thoughtbot’s Journey Toward DEI

Geronda Wollack-Spiller

In 2022, thoughtbot hired a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Program Manager to help drive DEI programming and strategy at the organization. Well, my name is Geronda Wollack-Spiller and I am the DEI Program Manager! I’m here to share thoughtbot’s journey toward DEI. So, let’s do this, shall we?

As many of us know, achieving an inclusive culture is a continuous journey. It involves experimentation and taking action to implement policies, practices, and procedures for a culture of inclusion and belonging. Some things you get right, but there’s also failure and learning. The keywords here are “implementation” and “action.”

With thoughtbot’s value of continuous improvement, we recognize that DEI is and continues to be a learning process for everyone. We believe it’s important to be transparent and hope that sharing our journey will help other smaller/midsize companies.

What does DEI mean at thoughtbot?

At thoughtbot we have a DEI glossary for team members to learn from and update as they evolve. We’ve captured the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as:

  • Diversity: The presence of difference within a group in a given setting, including but not limited to sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, body size, and socioeconomic status.
  • Equity: The intentional rebalancing of power dynamics to result in fair treatment of all employees regarding the accessibility of information, opportunities, and resources so individuals can reach their potential.
  • Inclusion: Inclusive behaviors include actions that make others feel valued, respected, seen, and heard. Working together to create environments, activities, programs, and policies in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate and succeed.

We’ve also added the meaning of belonging

  • Belonging: The degree to which individuals experience treatment from the group that satisfies their need for belonging and uniqueness. This is a feeling that is an outcome of inclusive behaviors.

Having a shared language is crucial in our journey. Without shared language and understanding, we run the risk of making decisions that could have a negative impact on our historically marginalized employees.

DEI progress at thoughtbot

Before I was hired, thoughtbot was doing the work. Great work! A DEI Council was formed in 2019 which included a cross-team group of people who drove diversity, equity, and inclusion work in a strategic and meaningful way. The council created DEI goals for thoughtbot and focused on initiatives to help continue driving DEI. After some time, there was the realization that there was lots of work to be done, and thus came the need to hire a full-time DEI person to help manage and support all of the work. Here we are :)!

So, what are some highlights so far during this journey?

Formation of a DEI Council

The DEI Council was started to create a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, fulfilling, and safe environment for all people in the thoughtbot community. We do this by continuously identifying our challenges, raising awareness, facilitating action, and holding ourselves accountable for improvement.

While the council oversees and manages the DEI work we’re doing, they aren’t the ones who will do all of the work. The council spins up interested groups of people who actively work on different problems, initiatives, or topic areas, like Apprenticeship, Recruiting, Retention, and more.

Some examples include supporting the planning for Pride Month and setting up a task force for vetting vendors we want to bring into thoughtbot, just to name a few.

We also empower folks to use the council’s anonymous communication form if anyone would like to submit something anonymously. The form is submitted only to the Council members. I am always a Co-Chair on the council to support strategy, coaching, and implementation.

We have rotations for our members to give other members opportunities to join.

Digging deeper into our hiring practices

When conducting hiring practices, taking DEI into consideration is critical. Our hiring practice allows us to make objective decisions on bringing in new members across multiple regions to thoughtbot.

thoughtbot’s hiring practices are visible on our website, and they include

  • Specific DEI requirements that must be met before applications can be reviewed. The hiring team is tasked with requiring that we build a diverse, representative candidate pool before reviewing candidates.
  • In 2018, we searched for an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) that would anonymize resumes and applications. We did not find one, so we built our own app to do it.
  • That all our salary bands are accessible to the public in our compensation calculator and we share our approach to compensation in the playbook.
  • That we pay folks for the final stage interview. We understand that the interview process can place a financial burden on folks (lost wages, childcare expenses, etc) and we don’t want to be a barrier for folks.

These processes are important to drive representation at thoughtbot and this doesn’t stop at hiring. We recognize that we need to continue building a culture of inclusion and belonging.

Development of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

We currently have three (3) Employee Resources Groups that are employee-led.

  1. Rainbow Connection - a safe and friendly space offering support and resources for those who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. All members of that community are welcome to join. Allies are welcome to participate in group and program events.
  2. Developing Countries - a space for those who are from or live in developing countries.
  3. Neurodivergent - this group was recently developed and is working with me, the DEI Program Manager to develop their mission and structure for the group.

Mandatory annual training for team members

Starting in 2019, we implemented a DEI training platform that allows us to assign different pieces of training to different team members based on their roles. This training offers an opportunity for us as a company to apply shared language in our DEI efforts. It also gives a consistent learning opportunity for folks to continue building their skillsets in DEI across the organization. This combined with other DEI programs and efforts allows us to continue striving for an inclusive culture.

External vetting and client projects

Like most companies, we work with external vendors. We are working to establish a vendor vetting process to ensure vendors align with our DEI commitment and values. We’re starting Part II for this task force to help determine how to make objective decisions based on the information we collect.

Lessons learned on our DEI journey

  • We are putting at the forefront of our decision-making the fact that we can tend to be too U.S. and U.K.-centric. We need to continue improving our inclusion of those who are outside of the U.S. and the U.K. Gaining perspective from the ERGs is one great way to continue working on this and we actively work to catch our bias.
  • We recognize and accept that everyone is at a different place in their DEI journey, so we have an opportunity to tailor our training to meet people where they are.
  • Cross Cultural Awareness and Learning is also an opportunity for us.

What’s next?

I’m in the process of doing a process audit across thoughtbot, starting with our People Operations processes. We are also revising our DEI goals for 2023 and looking ahead to 2024.