Diversity & The Workplace

09/16/2016     

In 2014, a much-vaunted app was released; the creators claimed this app would be a one-stop shop for personal health. Users could track calories consumed, blood alcohol content, respiratory rate, and vitamin intake; they could also look for information on ways to improve health, and advice on symptoms they were suffering. The app’s creators claimed that this was the future of personal healthcare, and the app did much of what it claimed, with a single glaring exception.

The app, and its associated programming interface, didn’t have a single jot or line of data about women’s health. There was no way to track menstrual cycles, no information on sexual health for women, no information about female-specific disease. Nothing. How was it possible for such a high-profile app to have such a massive hole in its construction? The answer is very simple- the development team didn’t have a single woman. From start to finish, the app was built entirely by men, and in the echo chamber that resulted, no one thought to create any software for basic women’s health.

This exemplifies why diversity is so incredibly important in today’s workplace. A lack of diversity in a team leads to a lack of diverse viewpoints; a lack of viewpoints leads to a very narrow outlook and a similarly narrow production. The metaphorical “echo chamber” arises because it’s simply impossible to fully realize and empathize with experiences and viewpoints other than your own- you can’t change your own past, and you can’t spot a flaw in your own knowledge based on that past.

At Zappos, we are people of all sorts of colors, shapes, sizes, creeds, shoe size, hobbies, and favorite foods. We try to realize that there are no stereotypes, that every single person is a full and unique individual. Beyond that, we encourage bringing yourself and your unique passions to work, adding your individual outlook and skills to the resources of the company. We don’t succeed flawlessly- biases always exist, and every day is a struggle to avoid instinctual or baked-in patterns of thought, biased behavior. We attempt to avoid the myth of the “professional”- there are no dress codes, no guides for hair color or desk decorations, because we believe that stifling the individual to make them fit into the mold of what a “professional” looks like is not only pointless, but actively harmful to the company. Only when people are allowed to truly be themselves- to have a Brain-In-A-Jar on their desk, or to juggle while they think, or come to work in a Batman onesie- are they able to commit themselves fully to work, to adapt and change and solve problems.

Oddly enough, a commitment to diversity and personal freedom can actually calcify into its own bias. Even here at Zappos, there are often currents of feeling that you’re not allowed to wear a suit and tie, even if that’s what you enjoy, because Zappos isn’t a normal place. Sometimes people feel like they can’t be quiet, or be introverted, because Zappos is loud, even if that’s how they operate and are comfortable. It’s a difficulty of self-improvement- we may feel like we’ve conquered our biases, and therefore assume that we’re immune to developing new or different ones. To truly open a workplace to including all types of workers, we need to conquer our preconceptions anew every day. Doing so, the increase in new ideas is tremendous- freeing people to be themselves allows for an amazing amount of creativity in their work. Diversity, true diversity, means that there are no ideas so outlandish that they’re dismissed out of hand. We work every day to improve- we’re not perfect, but we strive to make our workplace absolutely open, a place where everyone can feel safe to really be themselves. Until next time, this is Chris, your friendly Zappos Pirate, signing off. Ar-har!

Author: Chris Foster

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