What does diversity mean?
Before we delve into how SamKnows has improved diversity, it’s important to establish what diversity means to the company in the first place.
For Roxanne, the definition is relatively simple: “Diversity just means difference,” she said. “It means representation in an intersectional way – having a wide range of people. It’s about thinking about our differences and encouraging wide representation, and recognising that no two people are the same and not to make assumptions about people.”
Roxanne also has a personal motivation for driving EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) in the business. “I’m passionate about it because
I should be as a people professional – it’s important that I take responsibility for that area and make sure that we have an inclusive work culture,” she said. “But also as a queer, black African woman from South Africa, it is an important part of my background, and something of which I’m highly aware and trying to improve my awareness of constantly. So, it’s something I’m personally invested in as well.”
SamKnows CEO Alex Salter recalls the moment he decided the company had to make a greater effort to improve the company’s diversity, which ultimately resulted in the company hiring Roxanne.
“We’ve always been very responsible as a company and we also like to measure things – it’s what we do as a company,” he said. “I remember a meeting with a colleague, Reuben Hooper, who decided to carry out some analysis on diversity across the company. He called me into a meeting and presented the data to me – and I was surprised by how far off ideal we were. I remember Reuben looking at me and saying ‘we have to do something about this’. From that meeting, we essentially determined to create a team that was diverse. I remember it very clearly, because I went into the meeting thinking that everything was okay and I walked out thinking we have so much work to do here.”
It’s about recognising that no two people are the same and not to make assumptions about other people.
Recruitment is obviously a key part of creating a diverse company, and here SamKnows has made significant changes to its processes in recent years – and that started with hiring a team to do the recruitment in the first place.
“Prior to me even starting, the business had stopped working with external recruiters,” said Roxanne. “They did this because the pipeline kept being filled with people of the same profile. Having an internal team and increasing our internal capacity for recruitment was an important change to make; it’s ensured that the internal recruitment team is focused on creating diverse pipelines.”
That starts with getting the job ads right, ensuring that the company isn’t signalling that it’s only open to the demographics who typically fill tech roles. “It’s about making sure that we’re attractive to a wide range of people,” said Roxanne.
Now when advertisements for jobs are created, the company is conscious that it doesn’t include the kind of language that “can discourage people from applying in the first place,” said Roxanne.
Alex Salter insists that having a diverse breadth of candidates for every vacancy is non-negotiable. “Unless we have diversity in the candidate pipeline, we won’t start interviewing,” said Alex. “When we first started doing this, we had to insist on it. Now it just happens. It’s become muscle memory.”
Unless we have diversity in the candidate pipeline, we won’t start interviewing.
The interview process has also evolved over time. Now it’s very different from the conventional approach of identifying candidates who would be a ‘good fit’ for the company. ‘We have a two-stage interview process,” said Roxanne. “The first is focused on technical capabilities, while the second is on cultural contribution. There was a big focus on moving away from finding a cultural fit – not looking for people to fit into an existing culture, but rather, who are the people who will bring fresh perspectives and still do their best work?”
Even before the interview, candidates are given a competence-based assessment – and here, again, thought is given to making sure people aren’t discriminated against. “People have time to respond to a more challenging technical assessment,” said Roxanne. “We did that so people don’t feel the time pressure of an interview,” something that could disadvantage candidates who suffer with severe anxiety, for example.
All of this is designed to ensure that SamKnows is attracting the broadest possible field of candidates. “SamKnows doesn’t want to be a typical tech company,” said Roxanne. “We want to be different; we want to lead the industry in different ways – not just in technical capability, but also as a place to work. This is something that Alex as CEO has made very clear, and that helps us move things forward in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion as well.”
Who are the people who will bring fresh perspectives and still do their best work?
Hiring a diverse team is important, but putting effort into retaining them is equally critical. That starts with proactively talking to the people within the organisation about EDI, and surpassing the conventional measures of representation. For SamKnows, this means “looking beyond nationality and gender”, and monitoring the level of representation in different areas to ensure “we’re not being exclusive and that our policies are inclusive and speak to the people who work here”.
Roxanne said the company has been “opening conversations and speaking specifically around different areas of diversity and inclusion”, which includes awareness workshops for everyone within the company. That’s helped make managers feel comfortable about opening conversations around inclusivity. Equally, Roxanne said, there have been “quite a few examples of employees coming to me with their managers to have a conversation, and we have really positive outcomes because of that.”
Those conversations also help shape the company’s policies in areas such as parental leave and flexible working. They have a direct impact on the new SamKnows offices, too, which have been designed with inclusion at the forefront, including facilities such as genderless bathrooms and a quiet room that’s available for prayer or expressing milk.
We’re not being exclusive and that our policies are inclusive and speak to the people who work here.
Even work social events are timed with consideration for employees. “The aim of our events is to bring people together and connect people across the business, and so it won’t help if we hold events after hours, in the evenings, when people with caring responsibilities or parents are unable to come – or they turn up but stress out because they need to leave soon. Our operations manager, Vanessa, is very conscious about those kinds of things, for which I’m so grateful.”
Roxanne can also see evidence that the company’s inclusivity efforts are paying off. For example, when the company surveys staff to find out how they describe themselves in terms of gender, sexual orientation or access needs, employees aren’t reluctant to divulge such information.
“The data shows there’s an increase in trust,” she said. “With all demographic data gathering, it isn’t good to force people to disclose or share areas of their identity, and something significant that I’m happy to see is that there’s a smaller percentage of people selecting ‘prefer not to say’ in response to such questions.”
Creating a diverse team isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s proved hugely beneficial for the company as a whole. “People who have different backgrounds and a wider perspective on the world, and understand different cultures, are able to engage more effectively with our global client base,” said Roxanne.
Staff retention is up, team morale is up – and profits are up, too. That halo effect pleases CEO Alex Salter. “We need people who think differently and that’s why diversity is so important to us,” he said.
“Cognitive diversity is our goal and the benefits from having a cognitively diverse team are just incredible; I
can’t even put it into words. If I compare SamKnows today to what it was five years ago, it’s just a completely different organisation, and I couldn’t be more passionate about the gains of having a diverse team.
“We really see this in all of our metrics, including our financial metrics,” said Alex. “The company just recorded a record month for revenue and profitability, and that’s a result of everyone doing such a great job and having such a great, diverse team.”
The other thing Alex wants to stress? It isn’t hard. That’s not to belittle the efforts of Roxanne and other members of the SamKnows team who put enormous effort into creating an inclusive environment. But building a company that cherishes inclusion and cognitive diversity isn’t an insurmountable challenge, provided everyone in the company embraces the ethos.
We need people who think differently and that’s why diversity is so important to us.
“I think what has really helped is senior leadership buy-in and leadership on EDI,” said Roxanne. “That’s been super helpful. I spend less time having to convince and get buy-in when I introduce new policies or do research.”
What also makes life easier is “having a recruitment team that focuses on EDI and doesn’t see it as a burden,” said Roxanne.
That’s created an entire organisation of “engaged people who are willing to participate in conversations and provide feedback – and who are forgiving when we make mistakes, giving us a chance to improve things. I’ve been really grateful for that; it helps move things forward.”
That’s not to say driving change isn’t difficult at times. “Sometimes, I take for granted that I’m thinking about EDI and how we improve things, and something that seems like quite a simple change to me might take some time for people to wrap their minds around, to think about the impact and effect of implementing this change.
And sometimes, I admit, I can be a little impatient; but for the most part, we’re able to move forward together and in a positive way.”
“I don’t think it’s hard to create an inclusive company,” Roxanne concludes. “It’s only hard depending on how you see the challenge.”
I don’t think it’s hard to create an inclusive company. It’s only hard depending on how you see the challenge.
SamKnows diversity data
SamKnows is a company whose business is measuring performance. So when CEO Alex Salter set about improving the company’s diversity, what targets did he set to measure performance?
“We try to mirror the population statistics of London, while also wanting to mirror the demographics of the customers we’re working with,” said Alex. “SamKnows is a global company. We’re working with people all over the world. So that actually provided us with a very good target to hit in terms of what would be ideal diversity for SamKnows.”
The data shown here is from 2023, with the exception of “access needs”, where we compare 2022 to 2023. This shows a decrease in the number of employees choosing not to specify their access needs, reinforcing Roxanne Botman’s point about employees increasingly trusting the company with how such data is used.