e014. Talent Acquisition with Shakima Jackson-Martinez

Shakima Jackson-Martinez is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advocate who specializes in inclusive talent acquisition, foundational DEl practices, and building organizational empathy through internal research. She is currently the Director or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at AnswerLab, a leading UX Research consultancy that employs about 300 people across the United States.

In this episode, Shakima tells us how talent acquisition metrics are driving inclusion at AnswerLab.


Full Interview with Shakima Jackson-Martinez

Interview Transcript

[00:00:46] Amy: Welcome back to including you. I’m Amy C. Waninger the host of the show and the founder and CEO of lead at any level. My guest today is Shakima Jackson Martinez. Shakima is the diversity equity and inclusion advocate who specializes in inclusive talent, acquisition, foundational DEI practices, and building

[00:01:05] Amy: organizational empathy through internal research. She’s currently the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at answer lab, a leading user experience consultancy that employs about 300 people across the United States. Shakima welcome to the show.

[00:01:19] Shakima: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me.

[00:01:23] Amy: I’m so happy to have you because your path to DEI was a little bit different from what I’ve seen with a lot of my guests, you weren’t hired from the outside in, you actually were promoted from within the ranks and then specialized moved to specialize in DEI.

[00:01:38] Amy: Can you tell us a little bit about just your journey within answer?

[00:01:42] Shakima: Most definitely. So, I started off in answer lab in our research operations department, as you mentioned, answer lab is a UX research consultancy. So, we work with some of the world’s top brands to make sure that they are improving upon their digital experiences.

[00:01:55] Shakima: So, I started off in research ops as a project manager, just there basically arranging from start to finish all of our research studies and I have a background in HR. So, I worked in HR before I joined answer lab and was just really passionate about people and really wanted to get back to that function of the business.

[00:02:11] Shakima: But at the time answer I was fairly small. We were about 40 people when I joined, and so we didn’t have the infrastructure for an HR team and department, but as we grew that, of course, that developed and an opportunity presented itself to join the people and culture team, which is our HR function at answer lab,

[00:02:29] Shakima: and I jumped on that opportunity, and so I joined people and culture at the beginning of 20, right before right before the pandemic started right before all of the social uprising started and what happened is we saw a need, around June when things were getting really tense there was a need right internally for we needed messaging, right?

[00:02:50] Shakima: How are we going to talk to our people about what’s going on about the protests, about, everything that’s now top of mind it’s on our TV screens and we’re, we’re watching the news every day and we’re seeing all of this unfold and just started there, I started with what the messaging should be worked really closely with our CEO from the very beginning

[00:03:08] Shakima: and that’s where we both decided, we, we need a really strong focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We had done some things, we had done some trainings, we had brought in an outside consultancy to help us with DEI, but we knew that we needed like a consistent presence and we needed to really pay attention to it,

[00:03:25] Shakima: and so, then my role shifted it shifted almost instantly to being answer labs first diversity equity and inclusion manager, and then a year later I was then moved into to my director role, which I sit in now. So yes, I do not have the conventional DEI background. I just, it was a person who came with a lot of passion around it and saw the needs in the organization and really wanted to fill that gap.

[00:03:53] Amy: I love that you started with this need to communicate, like we have to say something and then expanding from there into, cause the company isn’t huge and it wasn’t huge at the time. So then expanding that need to communicate with our own employees, the need to, show where we stand

[00:04:09] Amy: on some really pressing issues and show that we have our employees, and then that led to a broader initiative. What’s the why invest as a company with about 300 people and growing, but not always having 300 people. Why invest as a small company in this work? Why is that so important to answer lab?

[00:04:31] Shakima: Oh, definitely. So, at the core of answer lab, we are a human centered company, and as I mentioned, we work with some of the biggest brands, the Googles, the Metas, Amazons, all of that. We work with those companies on these digital products and experiences that are touching millions and billions of people.

[00:04:48] Shakima: So, we have to get it right internally. Right? Our focus has to be internal on how do we create an inclusive space? How do we create an environment where everyone here feels welcome and equal, and like they can show up to work and be exactly who they are, and in creating that we can only then push that message forward out to our clients

[00:05:09] Shakima: and then they take that message and our researchers go do amazing research and they carry that forward. It became, it was really important for us to get this right, being a human-centric company and being a company that really wants to focus on equality and equity. In this space we just knew we had to do something.

[00:05:25] Shakima: I have been extremely lucky to have a CEO who’s been, who’s very passionate about DEI and who immediately saw the need and responded to that, right? Who saw, hey, maybe we need tr training, maybe we need upskilling, maybe we need to learn more about unconscious bias, maybe we need to have these difficult conversations within this organization so that our people are more aware, right?

[00:05:49] Shakima: So, they’re just better citizens moving forward, and out of that, out of just her sheer determination to, to just teach us more and have us learn more is where all of these initiative springboard from, and so we started with communication and that immediately then turned out to, okay, what internally do we need to fix?

[00:06:08] Shakima: and that moved into training. So, we did a lot of training in 2020, we had a lot of tough conversations that year we did, we had a consultancy come in and do our unconscious bias training and our allyship training. But then we also needed to do some listening sessions

[00:06:22] Shakima: with our employees and some allyship sessions where people were just able to come and be very candid about their awareness of these social issues that were going on or lack of awareness, and how can I be a better ally to people of color during this extremely difficult time? And so, there were so many conversations

[00:06:41] Shakima: that took place that year, that were pivotal for answer lab., and then after that, we moved into the, what the day to day looks like here. One of the functions that I’m responsible for talent acquisition actually sits under my function which is a little bit unconventional, right? Because usually talent acquisition is that’s recruitment

[00:06:59] Shakima: that sits with HR. But talent acquisition sits with DEI and that is so that we can pay attention to who we are recruiting within the organization. So that was our biggest initiative right after we got that communication piece down and that training down, the next thing that we wanted to tackle was talent acquisition and who we’re welcoming to the organization.

[00:07:21] Amy: I love what you said about we’re a human centered organization, because there’s so much focus on user experience, customer experience, employee experience, in the broad economy, people talk about this kind of stuff all the time. but recognizing that experience is not the same for every customer, for every user, for every employee

[00:07:43] Amy: is so important, and I think people tend to, we default in this country, in our society, we default to what a lot of people would term neutral, right? With the dominant culture terms neutral, right? Men don’t have gender, white people don’t have race, those kinds of assumptions, that they’re coming from a neutral place, but that’s not the case. There’s no such thing as neutrality when you’re dealing with people, because we all come with a set of experiences, we all come with a set of biases, we all come with identities and values that are all wrapped in who we are and how we experience the world,

[00:08:17] Amy: nd so I love that you turned what you do as a company inward to say, hey, there are human factors going on in our workplace and we need to address those.

[00:08:26] Shakima: Yes, definitely. Most definitely. So, we are service organization being a consultancy, but we are extremely tech adjacent.

[00:08:34] Shakima: All of our researchers, everyone there, this is tech at its core and traditionally tech is a predominantly white field., and so we have to be honest about that and be open to having that conversation, and so that’s what we had to do internally, right? When you look around and you’re like, okay, we are

[00:08:51] Shakima: as it stands, we have diversity, but we are still a predominantly white organization, and what is it that we need to do to ensure that we are building upon our diversity, that we are opening doors and creating opportunities for people who don’t have that traditional tech background or that traditional,

[00:09:09] Shakima: the expectations, of someone in tech, which you said is probably male, most likely white and so on, and so yeah, we had to look at this from that human centered place and determine where our own gaps are and then use those, turn those gaps into strengths and then push that message forward, to our clients,

[00:09:26] Shakima: and we’ve been, wildly successful and able to do that, and our clients have been receptive, which has been great.

[00:09:33] Amy: You mentioned that you’re focused right now on talent acquisition and how do you change the narrative and the metrics and the accountability around acquiring talent. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re measuring success in that area and what, what has worked well?

[00:09:47] Shakima: Most definitely. So, it started with training, right? Because you think you have to look at your hiring teams who are the people that are responsible for giving the jobs? And so, we initially started with a lot of assessment around who are the people that are applying for our roles and where are they falling off?

[00:10:03] Shakima: In the process and what can we do to improve upon it? So, we did a first-round training with our managers, anyone who’s involved in the hiring practice around inclusive hiring, best practices, that was number one that was very base level, and then after that, we really started to take a look

[00:10:20] Shakima: at what the hiring process looks like for everyone and then ensuring that everyone is going through the same exact flow, and then after that, also making sure that we are recruiting or at least trying to recruit and do outreach within groups that have this diversity that we’re looking for, it’s very easy to just put your job posting up and expect that people are going to apply to it, and all of those people are going to be this amazing plethora of diverse individuals, and that doesn’t happen. So, we had to go out and do what I call guerilla recruiting which is, let’s find the groups for UX professionals who happen to be (inaudible), where are those groups?

[00:10:56] Shakima: and then lets connect with those, let’s connect with those members, and we did a lot of that, and so that honestly, between that outreach and now looking at the recruiting process in a different way, really helped us get this amazing influx of talent at answer lab and how we track the success is we go back and we look at our analytics, right?

[00:11:16] Shakima: We have dashboard analytics, people can self-identify. We go back and we look at those analytics and we say, okay, how many people in specific demographics are applying to our roles? How many people have expressed interest? How many people are getting through the interview process? Where are they falling off in the interview process?

[00:11:32] Shakima: So that’s been some of the ways that we’ve been able to keep a pulse, and consistently we do this on a monthly basis, keep a pulse on what our, our talent pools look like, and then more so internally we had to set we basically set a, I don’t wanna say a quota, but it’s similar to the Moony rule, right?

[00:11:48] Shakima: Of you making sure that you have a certain amount of people who identify as such in your final interview panel, and I won’t close a role until we have that, we have to make sure that we are interviewing all types of people, and I think that’s really important as well, and so setting those quotas, monitoring them, going back and having these open conversations with our hiring managers and teams and monitoring those analytics have been like the biggest ways that we’ve been able to really affect change.

[00:12:16] Amy: You said a couple things I wanna touch on the first is, going different places to find different talent.

Shakima: Yes.

Amy: I do a lot of training around hiring, I have a program called hire beyond bias, and I always tell people, if you always fish in the same pond, you’re always gonna catch the same kind of fish.

[00:12:29] Amy: If you want Alaskan salmon, you have to go to Alaska, to fish. That’s where you find Alaskan and salmon, you don’t find it in the retention pond in your neighborhood, in Ohio, and you have to cast out your lines where the fish are that you wanna find, and I think people, think we’ll just put it on the internet, because everybody has the internet, and it’s not enough, because people wanna know, not just that they can apply, but that you want them to apply.

[00:12:56] Shakima: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, and it’s a very it’s a very strategic as you probably know, it’s a very strategic process because, as you said it’s easy to throw up a job position and just expect that people are going to apply to it.

[00:13:11] Shakima: But there’s so many subsets and so many groups, that have no idea that this company exists. Especially since we are a small, a smaller business, and so we had to get really strategic about, forming these partnerships with, a certain group that’s geared towards. Black UX researchers or Hispanic UX researchers.

[00:13:29] Shakima: We had to be very intentional and specific about where we, put our time because we wanted to consciously build this team.

[00:13:37] Amy: Yeah. And I think this monthly focus on analytics is really important as well because in any business, no matter how small or how big. you can’t manage anything if you can’t measure it.

Shakima: Yes.

[00:13:48] Amy: And there’s no accountability if there are no metrics, and so having that detail about, this many people applied, this is the percentage that were, representative of, that were black, this is the percentage that we’re women, this is the percentage that were disabled, or LGBTQ or Hispanic, and then, okay, then how many fell off at the resume review stage okay? If we know that we lost 90% of our historically underrepresented talent or historically excluded talent at that phase, what is what’s happening at that phase?

Shakima: Exactly.

[00:14:24] Amy: Causing the drop off and now you can go fix each problem as you find it.

[00:14:29] Amy: As opposed to some companies have done say it’s a pipeline problem, there’s just no talent out there. Nothing we can do. I see you rolling your eyes. You wanna talk about that?

[00:14:37] Shakima: Yes, please. I am the pipeline problem, myth it’s it kinda gives me some anxiety. Because there is technic, there is no pipeline problem, right?

[00:14:46] Shakima: There are people who are out there who are job seeking, and they just may not know that you exist, and it is in your responsibility as any recruiter or talent, excuse me, talent acquisition person, worth their salt to go out and find the talent that you are looking for. So that, that kinda, every time someone mentions the pipeline problem glaze over and have this response, but you have to do the work, right?

[00:15:10] Shakima: It’s like you have to do the work. I started off it’s funny, when I started off and was doing, I was in my DEI function, but I was our sole talent acquisition person for quite a while before we brought in another team member to assist, and so when I was doing this by myself, it’s okay, this is a lot, but I know I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta do this.

[00:15:31] Shakima: I’ve gotta make these connections, and then now I’m lucky enough, thankfully enough to have a team, that feels, and they understand what I have established and what you know, where we’re going when it comes to talent acquisition, and they’re able to now go out and make these connections, but it is so important to fish outside of the normal pond.

[00:15:51] Shakima: I see so many people that are like, oh, LinkedIn, like LinkedIn is gold and it’s amazing. But if you are sourcing on LinkedIn, you’ve gotta be intentional about that, and you’ve gotta be able to put in the time, there are, you’re coming up with thousands of profiles and I have sat for hours upon hours, scrolling profiles and emailing people to gain interest.

[00:16:09] Shakima: But it’s something that you have to be willing to do, right? If you really intentional about diversity and making sure that you put that role out there and more people in different demographics know that it exists.

[00:16:21] Amy: Absolutely, and I’m gonna go a step further and say, it’s not enough to invite people to where you are.

[00:16:28] Amy: You have to go where people are. To show that you are actually committed to them, and so when you talked about engaging user groups or engaging small pockets of professionals that had already gathered together, right? then you’re talking about showing up for people in an authentic way, in a genuine way, in a generous way,

[00:16:49] Amy: and then they already know you and trust you, and you’ve given them a compelling reason then to want to apply because it’s not just does the talent exist, it’s does the talent exist and do they want to work with us? And you’re on mute, Shakima.

[00:17:06] Shakima: Oh, sorry about that, Amy. You’re absolutely right.

[00:17:10] Shakima: So, one of the things that we have, actually, a few of the things that we’ve done at Ansel lab is we make it very clear what our stance is on inclusivity and diversity, and what inequity and all of that, we make it very clear up to. Front, if people visit our careers page they will know, right?

[00:17:25] Shakima: what our stance is. In addition to that, one of the great things that came out of 2020 for us was that we decided to conduct this body of research, fully answer lab sponsored research around some of the issues that were affecting people at the time. So, race and remote and remote corporate culture, right?

[00:17:42] Shakima: How are people of color feeling now that we’ve transitioned fully to remote work and those pressures that they may have felt to code switch, or to behave or act in a different way at work?  How are they feeling now that you don’t have to do that? Because you’re at home. Then we did another study around parents and the, now the responsibilities that all parents and caretakers are facing, right? in the pandemic when you’re home and your kids and everything is in the same space.

[00:18:09] Shakima: How are you navigating this? I would say that was a really influential body of research, we did it and then we put all of our findings out, right? on answer lab’s website on LinkedIn, we publicized it extremely well. And that brought in so much, so many candidates who were just interested in working with us because we felt the need to have that conversation.

[00:18:32] Shakima: We were bold enough to go to that point of saying, hey, if you’re a person of color, you could have been experiencing things within the workplace in a, in person setting that didn’t feel good, and now that you are working remotely, that may have shifted, how did that shift tell us about it?

[00:18:48] Shakima: And then we did recommendations, right? For companies to utilize, to make sure that their employees are feeling good, about where they’re working and about their remote status now, we questioned professionalism and we questioned things of, like the crown act hair, and things that people just probably don’t even think about on a conscious basis, but that people of color have to navigate and deal with every day in a work setting,

[00:19:10] Shakima: and so just putting those things out there into the world, attracted so many amazing people to answer a lot because they started to feel like, wow, this is company, that’s having a conversation, this is a company that’s like really serious about their goals and their commitment to DEI, and we’ve just been transparent.

[00:19:29] Shakima: We’ve been incredibly, just transparent about where we are about what our successes are about where we need to improve, and that has helped us build this reputation in the industry of, a company that’s basically walking the talk.

[00:19:41] Amy: It’s so important because if you want people to see you as a viable option for their career, they need to know that you see them first, and that they have a shot.

[00:19:50] Amy: Because a lot of times, if you don’t see them, they don’t feel. Maybe they can come and get a paycheck and maybe they can come and do some good work, but they’ll never be recognized, they’ll never be promoted, they’ll never be appreciated, and by showing that appreciation from the outset, I think you’re creating something that’s very compelling for people who have felt left out for a long time,

[00:20:09] Amy: and I wanna thank you for that.

[00:20:11] Shakima: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I have to think about one of the most like, I think heartfelt compliments that I ever got was two years ago. We did, we, we celebrate pride every year at answer lab myself being a woman of color, being a queer person, I decided to do a, just a simple, basic quote, right around pride and around, why I’m happy to work at a workplace that, that, Recognizes that, LGBTQIA community

[00:20:41] Shakima: and we utilize that in some, like on a LinkedIn post, that we wrote about pride, and I had someone a ye a whole year and a half later who started at answer lab, who was now part of the company and we were on a meeting and she goes, I just want you to know that one of the reasons that I applied to answer lab is because I saw the post about pride,

[00:21:04] Shakima: and about how happy you were to work at a company that is so inclusive of LGBTQ IA people, and I said, are you serious? I didn’t, they, I just thought that was something that was just so flippant. It was something I just did because I was like, I’m happy, let me put that out there, but not realizing at the moment, the impact that someone who feels unseen right?

[00:21:26] Shakima: In the, or in their everyday life or in their organization. That could have on them, and then that inspires them to kind want to come and work with this company that would make them feel included and make them feel seed. So, it is such a, I feel like it’s such a responsibility that we have as DEI professionals to, to just do the work, but then to also

[00:21:48] Shakima: create this visibility and show people, that there’s a way and show people that they’re wanted and needed and necessary, and yeah I just, I consistently strive to do that in this role.

[00:22:01] Amy: Shakima, thank you so much for sharing with us today for seeing people the way you do, and for letting them know that they’re valued and that they matter in your company and just broadly in the world.

[00:22:12] Amy: I appreciate you, and I wanna thank you for being on the show.

[00:22:16] Shakima: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me. I really appreciate it.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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