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Cultural Debt: Practical steps to put your startup’s culture on a solid path

Example of a low-diversity team (Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash)

In the technology industry, you start to create “technical debt” when you kick off a new piece of software. You make upfront assumptions about how you need to build and then bias for action to get your product to market. Later, you’ll want to restructure or refactor the software to correct misalignment from those early decisions. You stabilize and reset things so you can build on a solid foundation into the future.

The same goes for company culture.

Technical startups typically hire quickly. Founders pump their networks to hire people they already trust.

It’s predictable. It minimizes risk.

Naturally, those networks tend to be mostly male if the people they’ve worked with were mostly male*. In tech, the average percentage of women working in technical roles is hovering around 16%, based on 2018 diversity reports from 11 of the world’s big tech companies.

Since one of our human biases is to feel that people who look and behave like us are better teammates than those who have traits we don’t recognize or value, the recommendations for the next level of hires will gravitate towards looking like the founders too. Sometimes “good team fit” is confused with “I can imagine having a fun drink with this person after work”. Familiarity is expedient. Bias for action. Get stuff done.

In all of these quick decisions, you take on cultural debt.

Two years in, do you notice your team is mostly male or all-white or in their 30s? If so, a lot of research says you should change: a diverse team is more innovative and productive and therefore more likely to be successful.

But people who haven’t been included before probably won’t want to debug your culture for you. They won’t want to teach you what parts of your culture doesn’t make them feel included. They’ve been in teams before where they were the token one, and they had to re-educate the team towards building a better environment for themselves and others like them to work in.

It’s extra work above just doing their job. But if they’re good, they’ve got a choice and they won’t want the extra hassle. They’ll look elsewhere.

You’ll say you have a pipeline problem. You haven’t structured your company to be extensible.

Candidates want to feel their next job is a safe harbour, not an unfriendly sea where they’re adrift and the “other”. If you’re sitting in a job interview, you’re likely to question whether the work environment is friendly to your input if you don’t see anyone who seems remotely like you during the hiring process. 67% of job seekers look at a company’s diversity when evaluating a job offer.

I declined an offer from a company that only had 5 women out of 95 people. I had an inkling of what could lie ahead and I didn’t want to take a risk at a company with that much cultural debt. I had already been the vanguard in the battle to make the work environment more friendly for women at other companies. I wanted to focus on other things at that stage in my career.

To reverse a lack of diversity is difficult if you’ve unintentionally built your team this way. Have you already passed the point of no return? Will you be able to include people with accessibility challenges, for instance, if you have signed a 4-year lease in a building with only stairs?

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Does belonging to the group that goes out for a beer after work determine who is promoted or given prime projects, and how is this more advantageous to the drinkers or those without kids? Do you recognize some of these seemingly benign choices show what you value, and have you considered how they might look to employees or candidates who don’t share the ability (or desire) to conform?


Some startup cultural tips to work into your processes:

1. Have a range of representation during interviews

This can build confidence that everyone will have a place in your organization. It demonstrates your values with each employee encounter.

This practice also allows an opportunity to catch counter-cultural behaviour you don’t want to introduce into your company.

I’ve been on hiring teams where a candidate dismissed the woman in the interview as being junior and talked down to her, despite her being a senior software developer. And I’ve heard similar examples from people of colour. In the interview situation, if you don’t allow someone the opportunity to show how they’ll interact with a range of members of your staff, you could hire and regretfully uncover their prejudices so late that dismissal is your only option.

2. Go to where the diverse candidates are

Being passive by just posting to your careers page means only those who know you will find you. I’ve seen great success filling up the candidate pipeline when the team reached out to specific groups for their notice. Since you don’t want to decrease the quality of your hires, you’ll want to increase the number of quality candidates by making sure a diverse set will see your posts.

Why limit your search to only a fraction of the skilled population?

Reach out to companies that specialize in supporting immigration into your city, go to women in tech meetups, partner with accessibility groups, ask for recommendations from indigenous organizations, invite a range of people to your open house event. Get eyes on your postings and at the same time, you’ll build trust with those communities that you’re actively seeking them.

3. Your employees need to feel like they belong

I’ll be writing another blog post about how to work on this but in essence, if you’re hiring diverse people and your culture doesn’t support them, they won’t be working to their fullest and you’ll likely lose them.


During the early stages of your company, you can be more innovative. You go fast and make more easily-corrected mistakes. Isn’t that a great time to have an optimally innovative team? Why wouldn’t you want it to be diverse at that point so that you can leverage the panorama of experience each individual can share? But in the excitement of the early startup, you’re likely to perpetuate the patterns that are most familiar to you and accumulate cultural debt.

* Note that this holds with any spectrum: race, accessibility, neuro-typicality, LGTBQ2S+, introvert/extrovert, skills, age, experience. So much talk is around gender — it’s easier to track, and gender diversity is currently commanding attention in the media, but if you’re only focusing on that one spectrum, you could be excluding another.

That’s a business risk — what are you losing if you ignore it?

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