Applying Diversity Strategies to Remote Equity with Lever’s Annie Lin

Annie LinChief People Officer, Lever

Annie explains how we can think about new hybrid forms of work in a similar way to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as well as how Lever is aiming for equity in everyone’s ability to have an equal impact, irrespective of their day-to-day work experience.

Episode Transcript


[0:00:59.9] RS: Joining me today on Talk Talent to Me is the VP of people over at Lever, Annie Lin. Annie, welcome to the show, how are you?


[0:01:07.5] AL: Thanks so much, Rob, doing well, how are you?


[0:01:09.7] RS: I’m great, thanks so much for asking. I am a big fan of Lever. I have podcasted with a handful of Leveroo’s I believe, is that what you all call yourselves?


[0:01:17.8] AL: Yes, Leveroo’s.


[0:01:19.0] RS: Leveroo’s over the years and I have always had a great time chatting with folks over there. I know my audience will know your company well, you are definitely a player, a household name in the HR tech space among the recruiting crowds. I’m just delighted to be speaking with you, thanks so much for being here and I have a million questions for you, so many things I want to talk about but I guess, we can skip over what Lever does because as I said, people know.


I would love to know just a little bit about you Annie. Would you mind telling us about your background and your current role and kind of how you came to the company?


[0:01:49.4] AL: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks Rob, thanks for having me on the show. My name is Annie as Rob said, I’m the VP of people at Lever. I have a little bit of an untraditional background I suppose. I have not been in the HR recruiting space my whole career. In fact, a good chunk of my early career was in business operations and business management.


Eventually, I found my way into this formal people space because I realized that the culture and talent and people aspect of my job have always been what I found most challenging and rewarding, even in my roles prior to the formal people space. I ultimately came to Lever because it is such a – the company, not only, right, the product enables as the rest of the talent ecosystem but I think the company itself is doing really awesome work when it comes to people topics. 


I don’t mean that as a pat on the back, I think the company has always been doing really innovative work even before I joined. That was really appealing to me to join a company of like-minded people who really understand the value of people functions, right? The success of teams, the success of business.


[0:03:00.0] RS: I love meeting folks who came to people ops, HR or even just HR tech industry after having varied experience elsewhere because I just like hearing what it was about that function or the space that was attractive. Can you think back to when you made that pivot to wanting to focus more on people ops, getting out of the biz management, sort of side of house and focus on the people things? What about that role is appealing to you?


[0:03:28.5] AL: Yeah, 100 percent. At the time I made the decision, I was actually in a general manager role for an education tech startup basically running every aspect of the local business and what was very, very clear in roles like that and roles I had before that is, as a business leader, is just how critical the people side of things are to the success of the business, right?


There’s a lot that makes a business work or not work and I truly believe that almost everything boils down to people; who you have, who you don’t have, how does people work together, how they don’t work together, and how they evolve and grow as the organization evolves and grows, and the world, quite frankly, evolves and grows as well.


I think that realization really made me more than ever see the really critical role and partnership that people functions the rest of the business have to have with each other. I mean, that’s what brought me into the space.


[0:04:29.1] RS: How did that realization inform your approach at Lever? When you started, what are some of the processes you wanted to put in place? What were some of the changes you made or education that you undertook? How did you get started?


[0:04:42.3] AL: Yeah, I think the way that I sort of take it into my people roles now is I think of fundamentally, the role of the entire people function as that of a business partner. There are folks whose actual titles are business partners, right? I think almost doesn’t matter what role you have in the people function, you could be a recruiter, you could get be an HR coordinator.


I really push my team to think about their roles from the mindset of a partner to the business. What that means is spending time, understanding pain points, goals across different parts of the organization, getting to know how different teams might be different from each other, as well as similar to each other and in terms of what’s keeping them up at night. Top targets, right? For different departments, biggest risks they see in those targets actually coming to life.


Being able to sort of prioritize our own work on the people team accordingly, right? To make sure that what we focus on is really well aligned as much as we can with true priorities and the rest of the company, we try our best to not sit in a silo but instead go out and talk to the rest of the company, make sure we understand what’s happening and as things change so quickly as well. 


[0:05:50.3] RS: I love that you, for your team, put their work in context of being partners the rest of the business, it sounds like you are working to help them understand how they are most valuable and maybe double down on that which tells me you’re probably a really good boss. Do I have that right? Is that kind of the goal behind having them think of themselves as partners to the business?


[0:06:12.6] AL: Yeah, well, you’re going to have to ask my team to – on the boss piece, I can’t. Yes, 100 percent, right? At the end of the day, we’re all here, whether you’re all people team or not, we’re all here to build a great company together, we’re all here to build a great business together and I really think about impact in the context of that.


[0:06:31.4] RS: How do you push them to reflect on that? I’m just curious, what that – maybe on your skip level one-on-one’s or whatever it is, are you saying, “Hey, ask yourself this question” or you just straight up saying like, “Hey so and so, I think you’re most valuable here, think of your work in terms of that” or how do you help people explore this and realize it for themselves?


[0:06:50.4] AL: I try to, I push my leaders to try to really deeply understand and also share business context that they see or hear or observe, maybe things are spoken as well as things that are not spoken, right? In meetings and conversations et cetera. We talk about how the business is doing often, right? When there’s – when the sales team or another team hits their target or exceeds their targets, we try to be excited as well, right? That’s a win for the whole company and that’s a win therefore for everybody in the company and it’s our job to make sure that that is happening constantly and to help leaders course correct when that might not be happening.


[0:07:27.3] RS: Yes, yes. Makes sense. With this rising of these various hybrid models of work, right? Whether it’s part-time remote, full-time remote, you can come into the office whenever you want, you have to come in two times a day, what have you, the people role has changed with that. You’re presumably providing value in new and different ways. I’m curious just how that’s shaken out for you a little bit, what are the realities of your role right now in the context of shifting work?


[0:07:56.4] AL: I think of this new world of work in a similar way as I perhaps think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is that we can’t think of them as like, a separate set of programs by themselves but it’s more almost a lens and a success criterion, if you will, that we should apply to everything that we do. 


This is the work, the way we tackle DEI to make sure it’s embedded really deeply into every part of how we run our business and run our org and this is the approach that we’ve been taking as well with hybrid work and the new world of work, right?


We’ve had very intentional conversations about how, in this new context, how do we need to rethink the way we interview candidates, the way we onboard new hires, the way we support and train managers, the way we think about promotions, and sort of expectation setting across the company, the way we think about communication across the company. It really is a lens to take to every process and every program that we run.


[0:09:00.2] RS: It’s obviously very complex, there’s all these different variables and considerations but it seems like the common thread in all of it is empathy, right? What is it like for an employee who is on-boarded and fully remote? What is it like for them when there are promotions happening? Are they being considered? What is it like for them when there’s like an offsite and people having a bunch of fun and they’re feeling left out? That piece of it is not new to remote work, right? That was just putting yourself in the shoes of the people in your company, right?


[0:09:27.3] AL: A 100 percent. This has always been the case, right? If you have multiple offices, people with different backgrounds and life circumstances.


[0:09:34.2] RS: I always thought about that too and if you’ve had more than one office, then you had a remote work culture far before the pandemic, right? Whether you like it or not, these considerations were probably a part of your world. 


I’m curious, how do you level set for all of these different experiences? If someone is completely remote, if someone’s not coming into the office, how do you make sure you create an equitable environment for these individuals? Because it just strikes me that it’s so hard to root out bias and someone for example who is in the office all the time is probably going to be more top of mind, is probably going to be more likely to be viewed favorably for a promotion, right? Just because they’re there. How do you sort of level set for these differences and make sure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed?


[0:10:18.5] AL: Yeah, and I’ll starting to say that we definitely have not figured out all the details, right? This is as the – as COVID and the world is evolving, we are also still coming off and deepening a lot of our own stances on a lot of these things but for us, I think it starts with being really intentional and clear about what should be “equal” and what maybe doesn’t need to be.


For us, the stance that we’ve taken at Lever which might not be the stance that works for every company. We came to this decision with a lot of input from our employees as well is we are going with this hybrid model where we do plan to reopen offices, once it’s safe in our headquarter locations which today are San Francisco and Toronto. We’ve selected LA and Chicago as our hubs where we don’t plan to have an office quite yet but we do plan to concentrate quite a lot of our hiring in those two locations, in addition to the two headquarter locations. In addition to sort of being open as it makes sense to other parts of the US and Canada as well. 


Eventually, you’re going to have this world, once we have offices again where there will be some people who are in the office, a few days a week most likely and work from home the rest of the week, and some folks who are fully remote all the time, right? Essentially, it creates these multiple employee experiences, right? Before we might have had, if we had one office and everyone came in every day, you want employee experience and now you have multiple.


For us, the sort of philosophy that we’ve taken is we’re intentionally giving everyone a flexibility, right? To pick what’s best for them and as a result, by design, we’re actually not aiming for complete egalitarianism in terms of everyone’s day-to-day experiences but rather, what we are optimizing for and aiming for is equity and in everyone’s ability to have an equal impact.


There’s a particular stance, right? Not all companies might decide to take that stance but that’s the one that we’ve come to. We’re going to give folks these different scenarios and choices that they can pick from. There are certainly challenges and upsides and opportunities that come with each of those and we’re going to try to be clear about them upfront as much as we can.


Then we – you know, we’ll give employees resources but ultimately, also expect our employees to leverage the resources available to them, whether that’s provided by us or not, to make the most of the shows on arrangement, right? We’re entering a world where our goal is no longer that everyone’s day-to-day experiences look the same because that is just not the case, right? If we are providing on the flip side, this type of flexibility and choice. There is a lot we have to be really thoughtful intentional about, in terms of making sure folks still have sort of consistent equitable ability to have impact on the company.


[0:12:59.3] RS: It’s a small but important difference between equality and equity. Equality means “same” and equal means “same” and as you point out, the experience is not the same, right? It’s just fundamentally not like that ship has sailed but equity, in terms of someone’s ability to have impact as you said, someone’s ability to be value in the organization should be the same, right? Should be considered. 


In the case where you have, maybe I’ll just give you an example, you can tell me if it’s a bad one, but you have one individual who is in the geography of your headquarters and comes in every day and sits next to their boss and you know, is very much there. I have another team mate on the exact same team who is fully remote. What can you put into place to make sure that they have equitable work experiences?


[0:13:49.8] AL: Yeah, it’s a great example. I mean, there’s a lot of work that we’ve been doing at Lever over the last two years that I think are really relevant to this new world and that is to put in place both from a cultural perspective and from frameworks perspective, a shift in focus toward outcomes. The company is less focused on effort and more focused on results. One of the reasons and one of the advantages of that shift in focus quite frankly, is because we know that people are at different circumstances, right?


To your point earlier, while this new world of work has sort of added yet another layer to that, that has always been the case, right? We have folks who have kids at home, we have folks who have different types of arrangements, right? We have people who quite frankly are just effective in different types of environments and we want to be inclusive of all of that. We want all of those different types of people to still be able to be successful and not say that you must – to not say that to be successful, you must approach your work in exactly this way and this way only. 


The shift in thinking more of our results and a couple of things we’ve done, you know, we’ve now really embedded OKRs as a key way of setting goals and measuring success across the company. Every quarter teams and individuals score their OKRs in the previous quarter and then send new OKRs for the next quarter and talk about it with their manager to make sure everyone is all in the same page. We’ve reshaped the way we think about performance reviews and comp reviews and promotions to be much more focused on impact and results. We’ve add channels like all hands every two weeks. We talk a lot about metrics, how the company is doing, how different parts of the company is doing from the end goal results. This shift has been I think really, really healthy in a lot of ways and I think as you teases this up, tease it up really well in this new world of work as well. 


[0:15:46.5] RS: You mentioned at the top of the show that you think about this the same way you think about DEI and it’s becoming clear as you speak about it how one-to-one these approaches are, because I am thinking about in my head as you are speaking, oh sure, you would measure how someone – like what is your representation at the managerial level and cut that down by remote or in person in the same way you cut it down by all the other various operators for diversity, right? 


In the same way, how are you thinking about diversity, employee experience, employee like “state”, I guess, we need a better term for this. What I am trying to get at is what you call these different employee personas in terms of where they work and how they bring their selves to work that is now a variable of diversity. Treat it like you would every other one, right? 


[0:16:38.2] AL: One hundred percent, yeah. I mean, that’s absolutely right. My team does a lot of work to use data, leverage data to make sure that we’re on track, right? On hitting the goals on our bar for good and constantly raising that bar when it comes to DEI across different areas. We look at things across, like I mentioned is like gender, race, et cetera. Absolutely, whether someone is remote or where they’re based, right? Their sort of workplace arrangement fits very naturally into these types of analysis as well. 


[0:17:11.6] RS: Yeah, I am so excited by this. It is so simple but I don’t know, when something like clicks for me I get really thrilled but yeah, it’s so obvious. It’s like this is just another way to think about diversity and you measure for it and solve for the same way you would anyone else you want to have representation and impact in your company, right? 


[0:17:27.2] AL: One hundred percent, yes. 


[0:17:28.6] RS: I wanted to speak to you about just the reality of working at Lever being an HR tech product because you have insight into lots of different talent teams, right? All of your customers are talent teams and I am curious how much you interact with those individuals to sort of counsel or to even counsel the product team or to just sort of like level set about what the world is like out there. What is your contact with the customer base and the product team and your involvement as VP of people for a company who makes products that often the decision maker is VP of people? 


[0:18:04.9] AL: Yeah, 100 percent. I mean, it is definitely unique to be part of the people team at a company like Lever where we are essentially the meta team. My team is often involved in prospect facing conversations because of our existing customers, we have regular touch points with our product team to make sure that as the internal users of our own product, we’re providing feedback as well, and testing out let’s say new features early on so we could give that feedback. 


[0:18:30.3] RS: What have you heard out there? What is life like for this swath of talent pros? 


[0:18:34.2] AL: Yeah, I mean I think especially recently, a lot of what we heard is that depending on what industry you’re in that the job market has really heated back up again. Of course we saw this dip when the pandemic started and then as time has gone on, different industries have recovered and some have more than recovered. We’re back to a place where there is a real war competing for the best talent, right? A lot of talent teams are thinking about, you know, how do you engage passive candidates, right? How do you not only wait for people to find you and apply to your company? You actually have to go out there and use tools. I mean I am biased, but obviously Lever helps with this from a tool perspective to go and actually find candidates who might not be actively looking at you and your company. And how do you then stand out? If candidates possibly might be speaking with many companies, might have many options, how do you make sure you stand out? 


This is where candidate experience becomes extra important. This is where you have to be really thoughtful and strategic about employer branding. All of these details actually become really, really important for you to win this competition that’s heated back up again, right? To get the best talent. 


Then the other topic that has always been I think top of mind for a lot of talent teams as it should be is again diversity and inclusion, right? How do you make sure that you are attracting and bringing in diverse candidates and, as we’ve just talked about, diversity now has this extra dimension of location as well, but certainly, all of the previous admissions still apply as well, right? This is about again, how do you leverage things like sourcing, using data, you know, setting intentional goals, really looking at your interview processes to make sure you’re bringing in candidates from different backgrounds and different locations. 


[0:20:23.4] RS: Have you set specific goals around representation for Lever? 


[0:20:27.7] AL: We have, yeah. Actually, one of our company OKRs in addition to being a people team OKR is about certain aspects of pipeline diversity at different stages of our recruiting process. 


[0:20:40.3] RS: Could you share a little bit about how you sort of determine what those OKRs would be? 


[0:20:43.9] AL: I am a huge data person and so I tend to want to look at our historical data. Within Lever, we use our own diversity insight surveys, where candidates can anonymously and optionally share more about their demographic information with us. It’s all anonymous and it gives us an aggregate of a lot of information about the diversity of our pipelines at various stages of interview processes, right? That allows us to take a look at where things are strong and where things are not strong and set goals accordingly so we can make the holistic pipeline more diverse from stage to stage. 


[0:21:22.3] RS: Right. Is a true north for you in setting diversity goals? Is it “Let’s improve a little bit every quarter” like X percent every quarter? That strikes me as more common than just setting like a top level goal like let’s get to 52 percent female representation, right? Because the population is 52 percent female and we want to match the representation of the market’s reserve, right? Are there top level goals like that or do you just sort of strive for overall improvement across the board? 


[0:21:48.9] AL: I guess it’s a mix for us depending on the exact detail of the goal, right? We definitely consult not only our own historical data, which is what I just talked about, but also we consult benchmarks on what’s “normal” and then we make a judgment call of, “Is normal good enough for us?” A lot of times depending on the industry you’re in, the type of role you’re talking about, “normal” might be abysmal. Maybe we want to be way better than the “benchmark” and so we will make calls like that as well. 


[0:22:19.3] RS: Yeah, I’ve kind of found that in my own work that benchmarking is not particularly useful because in the event where the benchmark is bad, if you clear that pitiful bar, good job. Congratulations, you’re marginally better than everyone who is terrible at this. 


[0:22:35.0] AL: Yes, exactly.


[0:22:37.4] RS: I always focused on, “Let’s just focus on some kind of growth for our in-house things that we can control” right? If we are X percent better every month, every quarter, then we will achieve that. It sounds like you kind of balance both, right? The benchmark is just sort of like, “Let’s get a sense of which way the wind is blowing” and then you figure out for yourself on what success means. 


[0:22:58.2] AL: Exactly. 


[0:22:59.0] RS: What does success mean? 


[0:23:00.6] AL: It’s a good question, right? We currently have about 50 percent actually of Lever’s employees today are identified as female. It is something that we’re very proud of, it’s the result of a lot of intentional efforts over the years and that is certainly something we want to maintain. We do actually look at stats like that on team by team level as well, right? Because the holistic number could pile team by team differences and this is something that not only about gender but also about other dimensions of diversity that we talk to department heads about, department leaders about on a regular basis. 


On a quarterly basis, my team actually brings data on sort of the state of the union of DEI for their team. We look at the data together, we talk about where things are good, at least by the way we define it, and where their hot spots that we want to work on. Then we talk about what we’re going to do to work on those areas. There’s been moments when there are certain teams that have a less diverse set of representation than what we and the leaders agree what we would like to see. We will talk about things like do we want to do more intentional sourcing, set sourcing targets? Do we want to go through like do we want to advertise the role in different types of networks, et cetera? 


[0:24:13.7] RS: I love hearing when folks break it down by team and really slice the data in more telling ways because you’re right, it is so common to see this top level reporting, right? It’s like, “Oh we have X percent. We have X percent female representation at this level.” Okay but what about in terms of seniority? What about in terms of management? What about in terms of various teams? There is stereotypically teams that are like gendered, right? 


It’s like, “Oh, well we have great top level female representation but there’s zero women on our engineering team and there is zero men on our customer success team” right? You don’t really have diversity if your teams are siloed like that. Would you agree with that? 


[0:24:54.4] AL: One hundred percent, right? It’s very different if you know all of your teams have a high level and diverse sort of set of female representation or you know, racial representations and it is very different if your company stats is driven entirely by one or two teams and the many other teams are much more homogenous, right? That is why we do break it down by the team level. 


[0:25:16.3] RS: Then also at the sourcing level, at the interview level, at retention level, there is just no end of ways to look at where your company is equitable, right? 


[0:25:26.4] AL: Exactly. 


[0:25:27.5] RS: Got it. Annie, we are creeping up on optimal podcast length here. I’m not going to let you go just yet though. I’m going to kind of put it on you to help us thread the needle here delicately at the end of the episode but I’m curious just because you are – you strike me as a very high operator and I love speaking to people like you. Do you have any pie in the sky creative ideas or like people campaigns that you’re like, “Ooh, one day we’ll get to attack this” or “One day I’ll really spend a lot of time on blank” is there some kind of fun project like that that you think would really make a difference that you’re just waiting for the right moment to strike? 


[0:26:00.9] AL: I think this is maybe related to the conversation just now about hybrid work, which opens up so many new challenges and opportunities and I think a lot of times the way I hear that conversation happen is, “Oh my gosh, now we have to deal with all of these different types of challenges that come with flexibility and to come with their B-multiple employee experiences,” and one thing that I try to remind myself a lot is the best advice that I once got when I went Pescatarian on a dare for a period of time, which is to not focus on all of the meat that you will not be able to eat but be able to focus on all of the different vegetables that you’re now going to be able to experience. That is a really weird analogy perhaps but what I mean by that is in the context of hybrid work is thinking about dealing with these challenges is actually not the full picture. There is a lot of really great positives that come with the world that we’re entering that go with being remote, right? 


I think perhaps folks felt some of this when the COVID first started and we all went remote over despite all of the very real challenges that come with that, they were also I think some upsides, right? That came with that too. For example, suddenly regardless of where you’re physically located, you can have an onboarding class where everybody is on the same playing field, right? It’s really democratized in a lot of ways in some of these experiences. So maybe, I don’t know this exactly answers your question, but it is sort of a mindset shift that I try to remind myself of that I would encourage other people leaders to think about as well, is not just think about the world of hybrid work as a problem that has to be dealt with. It is in some ways, but also as this incredible opportunity to really tap into the strengths and the upsides that come with it as well. 


[0:27:54.7] RS: I love that. If you’re scared of future work stuff, try improving your outlook a little bit, right? You don’t have to, you get to. 


[0:28:01.3] AL: Yes, exactly. 


[0:28:02.9] RS: That is fantastic, you’re fantastic. Annie, thank you for being here and for being on the show. I really love getting to know you and hearing about all of your awesome work over there at Lever, so I really appreciate the conversation. 


[0:28:12.8] AL: Yeah, thanks, Rob. I really appreciate the conversation from my end as well. Thanks so much for having me. 




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