The Building Blocks of Creating an Inclusive Workplace

We talked through how to build a company with a diversity and inclusion mindset with Co-Founder and CRO of Crescendo.

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Diversity and inclusion is about a lot of things, chief among them creating work environments where all types of people are welcome and can thrive. Truly, it’s about creating a work environment optimized for sourcing talent and increasing productivity.

We talked through how to build a company with a diversity and inclusion mindset with Co-Founder and CRO of Crescendo, a platform that provides scalable diversity and inclusion (D&I) education to employees in global organizations, helping them retain their diverse teams.


  • How to be a D&I sponsor
  • Running an inclusion audit
  • Starting a Diversity and Inclusion Employee Resource Group (ERG)
  • Creating Brave Conversations About D&I in the Workplace
  • Diversity and Inclusion Activities To Do With Your Team



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Stefan Kollenberg is one of the emerging leaders in Diversity & Inclusion Technology in North America. As the Co-Founder & CRO of Crescendo, he works with D&I professionals to help them foster more inclusive and empathetic workplaces. He is a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion, having spoken about recognizing privilege, starting D&I programs, and retaining employees from underrepresented groups. In his spare time, he enjoys running, board games, and hockey!

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Diversity and inclusion is about a lot of things, chief among them creating work environments where all types of people are welcome and can thrive. Truly, it’s about creating a work environment optimized for sourcing talent and increasing productivity.

We talked through how to build a company with a diversity and inclusion mindset with Co-Founder and CRO of Crescendo, a platform that provides scalable diversity and inclusion (D&I) education to employees in global organizations, helping them retain their diverse teams.


  • How to be a D&I sponsor
  • Running an inclusion audit
  • Starting a Diversity and Inclusion Employee Resource Group (ERG)
  • Creating Brave Conversations About D&I in the Workplace
  • Diversity and Inclusion Activities To Do With Your Team



Stefan, I’d love to start with allowing you to introduce yourself.

I’m Stefan, one of the co-founders of Crescendo. We help companies increase the amount of employees who actually engage in diversity and inclusion programs.

Our technology integrates with Slack to provide every employee with a personalized diversity & inclusion training, meeting them where they’re at in their journey and helping them become better allies.

For me, personally, it’s been a really important journey. I’d had different struggles and in past workplaces that weren’t necessarily the most inclusive and found myself leaving them with some of my other colleagues.

When I met my co-founders a few years back, we all bonded around the shared experience. We saw what was happening with the #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter. It was a time where it was needed for companies. They needed to get people on board with why these programs were important and get employees engaged with them.

To give you a view into our work, we just recently got some survey results back from a client with about 350 employees. In just three months, we saw a 23% increase in the number of people who agreed that diversity inclusion was important in the workplace and a 26% increase of people who recognize that different people do have different lived experiences. This is really exciting data. It shows the impact we’re driving in the workplace and the benefits of having.

You mentioned starting out with some higher level stuff. Some of what people can do for first steps, when they’re thinking about D&I, everything from an audit, best practices and maybe even a couple of what not to dos?

Oftentimes, D&I programs can get pushed under a subsection of HR and become an HR-only program. But that can often lead to less success. In terms of getting people to support you along the way, it can be a bit harder, and employees aren’t always excited to participate and don’t understand the value.

The most successful programs are directly reporting into the executive office – the CEO or strategic operations – and they become engrained in the business, everything from marketing, sales, product, CSR and HR. HR is obviously a big part of it because you’ve got the hiring funnel there, you’ve got a lot of the culture work. But for it to be truly adopted and have people understand the benefit and the drive behind it, it has to be integrated into everything else.

Some things you can do as a starting point is to understand what the purpose of your organization is. Why do you exist? And how does diversity and inclusion align with that?

For example, if you’re a B2C brand, and you’re looking at the future of the company, you have growth projections, you need to expand into new markets. Well, does your company reflect those markets? If not, then that’s a sign that you need to be able to understand their life experience to move forward.

To have that, you need to embed diversity inclusion into your practice, hire people that represent that market, engage them in your marketing efforts, so that you can relate to your audience in a way that you can actually align with them and not come off as kind of tone deaf.

One of the most important things is to get a clear understanding of how you can align this with the strategic objectives of the business for the upcoming year, as well as the long term plans, and not just be a siloed, nice-to-have program on the side. This is how you’re going to create some really big change.

Some specific ways you can do this? I highly recommend using, if you’re in the US, the census data. You can see what the representation is across different markets, and you can compare this with the strategic plan that your executive team has proposed for the year. That can be a great data point for you to say, “Here’s why we need this.”

There’s also lots of data showing that consumers actually care about the stances your organization takes. From a business perspective, there’s a lot of stuff showing success when companies do take stances, and that’ll help mitigate some of the risks that these executives might perceive of being too political or on one side of an issue or the other. But so there’s lots of resources there that I can share afterwards.

Then, as you begin to analyze your team, understand where the gaps are. To set goals for your program with what you want to accomplish, you can go back to that representation in the census data and line it up across your teams, and start to compare. This is where you can set your preliminary goals from a diversity standpoint. That’s just in terms of representation alone.

Where the inclusion aspect comes in is going back to the idea that you’re going to start bringing in people from different backgrounds, different cultures have different lived experiences, and they are going to relate and build rapport in different ways. When you look at the psychology behind building rapport and building trusting relationships, one key pillar is that you trust that the other person cares about you as an individual.

If you start bringing people that are different from each other, and if they make mistakes or small slip ups, these microaggressions can start to build up over time. That reduces the ability for people to trust each other. I find that’s a really effective way of talking about inclusion. A lot of times we can get stuck in buzzwords and so on. But this is literally just down to human psychology and understanding how do people build relationships. They’re going to be bought in that relationships are important.

This gives you a really strong foundation to start any diversity and inclusion program you want to put out there. You know the markets you’re expanding into and why you need to create an inclusive space for new people coming in, to make sure that they feel completely accepted and appreciated in your organization. And you can build strong relationships.

When it comes to audits, there are a few places you can look. You can look through the entire hiring pipeline. Everything from what you need in a role, how to describe the requirements in the job description, where you’re sourcing candidates from, what’s the the process like and if it’s inclusive to people of all ranges of ability, race, socioeconomic status, what are potential barriers that people could experience throughout your hiring process, etc. And when it comes to actual interviews themselves, are your panels representation across gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status… all these different areas within your hiring pipeline? Are you are we hitting our goals in terms of who’s coming through the door? If you start to see leaky parts of that internal funnel, then that’s where you can go to prioritize next.

You touched on needing to have support from leadership and coworkers to move D&I forward inside your organization. Any other notes on how an individual who, for any number of reasons, would like to have a more inclusive work environment? How might they actually be a D&I sponsor within their organization?

When looking to bring someone on as a sponsor or if you yourself want to be a D&I sponsor within your organization, the number one priority is being educated and aware yourself. This can be extremely complicated.

There are a lot of different points of view and different opinions on this, but it includes having a really good understanding of why diverse inclusion is important in general, why it’s important to a business, and also having an understanding of privilege and identity.

But at the core of this is a huge, challenging self-discovery around the privilege you carry and what your identity means in the world. Being really aware of that and being open about being wrong along the way as you learn that journey is extremely important for you as a sponsor, or someone who wants to be a sponsor. You’re going to be questioned as a sponsor and there’s going to be pushback about why someone needs to do this or why you’re prioritizing that, and you need to be able to come back and speak from your own place of understanding. Otherwise people aren’t going to take it seriously. Being a sponsor is great, but if you’re not being an effective one who understands the driving priority behind diversity and inclusion, then often those efforts fall flat.

Also, having a thorough understanding that you’re not going to be totally involved with everything going on the program. But you need to have a strong understanding of the overarching strategy and where it’s going. How does it align to our company values, our company goals, etc? Those are some really, really important points.

Now we’ll talk about specific types of sponsors, because it’s not going to be the same every time. For example, if the person that’s being sponsored is junior, they’re ambitious, they don’t have much experience, but they’re very passionate, then you need to be in it inn an advisor role, providing them with advice such as, “Okay, here are the people you need to talk to here, the things you need to do, here are some resources that you can look to.” Provide them with general guidance to help them learn about how to move up, move things through the organization, and navigate corporate politics, because that’s one of the hardest things when it when it comes to this.

Another type of sponsor: If the group you’re sponsoring is made up of diversity and inclusion experts, or they’re coming in externally, they’re the head of diversity & inclusion, offering them a strategic lens into how diversity and inclusion is normally structured is good. Thinking about the steps you’re taking to get them on board and being aware of the strategy of the company and how decisions have been made in the past. They don’t they don’t need help on their “how”, they need help navigating the structure of organization.

Lastly, if you’re sponsoring an experienced team, if they have a full understanding of the different stakeholders and how to navigate that, then being vocal, supporting them, putting forward-facing support behind their words and making sure their message is passed on through internal channels is valuable. You’re not doing as much advising or guidance, but amplifying their message.

You mentioned employee resource groups (ERGs) which can be a really powerful tool or resource internally to promote diversity, inclusion, belonging, etc. You and Crescendo have done work and research in that area. How can people think about using their ERG system to support what they’re trying to get accomplished from a D&I perspective?

Earlier this year, I talked to about 25 heads of diversity & inclusion, 10 employee resource group leads and 10 managers who are passionate about diversity and inclusion, just to get a lay of the land and see how it works within their organizations. What power structures exists and how do they try to navigate?

What I heard over and over again from ERG leads was that they struggled to get engagement or attendance from people outside of that identity group, but that is was key to support. A lot of them mentioned they were open to allies, they wanted allies to come out, but it was really hard to get them to come to fiscal events to support and champion the work they’re doing. That was one of the most resounding challenges they experienced – getting engagement from people outside the identity group that the employees are supporting.

When it comes to how you can support them, these groups all start from a foundation of why it matters in the first place. You need ERGs because it’s a safe space for people from certain identity groups to support each other, voice challenges, host social events, showcase their culture to the organization and expose other people to do that.

So it serves two purposes. One is a support system, where maybe there aren’t allies involved. But there are the larger social events which sometimes are paired with recruiting. That helps bring in more people from those backgrounds, allows them to see the opportunities, learn about jobs, and contribute to the community.

One piece of advice that I’d be mindful of is that you want to be able to show the business value of these groups because they need budgets, they need that support. But don’t tie specific recruiting metrics to them. This is something I feel strongly about. They they can assist with recruiting, but they should not be responsible or have ownership for it. If you have a recruiting team, they should be at these events. They should be there to take advantage of the opportunity, but it shouldn’t be the lead of the ERGs to be responsible for bringing in talent. They have other jobs, and can’t be responsible for that on top of it. Oftentimes these roles are not compensated, which is unfortunate, as they should be, because it’s a huge amount of extra work that this person takes. Just something to be wary of when you’re starting an ERG.

What happens a lot of the time is that someone passionate from, say, a Black ERG wants to support it and champion their culture. But they’re already underrepresented in the organization, and then they start taking on additional tasks instead of the regular work. So they’re either working overtime, or they don’t have as much time and resources to put towards their day-to-day job. So if nothing in their compensation or their performance evaluation is linked to the work they’re doing with the ERG, then there’s going to be a question of why that person isn’t performing as high. It’s not always evident to everyone how much work goes into these ERGs. So if you do have people leading those, please compensate them. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but at least a little bit to show that your business is actually behind them and supporting them, and that they’re able to take extra time outside of their day-to-day responsibilities to work on this.

When it comes to performance evaluation, having something for these groups to show the work they’re putting in, and that it’s going to factor in the decision to promote them. There’s a great Shopify example. They’ve built in leadership training as part of the ERG structure. Anyone who starts to lead an ERG actually gets leadership training which factors into their ability to progress in the organization as a manager. So now it’s not just work they’re doing on the side, but it’s directly related to their professional development. The company is supporting them, they’re putting resources behind them and giving them training, which is an amazing model that I would highly recommend.

The last point I’ll share is that they can often get very segmented. You’ll have a women’s group, maybe a Latino or Latina group, LGBTQ, veterans, disabilities – all these different groups. But often they get very segmented and they don’t work together as much. If you’re building this out, really try to structure it with a centralized group where these people meet up, they collaborate, they have the opportunity to host events together, and pool their resources. It also gives the opportunity to bring in a more intersectional focus to your work. So it’s not just a women’s event or a black professionals event. It’s a maybe a black women’s event or a women of color event. So bringing in some of that intersectionality to the ERGs is great. events that are posted.

One of the things we’ve heard over and over again is how hard and emotional this type of work can be for everyone included – D&I lead, leadership, ERG leaders, all of the people that they’re trying to reach etc. You also get into conversations around topics that are sensitive that maybe people haven’t sat down and talked through before, and could raise some tension.

You mentioned in your intro the idea of brave conversations in the workplace. Talk a little bit about that. And how do you create a workplace where employees are really able to have these great conversations?

Before I jump in directly that I want to make that clear differentiation. In the D&I world, there are “safe spaces” and “brave spaces”. I want to contrast these two.

A safe space is for one group of similar people with similar backgrounds to come together, be able to vent, support each other. It’s extremely emotive. We’re going to need that within the organization.

But then another type of space is a brave space, where we bring people from different backgrounds together to share their experiences, to share things that might be potentially conflicting. But we make sure that people are able to feel respected, feel accepted, feel understood for sharing their perspective, and that they’re not going to get backlash.

The difference comes back to the importance of psychological safety. The reason I call this a brave space is that, for people, it’s not easy to share that they need to feel that sense of safety at work and especially in a place where maybe HR is involved. They worry about, “If I say this will I get called out, will it negatively impact me in my work?” There’s an extra layer of uncertainty when it comes to sharing these types of difficult topics in the workplace, because you do rely on it for your livelihood, for growing and supporting your family, whatever it might be. It’s really important to communicate this at the start, that it’s an open space. It’s an open discussion. We’re not here to judge, we’re not here to point fingers or call out. We’re here. We’re all here to learn and share our perspectives.

When it comes to how you can actually create brave spaces, it’s really about creating a sense of psychological safety. There’s a lot of research done on this. Google did a really in-depth piece of research on psychological safety and how it creates really high-performing teams. But when it comes to these spaces, you need to ensure that the people don’t feel shot down. When they bring up ideas, they may need to make sure they’re not afraid to bring things up, and you need to make sure they can share their experience without getting laughed at or judged.

When going into that type of conversation, you need a moderator. I would recommend bringing in external moderator because what I see happen often is that either someone is very passionate about the issue, or it’s someone in HR who starts to facilitate and lead these discussions. This adds an aspect of bias and weird dynamic to an already challenging conversation when you’re the one moderating it. Bring in a facilitator, someone who’s knowledgeable, a D&I practitioner, there to ask questions, guide the conversation, make sure that things don’t get out of hand.

Start off with a few people in the room, sharing experiences and having a conversation ahead of time to see if there’s anyone who has a really impactful story they want to share. When we go back to the the stories and the experiences that we have as humans, that’s something we can all relate to. It brings us together, even if we do look different – we’re all still human. Bringing it back to very human aspects of a human story is a really effective way to start off these conversations. It drops everyone’s guard and everyone feels more comfortable to share and open up – that’s where you get deep conversations.

It’s also really important to have a Code of Conduct at the beginning of these. We have a few templates for different facilitations you can run that we’ve created a Crescendo and those have a Code of Conduct (see resources).

The space that you’re in has a huge impact. You want to make sure you get a closed room. Avoid if you can glass walls. It’s an aspect of feeling like you can be heard outside of the room, which will make people less likely to share vulnerable or deep things and have deep discussion. So having a closed space that’s got regular like walls and no glass.

Form a circle. Rather than having someone at the front of the room, build a circle or a fishbowl where you can have that kind of discussion as a group, rather than as a line of people talking to an expert.

Two or three successes that you had seen with some of the direct work that you’ve done internally with some companies?

Something that really stood out to me while I was doing my research is that showing you care and listening to other people has such a big impact. A while back we had the at the El Paso shooting. I had two different conversations with people. One was a head of D&I. She had two colleagues reach out to her right after and say, “I don’t know if you want to talk. If not, it’s fine, but I just want to let you know that I’m here.” I understand that it might be tough for her because she’s a Latina woman, was feeling close to that and felt very vulnerable and upset at the time. Then I talked to another woman who was in a workplace and had no one even mention it, no one talked about it, no one came to her. She said, “I just wish someone would ask how I was doing. I just wish they would at least care, or think about it.” It’s a small Slack message, a little gesture as you’re passing by, or in the hallway or something like that. Just a little thing to say, “Hey, I’m here. I hear you. I understand this might be challenging. And if you need to talk I’m here.” That makes a huge impact on on people and individuals. Just be mindful of news or things happening in the real world that might be affecting your colleagues. That really hit home.

I’ll go back to Shopify – I love the way they dig down on data-informed storytelling. As they roll out a lot of programs, they’re scaling extremely fast, but they’re really focused on experimenting, gathering data and then launching larger projects. What they’re doing right now is building up their Global Diversity Inclusion strategy. They originally were just based here in Canada, and gradually expanded, and are now in 10, or 12 different countries around the world. What they’ve done to help build up the strategy is, in each of the offices, they send one member of their D&I team to that office to kind of run a facilitation group. Talking to people, understanding local issues, understanding the issues that office specifically cares about, and also doing a follow up survey for more anonymous feedback. They’re doing this in different offices around the world, and bringing that back to HQ. They’re going to turn that into a strategy that they can scale across the world, even though they have about 10 people on the D&I team, which is pretty large of an inclusion team for 4000. I think the four and a half thousand people now. The way they’re approaching this is exciting, and I’m excited to see where that goes. When it comes to building up that global strategy, having feedback directly from those offices is vitally important. They’ve been successful already.

The last example we saw was with a client. They wanted to create more conversations around diversity and inclusion. They had an engineering team – their product was a location-based marketing tool – that they realized that their tool could be used for harassment. They hadn’t thought about this before, but because of the conversations we helped create, they started updating the product to adjust some of those features to make sure that it couldn’t be used for stalking or harassment. That was a really huge success, we love seeing that.

One quick follow up is that we really encouraged them to bring that personal experience and the content that they consumed with Crescendo, and have conversations with their peers about it in the workplace itself. They had one conversation about pronouns and they had a massive breakthrough, where multiple employees felt comfortable to say, “I don’t understand pronouns, like, I don’t get why this matters. I’m “her”, why can’t I just call other people “her”? Another person shared their experience with understanding their gender identity and how, throughout their childhood, they never really felt like they fit in with either group, and how now they identify as non-binary, and they use “they” pronouns. The person who had asked the question had a complete breakthrough and really got, and was listening to the story. She understood the experience that person went through, and why you use pronouns Across the workplace, they started putting their pronouns in Slack and on their email signature.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: This is a specific question on compensation for ERG leaders. Have you talked anybody about compensation?

[Kate] This is a great question, not only because ERGs in general are usually volunteer, but there’s good data that points to the fact that the people raising their hands to lead ERGs are women or employees from other underrepresented groups. The time that it takes to run an ERG is then disproportionately placed on the exact groups we’re hoping to impact.

[Stefan] I’ll use one example. Blend in San Francisco has a really good model for this. What they’ve done is they have two different ERGs, there are two different leads, each with a term of 12 months. That term is offset by six months. Now they have overlapping people, so they never have a complete turnover. For compensation, each of those terms is $6,000. So it’s pretty much $6,000 for a year. There are specific hours, measurable results, and it’s fully compensated, it’s built into their roles. It’s something I’d recommend.

If you can’t do $6,000, I would look at the amount of hours you’re expecting this person to put in, look at their current salary, and then make projections based off of that. If there’s an internal assessment you’d like them to do, identify what the competition would expect.

If you’re really small and have absolutely no budget, find other ways of compensating them. Maybe it’s additional opportunities related to growth in the organization in terms of being highlighted. I heard one example of using sports tickets, and someone could go to the game or sell the tickets. It wasn’t fully monetary, but at least it was some form of compensation.

To show that you are financially invested, I would recommend going the the route of providing compensation based off their current salary, the amount of hours you expect them to work, and put together this role and work with them on that in a collaborative way to understand how much they expect support into this as well.

[Kate] What we’ve seen is that, best case scenario, you can compensate someone for the work. If you’re not able to do direct compensation, actually building the work in as a percentage of the person’s role, just like a job description. It has clear responsibilities associated with it, it accounts for X% of your time, and is theoretically taken into account when you go up for promotion.

The tough thing is when reality kicks in, this is sometimes only good in concept. If you don’t also communicate the importance and legitimacy of that structure to people like managers and teammates, that’s when there can be a problem. We always suggest sitting down with managers and teammates, and so that they understand that when they’re not seeing their direct report or their teammate working on a project or they’re doing ERG work, that is actually part of their responsibility, etc. So that’s probably the most common thing you’ve seen.

There’s a big gap between the companies who have taken the ERG system very seriously, and those who haven’t spent a ton of time thinking through that structure, and understanding what it really means to have a good supportive ERG program. there’s a there’s a big gap there that hopefully will close or close in the next couple of years.

When we were chatting about things like audit best practices, one common thing that pops up for companies is to survey their employees. How do you view surveying employees around things like D&I?

Keep in mind when you put out a survey that you’ve now asked for the employees’ opinions and views. If they don’t see any change happen, that’s going to make it worse. That is one of the biggest things that I see happen, when organizations run their survey, but then it takes forever to analyze the results and then they don’t fully communicate what the changes are. And then people don’t actually see the changes or the changes are happening in the background and they’re not communicated well. That survey becomes meaningless, and employees are more annoyed that they listened to you and you don’t seem to care.


Stefan Kollenberg is one of the emerging leaders in Diversity & Inclusion Technology in North America. As the Co-Founder & CRO of Crescendo, he works with D&I professionals to help them foster more inclusive and empathetic workplaces. He is a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion, having spoken about recognizing privilege, starting D&I programs, and retaining employees from underrepresented groups. In his spare time, he enjoys running, board games, and hockey!

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