When it comes to workplace diversity, small details say a lot

Lots of companies talk the talk on diversity—but it’s the little touches that demonstrate how your culture really works

Brown hand mouse cursor

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

In August, workplace communication app Slack launched a new feature called “Add to Slack” that allows users to pull in outside content from other applications. The company announced the news on its blog, and at the top of the page was an image: a hand holding the new Add to Slack button. A brown hand.

The shade of skin used in an icon might seem inconsequential, but Slack’s brown hand is a departure from the default whiteness of the technology industry and the corporate world at large. While outright discrimination is largely verboten today, areas like iconography still overwhelmingly exclude people of colour and women. It’s a signal that reinforces their outsider status, a reminder that the power to make decisions still rests in the hands of white men.

What many companies fail to realize is that icons, like the Add to Slack button, are a missed opportunity. What better way to tell people they’re welcome at your company or that you want their business than with a graphic that reflects their reality? But such subtle changes can only come at organizations where diverse perspectives are encouraged and actively sought out.

The brown hand shows that people of colour work at Slack, and suggests they’re influencing decisions at a time when the discussion about diversity in Silicon Valley is finally entering the mainstream conversation.

Everette Taylor, tech entrepreneur and founder of the marketing firm MilliSense, says that’s in keeping with the company’s active record on diversity. “Slack is combining a culture with naturally open-minded and diverse people with a conscious decision-making process of making sure that they are being inclusive,” Taylor wrote in an email. He highlights the company’s recent release of diversity data on its workforce, which revealed better numbers than most Silicon Valley companies and included a plan to foster inclusion. “When a company like Slack shows that it genuinely cares and [is] making an effort, it makes people of colour want to work there.” Companies should not expect employees from traditionally marginalized groups to be the only ones to spot problems; creating a culture where diversity is consciously acknowledged empowers everyone to make changes.

Consider what happened at Facebook this summer. Caitlin Winner, a recent design hire, spotted something in the Facebook graphic library that offended her: The male in the friends icon was in front of the female figure. A nearby poster in Winner’s office proclaimed “Nothing at Facebook Is Someone Else’s Problem,” which she took as license to make the change she wanted to see. Several iterations later, Facebook had a new friends icon, with the woman upfront. It’s not the first time the social network has made a small change to remove a graphical bias. Last year, two employees gave users living outside of North America a notification icon that displayed their side of the globe.

These changes might seem trivial, but to women and people of colour, they’re anything but. “Tech companies must reflect the communities they serve,” wrote Mark Luckie, a former Twitter employee, in a recent Medium post. “If not, they risk alienating the users most responsible for their success.” It’s not just a tech industry problem. Look at advertising—a 2013 University of Toronto study suggested that white faces are over-represented in Canadian television ads.

As for Slack, it’s notable the company didn’t make a big deal of its new icon. There were no self-congratulatory press releases, no open letters on the importance of diversity. Instead, Slack did something much harder. It created a culture in which someone felt confident enough to make a small but radical change, and sent out a big signal about the company in the process.