Diversity and inclusion the open source way at Red Hat

A community-powered approach to diversity and inclusion

We took an open approach to publishing our company's diversity statistics. Here's what we learned.

multi-colored blocks for Diversity in Open Source series
Image credits : 

By Annielogue, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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When it comes to building more diverse and inclusive companies, one of the biggest challenges CEOs and HR leaders face is how to inspire a passion for taking action across the entire organization.

Lots of potential interventions are available to organizations, but according to the recent Harvard Business Review publication "Why diversity programs fail," many of the typical command-and-control, top-down approaches to improving diversity and inclusion are not only ineffective; they can actually have a negative impact.

So when it comes to diversity and inclusion, what's a company to do?

At Red Hat, we decided to approach this challenge in the way that we approach most things: in the open source way. We published our employment statistics, and then engaged our entire organization—thousands of Red Hatters—to develop a global diversity and inclusion strategy.

Everyone's problem to solve

Red Hat's diversity and inclusion strategy grew from a single moment in 2014, when one brave Red Hatter raised their hand during our quarterly company meeting and asked, "When will Red Hat publish our diversity statistics?"

This question had been on my mind for a while. Other technology companies had just started to publish their employment statistics, as a way to highlight an industry-wide gap in diversity. Until that time, these statistics were considered highly confidential and sensitive company information, and were rarely shared.

My background is in law, and as an attorney, I tend to be a risk-averse person. Working in an open organization has often challenged me to balance that perspective with consideration for the enormous benefits of transparency. In that moment, I felt inspired about the opportunity to shift my mindset from defaulting to closed when faced with a problem too large for one team to solve, to defaulting to open, and engaging the entire Red Hat population to help us figure it out. It was our chance to show up as the open source leader on this important topic.

It's impossible to fully describe the groundswell of interest and passion we saw, both internally and externally, when we published our numbers.

At that time, we were doing many wonderful things around the globe to try and make a difference—not just inside our own company, but also in open source communities and the technology industry as a whole. But our efforts often felt to me like pouring a bucket of water into the ocean, because there were few, if any, quick fixes. I knew from my own research that making a difference requires persistence, long-term investments, and sustained focus. We are a much smaller company than those we compete against, and most of the companies publishing their numbers had far greater resources available.

We started by pulling together a diverse, global, cross-functional advisory group to help us think through the process of publishing our data, as well as to help inform our next steps. Half of the advisory group were people who we asked for feedback and guidance as we prepared to publish our numbers; the other half would be filled later on, when we invited Red Hatters with a passion for diversity and inclusion to volunteer for the remaining open seats.

It's impossible to fully describe the groundswell of interest and passion we saw, both internally and externally, when we published our numbers. Immediately, a community of passion began to form inside our company. I was encouraged by how many Red Hat associates and managers reached out for the first time, whether privately or publicly, to express strong support for our efforts.

The overwhelming sentiment was not "What will Red Hat do to fix this?" but rather, "How can I help?" Red Hatters began sharing about their individual efforts all over the world, how they were already coming together to lead informal events like hackathons and coding classes targeted at underrepresented groups.

A community-powered approach

One of our early commitments to the company was a global strategy and roadmap. As we began to hear the stories of what Red Hatters were already doing, along with areas where they felt it was important for our company to focus our attention and resources, it seemed that the best way to develop our strategy and roadmap was to approach this challenge in a way that was open, inclusive, and grounded in research.

We wanted to build a strategy and roadmap that applied industry best practices as well as harnessed the unique aspects of our company's culture—our open source ethos, our passion for helping others, our strong sense of shared purpose. Most of all, I wanted to create something that every Red Hatter at every level of the company felt a sense of shared ownership in, something that gave everyone ample opportunities to make an impact.

We started by joining the Stanford University's Clayman Institute as partner. This organization is one of the leading think-tanks on diversity and inclusion. Dr. Caroline Simard from the Clayman Institute helped us develop a deck of research and findings that included compelling studies about the business value of diversity when it comes to things like innovation and long-term profitability. In addition, our research deck highlighted the important role that inclusion plays in unlocking those benefits, the challenges that individuals from underrepresented groups face in the workplace, and our own internal data alongside benchmark data from similar companies.

Our research deck offered a compelling case for focusing on diversity and inclusion, along with a reality check about how much work needed to be done within our company and the technology industry. But research alone rarely inspires action. We needed to bring the entire company along the journey, and give everyone space to grapple with their own concerns and uncertainties on this topic, while also creating an environment where everyone felt welcomed to ask questions and contribute ideas.

So we partnered with our Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Group to develop a first draft of a strategy and three-year roadmap. We shared our research deck along with the draft strategy and roadmap, which highlighted four proposed focus areas: senior leaders and influencers; diversity and inclusion communities (e.g. employee resource groups); recruit, develop, reward; and other talent and HR processes.

Then we invited everyone's feedback, ideas, and questions, through their choice of open and private channels. We received hundreds of comments, including helpful suggestions for the draft strategy and some debate about the research shared. At times, this open dialog was uncomfortable, and there were moments where we had to work hard to keep the conversation productive and feeling safe for everyone participating and reading. Yet making the deliberate choice to navigate those moments of tension when diverse perspectives come together had the benefit of creating a greater understanding between many of our associates, while also contributing to a more robust strategy and roadmap.

A marathon, not a sprint

It will take time to improve our numbers and drive significant changes across the technology industry, and it's far too soon to declare our approach a success. However, what I can see already is that approaching this challenge in an open source way has yielded a number of benefits that a top-down approach would not.

Approaching this challenge in an open source way has yielded a number of benefits that a top-down approach would not.

First, I'm continually amazed at the sheer passion and energy we see from our associates. Engaging our entire company allowed us to identify and focus on areas that they care most about, which in turn, inspired more action and effort from everyone. For example, within two years, we went from having one vibrant diversity and inclusion community (our Women's Leadership Community) to three, with the formation of BUILD (Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity) and Red Hat Pride (LBGTQA), and one more under development for our U.S. veterans. We provided the toolkit and path for any Red Hatter to create a diversity and inclusion community, and sure enough, a number of passionate associates were quick to raise their hands and lead the formation process.

Second, we've seen remarkable leadership support. We took a similar approach with our senior leaders actively engaging with each, seeking to understand what they would be passionate about supporting and what concerns they had. I also provided them with their organization's data, along with the industry research. From those conversations, we put our heads together and came up with actions that were meaningful to them and tailored to fit their passions and their organization's unique needs. The result was a team of senior leaders who feel a passion for diversity and inclusion, and who actively advocate for it, each in their own authentic way. When I talk to HR leaders in other companies, I'm reminded of how difficult it is to inspire that level of support and engagement.

Third, we've seen an impact that goes far beyond our company walls. By coming together and sharing what we're doing, both inside and outside of Red Hat, we discover new opportunities where we can make a difference, as well as ways to get more value from our existing efforts. For example, this year, we added a new track to the Red Hat Summit called "Culture of Collaboration," with sessions focused on diversity and inclusion, the open source way, and how to make organizations more open and collaborative. Our customers and partners welcomed these topics, and those sessions sparked requests from Red Hatters to bring similar workshops to their customer and partner events.

Although at times it's messy, I have also been surprised by how simple some solutions can be.

One big takeaway that I've had from this experience is that diversity and inclusion is a personal topic. Although at times it's messy, I have also been surprised by how simple some solutions can be. Having an open environment where people feel free to share their perspectives gives you the opportunity to make changes that benefit others. For example, we learned from this process that many managers opened conversations with their teams by saying, "Hey guys," or "Hey, guys and ladies," which made some women on those teams feel uncomfortable. Now, we coach our managers to use "Hey team," a simple and more inclusive greeting that welcomes everyone without calling attention to gender.

We're in the second year of our strategy and roadmap, and there's always more to learn and discover. We continue to make adjustments based on research and feedback, and not every initiative is a resounding success. But by being transparent with our associates about our efforts, we are able to keep diversity and inclusion a top priority for our company, and inspire a remarkable number of Red Hatters to volunteer their time and energy to make a difference.

This article is part of the Open Organization Workbook project.

About the author

DeLisa Alexander - DeLisa Alexander | DeLisa is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat. Under her leadership, this team focuses on acquiring, developing, and retaining talent and enhancing the Red Hat culture and brand. In her nearly 15 years with the company, DeLisa has also worked in the Office of General Counsel, where she wrote Red Hat's first subscription agreement and closed the first deals with its OEMs. Today in leading the company's global human resources and employment branding... more about DeLisa Alexander