in space. These companies are doing insanely transformative things, innovative things. If they were able to dedicate their resources and they felt that it was reasonable and appropriate to dedicate the amount of resources that it would take to figure out how to get through that hurdle or get over that hurdled even, I think that they would be able to figure it out.
Really, that’s where inside voices comes in. We’re not, as much as I would like to, and in the future, we hope to be part of the solution, at the moment, really, inside voices is about realigning the incentives for organizations to apply the appropriate amount of resources to fixing this problem by saying you can’t hide behind PR anymore. You now have to accept the fact that your reality is going to be out there. So if your reality is not the reality that you would like to be presented with, you now need to change the reality rather than just changing the statements that you have.
I love that. I love that. So years ago I was an advisor to a startup that was an anonymous feedback, startup called Hyphen. And they got sold to Betterworks and it’s woven into their product, but they don’t focus, and they, nor did they focus on specifically the, what you’re trying to solve for, which I love. But anonymous feedback, the way I understood it then is you’re going to get everything. So some of it’s, you’re going to get some noise but you’re going to get it all. Susie’s sleeping with Jimmy, John stole from Tommy, you’re going to get it all, right, you’re just going to get, because it’s anonymous, people are going to put anything in there. When it’s tethered to a profile, LinkedIn or some type of login or employee badge or whatever, your, people will give you the story that you want to hear because they don’t want any of the blow back. So you won’t really get the full story and the stuff you get will be, generally speaking, will be positive.
And obviously, you erred, when you built the company, you erred on the side of, you know what, I want to do anonymous. I want people to be able to speak freely. How is that, I mean, when you made that decision to do that, and I like it, what have you seen from your customers and the people that use the system? What have you seen from them in terms of them getting that fire hose of feedback, as it relates specifically to diversity inclusion, probably you’ve got a little bit of belonging, equity and equality in there as well, but what have you seen from them in terms of the types of feedback that they’re getting?
So I’d say the first thing that I wouldn’t say surprised me, but I think surprises most people is that the feedback that we get is overwhelmingly positive, right, most companies are scoring above the median line where, the middle score. And I think that really speaks to the fact that I don’t think expectations are actually that high. [crosstalk 00:13:02]
So the bar also was lowered and we somehow tripped over the bar. Is that…
Yeah, I think the bar is lower than we would want it to be. And also, we don’t actually know what score someone needs to be getting to want to stay at an organization for the next 2, 3, 4, 5 years, right, but what is important is that they are giving good reviews and people are really just trying to paint a picture of what it’s like to be at the organization. And you really do, you do have the different variety of reviews. There are some, are quite short and they basically just say this is somewhere that I would say come and work with, we’re growing quickly. They seem to care, but I’m not that sure. Or you get the ones that are really detailed that say this, this and this happened at a macro level, these are the moves that the company’s making.
I was really disappointed when, for example, we had one and I think the start of the review was that the company had fired the head of diversity at start of the year only to advertise the role for a lower salary a month later. And these incidents give you a picture of the organization.
I think they’re important. I think the biggest thing for us is that generally we want to get away from [inaudible 00:14:17] reviews. So we want to get away from this, people coming to us when they want to report versus people coming to us when they want to receive information. We really want to get to that Glassdoor model of you come to read reviews and you submit reviews when you’ve come to read, because then we’re going to get that nice mix of people who have positive and negative things to say.
But as I say, overwhelmingly, things have been positive. People aren’t going into their own personal detail. That’s really important to us. We’ve asked everybody, protect their own anonymity but also the anonymity of other people in their organization. This isn’t a whistleblower hotline. But yeah, I’ve also been a little surprised at some of the feedback. So for example, I think it’s 80, around 80% of our respondents are people of color, 20% of white people. White people actually score their companies lower than people of color have been but are more likely to answer more favorably to the question, “Would you recommend your company to a person of color?” So that’s just an interesting insight that we’ve garnered over, out of the reviews we’ve got so far.
I think it’s a wonderful, it’s a net promoter score question that ultimately unearths everything underneath it, that if you’re not willing to recommend, then there, you’ve already said what needed to be said. And that gets to the company, to the job, to the manager, to all of those things. I love, I absolutely love that. And again, what I love is you’re shining a light into the corner and you’ve even said, your PR statements, you can’t hide behind those anymore.
I think just statements in general, I think any, and I think this has been years building, right? So it’s not, this isn’t just a COVID related or George Floyd related thing. I think that MeToo, Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, I think there was a wave of these things that finally got people over to the edge of just saying enough is enough. We’ve got to actually, words aren’t enough. Listening isn’t enough.
Actions, budget, we’ve got to, you’ve got to actually do something. And now you’ve got a mechanism to then highlight where people are doing those, doing good things and also highlight where they’re not.
Yeah, and I think these things have been growing over time and we did see a peak in 2020.
And I do think it was because we had more eyeballs. Everybody had time to pay attention and be engaged in the things that they do care about but you can be distracted from on a day to day. And really, the reason that inside voices is probably, can exist now and I actually don’t think it probably could have a couple of years ago, is because the way that the movement happened last year really awakened a protest spirit in a lot of people.
I think the spirit of getting engaged and being an activist and doing something to help move forward the things that you care about, I think that’s been awakened in people as a result of COVID. I would call it one of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic. And I would say that as a result, inside voices can exist because, we are asking people to, as much as we are doing our utmost and asking them to do their utmost to protect their anonymity, we are asking people to take a small risk. It’s almost, I like to describe it as an act of good trouble. John Lewis talked about good trouble, this active, positive, civil disobedience.
We’re asking people to do something that you’re probably not supposed to be doing but, rest assured, we are protecting anonymity but people are doing it because they feel like they need to do something. They feel like they’re tired of it being this way. And if they can contribute, it takes three minutes to do a review. If they can contribute three minutes to try and make their company and other companies more diverse, they’re ready to do it. The thing that we say in inside voices is it doesn’t matter if we’re going to get good, bad or ugly reviews. This isn’t about just pointing out the bad companies because you can’t see how bad they are unless you see how everyone is. So we really want to get the full…
I can tell you as an ally, Ekow, one of the things that, I think you’re right, less business travel, less noise, less, more times focusing on the things that matter, family and whatnot and larger issues in the society. I think a lot of folks came to the realization on the ally side, I would say, of you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. It is that one or the other and you got to pick a side. Which one are you going to be on? And how are you then going to both help and then be supportive and learn and listen, and do all the things that you need to do to be a part of the solution?
Wanted to ask you a quick question about unintended consequences and maybe even good intentions. So things, and again, things that you’ve seen both personally, but also through inside voices, of where maybe a company thought they were doing the right thing. Maybe they thought they were doing the right thing or maybe they had good intentions but it didn’t play out the way that they wanted it to. How do you reconcile that? How do you reconcile that a company tries something again and it just, it may be the unintended consequences. They tried women in leadership program, but the way it was written, the way that they hired, it really put off a different part of the community for whatever reason? An unintended consequence, what have you seen so far?
So we haven’t seen too much of that, although I’m sure if you asked the CEO of every company that had negative reviews, they would say that that goes against what they intended.
Right. That’s a good point.
What I would say is, I think when we talk about intentions, we hold diversity to a different standard than we hold other company metrics. There’s a great TEDx talk by Dr. Joan Williams and she talks about diversity. And she says, if a company was struggling with sales, they wouldn’t throw events, telling everybody how much they cared about sales. And they wouldn’t have a bunch of conversations about how much we really, everybody should value sales. And we really hope we do better. They would focus on the outcomes.
And those would be the deciders as to whether they’re doing well or not. So with diversity, as much as, and it is heartwarming and it is appreciated that companies want to do this well, but at the same way that companies want to sell more, companies want to have more profit, your intentions isn’t necessarily what you’re judged by, unfortunately. And unfortunately your intention isn’t what’s impacting the rest of the world.
It’s interesting because, and again, people could hide around, behind intentions and words in previous generations and now they can’t. So it’s cool that you have the intention to change the racial mix or the gender mix or to get pay equity, right. It’s great that you, words on a page, press release, et cetera, the intention is there. Fantastic. But I think it’s, the judgment now is more on the outcome.
Right, and it should be. Okay, your intention, whether or not you have the intention or not. Okay, cool. That’s great. What was the outcome? What does your leadership team look like?
And if it’s all pear-shaped, middle aged, white guys, your intention doesn’t matter, because the outcome hasn’t changed.
I think a thing that’s important to remember about this is that we’re also, as I say, we’re trying to change the incentives. So it’s only going to be the bottom 10% of companies that feel the sting of the bad reviews…
… And see it impact their abilities to hire, right, because that’s what, really, what this is about. 76% of millennials say they want to go, want to work for companies that embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. So we are using that intention to say, well, these companies are actually not doing it. These companies are the worst performing companies. Maybe that impacts the decision you have as to whether you actually want to go and work there. So it’s only going to be those bottom companies that are impacted. And I would find it, I would be surprised if we, once it really shakes out who those bottom companies are, feel as though their intentions are as pure and as strong as the companies that are performing much better than them.
Could talk to you for hours. I have to ask you about the software and the technology. When you show people the back end or behind the scenes and what they can learn about their own company, what do they fall in love with? What’s that ‘aha’ moment?
So at the moment we’re actually building out what will be our revenue platform.
Our revenue generator, which is inclusion analytics.
So obviously, we’re, at the moment, the review site is highlighting companies that are performing well and not performing so well at this, but we really want to be part of the solution. So we’re building out a platform that will use AI to look at the data that we’ve received from reviews, identify what is making people feel more and less included at organizations. Breaking that down by groups, into age, race, gender, et cetera, and seeing for the makeup of your organization, what will improve the score that you have? Because an important thing to remember when it comes to diversity within corporate, within corporations, is that recruitment’s only past the problem. A large part of the problem is also retention. And getting people to stay longer is difficult, particularly for people of color.
And we already know that hire, recruiting people of color takes longer and cost more money. So if you can get them to stay longer, that’s almost a double win. And that’s really where we’re trying to give companies that win. We’re going to say to companies that are not performing as well as they would like, well, we have the data, not just from your reviews, but from every company’s reviews, from companies within your industry. We understand the things, the trends that are moving companies towards better performing scores. And we’ll use those as, we’ll give you those suggestions that you can improve of your company’s inclusion and improve retention as a result.
Yeah. I love that because you’re dealing with the front of the full circle, right? How do you attract this talent? How do you engage this talent? How do you promote this talent? How do you retain this talent? And so I think the analytics will drive those conversations and programmatically, the things that they can do to then activate all of those things. So I love it, Ekow. I love what you built. I love what you’re building. So congratulations. It’s wonderful and needed, required, and great timing. Thank you so much for coming on the Use Case Podcast.
Thank you, William and if I can just say just before I go, we are partnering with recruitment companies, executive search firms. If you place people at organizations, we want to partner with you so that we can help you understand those organizations better and give your candidates better insight into the organizations they’ll be joining. So reach out to us please.
Oh, greatness. Greatness. Well, thank you so much. And thanks for everyone listening to the Use Case Podcast. Until next time.
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The Use Case Podcast
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.
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