An Exclusive Interview with Aubrey Blanche, Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian

Aubrey calls ‘culture fit’ one of the worst talent concepts that have ever been invented, one that is anti-innovation.

At Atlassian, they interview for values alignment instead. They look for specific behaviors that are congruent with their corporate values. These include:

  • A commitment to candor and transparency
  • Thinking about the folks around you
  • Finding some joy in your work

Their interviews are designed to tease out the people who have demonstrated those behaviors in the past and who want to work in a way that is collaborative, positive, and additive to the culture.

Aubrey believes that applicants don’t need to fit a perfect mold, just be interested in going above and beyond to support and help their colleagues.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • Why the word ‘diversity’ is a blocker to making progress on equity and fairness in the workplace
  • The importance of building balanced teams
  • The importance of promoting ‘belonging’ in the workplace
  • Why you should ditch the concept of culture fit from your hiring process

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Aubrey. You can also listen on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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FIONA: Our guest today is Aubrey Blanche, Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian. She also acts as an adviser for a number of organizations such as the Aleria Research Corporation and has a background in political science and journalism. Aubrey has worked in the tech industry for a number of years and is making news with their inclusion work. Aubrey, can you give us a quick overview of the work you’re currently doing at Atlassian and what you’re trying to achieve?

AUBREY: Absolutely. So I’m so excited to be here to talk a little bit about what I do every day, which is truly partner with folks all across the business to make sure that we’re building a balanced equitable organization, and so that can mean everything from making alterations to our candidate acquisition or hiring processes, designing experiments to make sure that our performance assessment or sort of other processes are fair, or even building internal communities so that employees can feel like they belong.

FIONA: Awesome. Well, today I’ll be speaking about her experiences with inclusion and all the work she’s been doing to drive inclusiveness throughout her career. First up though, I want to ask you something which we ask all of our guests on Inclusion Works. What personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues?

AUBREY: Yeah. So I think that you know, my entire life … So I grew up as a woman, as a person of Latinx origin. So I’m Mexican-American. I identify as queer or bisexual. I have multiple long term disabilities. So in some ways, I sort of check all of the boxes, but I think more than that,

I’ve always just been really motivated by a desire to create fairness in the world.

I think despite sort of some of those categories that you might label me as I’ve been such an incredibly fortunate person. I’ve been given so many opportunities to do so many interesting and amazing things, and from my point of view, I think the best thing to do with those opportunities is to make sure that other people have them as well. And so I have to pinch myself that I actually get to get up in the morning and sort of go to work, and actually that’s what I do all day.

FIONA: And kind of similar to what you were just saying actually, about moving away from the labels and towards fairness and equality, I know that at Atlassian you’ve actually moved away from the term diversity and inclusion. What inspired that move, and what’s been the impact of that?

AUBREY: Yeah, absolutely. So Atlassian did some research last year. So we do a globally representative survey called the State of Diversity Report, and that is a globally representative survey that looks at attitudes and behaviors towards what we were calling diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. It turns out what we found was that the data and those labels that we were using for the field were actually getting in the way of progress.

So the word diversity, I believe, is actually a substantial blocker to us making progress on equity and fairness in the workplace.

So our survey found that the word diversity specifically was associated primarily with only two groups: White women and Black Americans. Even in our home country of Australia, more Australians were likely to say that African Americans were “diversed” than indigenous Australians.

AUBREY: And so what we realized was that the word diversity was both incredibly narrow, right? It didn’t even take into account people with disabilities. What about those with disabilities? What about caregivers? Folks with military backgrounds? On and on. And we also found that it meant that the word diverse and diversity, was it didn’t have anything to do with people from majority groups, and that’s a problem because what we need is folks from majority groups to engage in dismantling these structures of power. And at Atlassian, we actually shifted to talking about building balanced teams, and the reason we made that shift was because, frankly, it just actually encompasses our goal.

The individuals are happier, right? It leads to all sorts of great business outcomes. You can check out McKinsey if you need some proof, but I think any good business leader is aware of this by now.

AUBREY: What we’ve found is it’s created two actually really important impacts. So the first, the discussion about what used to be diversity has actually broadened. So we have employees talking about their experience with things like losing a spouse or autism, types of life experiences that people do need to bring into the workplace. And the second perhaps counterintuitive thing is that it’s allowed us to have more direct conversations about some of those more difficult topics.

AUBREY: So it’s much easier to say, “Well, in what way is your team imbalanced?” Because that might be different in different global contexts, or you might have a team, for example, that’s 90% women, and then we can talk about bringing gender balance onto that team, or perhaps addressing gaps in racial representation. So I think it’s caused more engagement that actually just has gotten us closer to our goals. And then I can talk a little bit about inclusion versus belonging, if that’s helpful.

FIONA: Yeah, yeah, I’d love to hear your view.

AUBREY: Yeah. So, my gut reaction is I usually say that inclusion just isn’t good enough.

So inclusion sort of assumes that I want to be able to show up in sort of these traditional spaces, which really have been built for, in many cases, straight, white, cisgender men.

And the fact is, I don’t want to be a tack on to that space. You know, I don’t show up that way. That’s not how I want to project my power.

I think that’s what … Psychological literature says that any human wants to belong, and so I think that by using that language that resonates so deeply I think with anyone, because we’ve all had a feeling where we did and didn’t belong, we actually create something that’s a little bit more about we and about building a team, whereas I think diversity and inclusion, the language has almost become divisive, and so it’s time for us to evolve to use language that’s more connective and collaborative.

FIONA: I love that, and I think, as well, belonging is just so much more concrete. I wanted to pick up on one of the points that you made earlier. I mean, at Hive Learning, we find that in lots of the large clients we work with, particularly perhaps in more traditional industries, there’s a real risk of D&I work, or inclusion and belonging work, perhaps, alienating or even shaming majority groups. What do you think it was about your approach that meant people welcomed it, and were there any parts that people in your business weren’t so welcoming of?

AUBREY: Yeah, I would say that I think one of the reasons that it’s effective is that I don’t believe shame is an effective tactic, and I think there’s a really important difference between shame, guilt, and responsibility. I think that has to do with the way that we talk about it at Atlassian. So we often don’t talk about … In my work, I tend to actually back away from what I would think of as very social justice flavored language, if you will, because what I found is that it comes with a lot of assumptions for folks, and so moving away from language that feels a little bit charged actually drives engagement.

AUBREY: So instead of talking about privilege, which a lot of folks have basically just been screamed at that they’re privileged and that’s the end of the discussion, we say advantage. Now why is that helpful? Because it’s actually a pretty easy thing to say, “Well, hey, wasn’t it an advantage that you had this experience? Did that have anything to do with your hard work, which we assume that you did?” And suddenly you get to a more productive conversation about privilege simply by ejecting the label. Right? And getting to the deeper point of understanding.

AUBREY: So I think that that’s part of it. The other thing is we ask everyone to take responsibility. So I think a lot of the way that these concepts are taught aren’t necessarily taught in a way that teach folks how to act or how to interrupt those kinds of biases or privileges that they have, so at Atlassian, we really focus on impacting your team, and I think that helps. It’s not just about, “Let me give you this information about systemic privilege,” or something like that, but, “My request of you is a small action to build belonging on your team.”

AUBREY: So instead of wallowing perhaps in shame or guilt that you have some kind of structural tailwind, I say, “Do you know what would be awesome? So your voice is more likely to be heard in a meeting. Could you make sure that your team implements a no interruptions rule so that all of your coworkers are heard as well?”

FIONA: Love that.

AUBREY: Yeah, and I think that’s empowering.

FIONA: It’s a tiny thing, isn’t it?

AUBREY: Yeah. It’s empowering for folks, and I think it also just assumes good in them and assumes the best in them, and that’s the kind of stuff that, when you believe in people, I think they really do rise to those expectations. The most productive way to create cultural change is by asking everyone to do a tiny part.

FIONA: And I figure that after this conversation, we’re going to have to rename this podcast, by the way. It’s going to have to be Belonging Works. You’re really convincing me here.

AUBREY: Yes. If you can help me out, because so we call it Balance and Belonging, but folks will notice my title is still Diversity and Belonging, and that is because my boss, who is totally right about this, says that folks will wonder whether we care, and so I have to make everyone else adopt balanced teams instead of diverse teams, and then I get to change my job title. So if anyone listening wants to help me out in this argument, I would be eternally grateful.

FIONA: Yes. Let’s start a movement. So everyone’s aware, we do still care, even if we’re talking about belonging here.

AUBREY: Yes. Balanced teams where everyone feels like they belong. That’s the ideal.

FIONA: Well, I’ve heard you talk a bit before about how building belonging is really just the basics of being thoughtful about how you work. So you mentioned a few just now about interruptions, for instance. What tips can you give listeners on how to engage everyone in building healthier team environments? What were some ways you went about embedding these new behaviors, these practical actions, and little mini tips across Atlassian?

AUBREY: Yeah, so I think it’s both a mix of sort of behavioral nudges, ways that we nudge people in, and then also changing the larger systems of the company. So I’ll give you a couple of examples because the fact is that, in this work,

AUBREY: So I think, when I think about how to build belonging, I think it first starts with space, and at Atlassian, our workplace experience team is so incredible. So they look after our office spaces and our cultural events, and in our offices, they’re really, really thoughtful about the little signals that they’re sending to people that create a feeling of you belong here. So I sit in our San Francisco office, this building we opened up last November, and such little things.

AUBREY: So in the center of each of our floors, sort of the closest bathroom when you come onto that floor, you’ll see an all gender restroom, and even when you go down the hall to the sort of gendered facilities, our signage doesn’t actually have any depictions of people on them. The “men’s room” actually just has a picture of a toilet and a urinal, and that was done to make sure that not just our trans and non-binary employees and guests, but everyone who walks in, gets a signal that we’re thoughtful about including our trans teammates.

AUBREY: Or on the 10th floor, which is decorated like the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, which is a historically Latinx neighborhood, we actually brought in local community artists to paint murals on the ceiling, which is exactly what you would see in the neighborhood. I collaborated with a colleague who’s also Latinx on that, and so that was really personal to us. Or we have reflection rooms and parents rooms in every office that include all sorts of amenities so that folks realize that they belong here and that we want them to bring sort of their authentic self into their workplace.

AUBREY: I think from a behavioral component, there’s a lot of things we do, but a good example to level up from that sort of no interruptions, we use the Atlassian team playbook, which is free and available online, to help improve folks’ collaboration, and one of the plays there is actually running inclusive meetings. And so we’re in the process of studying how inclusive are meetings at Atlassian, and I’ve developed this play to help folks run more thoughtful meetings. Like you said, most of the things in the meeting don’t actually balance and belonging things. It’s suggestions like, “Ensure that you send out a meeting agenda,” which is going to help include introverts who tend to be less comfortable speaking extemporaneously, or even just folks who need more time to prepare. It’s also just good meeting etiquette.

FIONA: Yeah.


Implementing that no interruptions rule, just make sure that the loudest person isn’t always perceived as the rightest person.

And so I think those are the little things, and then I think there is larger sort of structural process pieces that companies also have to tackle, and that’s where I think most companies get stuck.

FIONA: You mean they start with those and they never kind of move on to the smaller behavioral nudges?

AUBREY: Yeah, absolutely, or I’ll give you a little bit of an example from Atlassian from sort of our recruiting team and some of the work that they’ve done. So as you’ve probably heard, everyone is in love with the concept of culture fit, and culture fit is not only one of, frankly, I think the worst talent concepts that’s ever been invented, but I genuinely cannot understand why we would invent a concept that was basically anti-innovation, pro-group think, and highly discriminatory.

AUBREY: So instead, at Atlassian, we’ve actually evolved, and we interview for something that we call values alignment. Not just a rebranding, I promise. But what we did was we actually got rid of the concept of culture fit from our hiring process, and instead looked at the specific behaviors that we found that were aligned with our corporate values. So those values are things like open company, no bullshit, which is our commitment to candor and to transparency, and we take that really seriously. Or play as a team, which is about always thinking about the folks around you and finding some joy in your work while you do.

AUBREY: And so we used those values to actually come up with that list of behaviors, and then developed a specific structured interview that looks for people who have demonstrated those behaviors in the past. So we’re not selecting for culture fit; we’re selecting for folks who want to work in a way that we think is collaborative and that is positive and additive to our culture, but doesn’t assume that a person needs to fit a perfect mold, just that they are interested in working in an open way, that they’re willing to go above and beyond to support and help their colleagues. Right? And you can learn those skills and you can demonstrate them, whether you are running a global P&L function or whether you are just getting your kids to soccer and dance and dinner on the table.

FIONA: I love that. We do something similar, but we call it culture contribution. I think that term was coined by Adam Grant, if I’m not incorrect. So give him a bit of credit there.

AUBREY: Oh, yeah. I love that.

FIONA: So to change gears a bit, you’ve spoken before about corporate white feminism dominating the D&I space. What do you mean by this, and why is it problematic?

AUBREY: So I think when I say corporate white feminism, what I really mean is how companies have a habit of starting with “diversity”, and saying that diversity equals women. This is inherently problematic because it’s so incredibly limited, and people always say, “Oh, well, we’ll get to X, Y, Z.” The fact is, no, you will not, and that when you say diversity equals women, who you actually build for is predominantly straight, white, cisgender, economically privileged women, who may or may not already be related to someone at the company.

FIONA: So true. So true.

AUBREY: If we’re being honest with ourselves. Right? So basically what we’re doing with that is committing to the absolute minimum amount of change possible, and frankly, it’s not really change at all. I think that when companies start there, even with the best of intentions, they get stuck. We’ve actually tried to flip the model. So instead of thinking as the sort of queer, black woman as this edge case, right? This numerical minority that we don’t need to care or think about. Instead, we think about her as our stress case, as the person for whom, if we design the workplace for her and she feels like she can show up and thrive here, then I guarantee you that the straight, white, cisgender, economically privileged women will also be able to thrive here.

AUBREY: And so by focusing on what we call intersectional people, so people who have layered identities, often that those are marginalized, then we actually build a workplace that truly brings up everyone, as opposed to sort of helps people who are already probably the furthest along and further marginalizes people who lack access in the first place.

FIONA: Yeah, that’s brilliant. I love that approach. And in the D&I space-

AUBREY: I was going to say, I have to give credit to the Atlassian design team for giving me the concept of the stress case.

FIONA: Yeah. I just love the term as well. I think that’s brilliant, and it’s so true that you do have to design for the most marginalized individuals, right? The people who are least likely to be able to show up. Right?

AUBREY: Absolutely.

FIONA: I know that in the diversity and inclusion space, you’re really well known for your data-centric approach. I’ve read loads of articles about this. I’ve heard you speak about this before. Could you walk us through some of the ways you’re using data to assess and improve talent practices across the board?

AUBREY: Absolutely. So, I’m lucky in that my background is a little bit unique for the field in that I was trained as a quantitative researcher in political science, so this is definitely a different subject area. But I think that at Atlassian, we really try to use a couple of different types of data building talent practices. So first there’s just the incredible body of empirical literature about how people behave, how systems work, and we really lean on that when we’re trying to figure out how to drive change in the organization, whether that’s with a performance review process or it’s with building a belonging community.

AUBREY: We also are really rigorous about measuring what’s going on at different points in the talent lifecycle. So I, on a monthly basis, am looking at hiring, I’m looking at attrition. I look at promotional velocity during our annual cycles, pay equity, both as programs roll, as well as sort of a global look every year. And then we also measure sort of, what I call, subjective sentiments. So in our engagement survey, we have what we call an inclusion index made up of questions looking at how people feel that they belong, whether they can be authentic at work, and whether they believe that their opinions are valued and seen. That gives me a really great idea of what’s going on in the organization. So I’m constantly cutting that data by demographics, by location, by looking at in-office versus remote employees, and that helps me prioritize who needs extra support versus who’s doing really well.

AUBREY: I think that the second way that we use data is actually figuring out whether what we do is effective. So I think in the diversity/inclusion space, there’s a lot of best practice, but not a lot of that best practice has really strong empirical grounding, and even the scope conditions under which those best practices work are not well documented or tested. So you tend to see folks who’ll say things like, “Have ERGs,” but the literature on when and how they work and what structures are most effective in different environments isn’t there as much as we’d love it to be, and so at Atlassian, we try really, really hard to always measure, what are the goals, what is the expected impact of a particular program or initiative? And if it works, that’s great, then we scale it out. If it didn’t have the impact we wanted, then we often go back to the drawing board.

FIONA: Just to go back to the inclusion index, I’m really curious about this. How often do you measure this? Is this an annual sort of thing or more frequently? And also, how do you kind of communicate this across your business back to individuals to kind of share the learnings you’ve gotten from it and what you’re doing to change as a result?

AUBREY: Yup. So we run our engagement survey twice a year, and the inclusion index is included in that larger engagement survey, which measures a variety of things related to the health of Atlassian, if you will. And with the inclusion index, we’re a very open company, so once that is done, actually, anyone in the company can go look at the results at a company level right in the tool, but what I really try to do is take that data and take it to different stakeholders. So I’m looking at the people team, working with my colleagues, depending on which population it is, are folks not feeling heard or valued, do they not feel like they can be authentic? So we know that employees can access the data on their own.

AUBREY: I also provide reports to our senior leaders and updates to our global communities based on what’s going on, and I think one of the most important things for me with that engagement data is it often helps me see a larger trend out of a lot of the qualitative data that I get day today. So that’s chats in the hallway, people who ping me on Slack. The types of issues that folks raise to me, either as this is amazing and we should do more of it, or this is a gap where we need to improve. And so I think it’s about bringing all of that data together that gives me, and I think the rest of the team, a more accurate picture of Atlassian and where we can best invest to create the best environment possible for our team.

FIONA: Yeah, that’s brilliant. So you’ve shared before that you’ve increased the number of women in tech roles across your organization by 2% in the past year, which is really impressive actually. So I know that 2% sounds like such a small number, but there are loads of large tech businesses out there who are throwing literally hundreds of millions of dollars at this issue and not seeing that sort of result over many more years than one year. So could you tell us maybe just what’s one change you think that have made that really made a difference that perhaps some of our listeners can take away and try in their own businesses?

AUBREY: So if you’re a business leader, are you doing pay planning, are you checking for pay equity? When you’re looking at sort of group performance assessments, did you analyze to see there were a difference between racial groups or a difference between genders?

I think that those things are really powerful. So many companies sort of say, “Well, don’t look at that because then we might be liable,” and my question, is you’re liable anyway. Right? You might as well know about to fix it, because I think the workforce is becoming certainly more understanding of the process of evolution, but less understanding with the sort of recalcitrance to do anything about these problems. I don’t think that folks are expecting perfection out of their companies, but they are concerted in continuous effort to create inclusive work environments.

FIONA: Right. It’s just, it’s all about moving in the right direction. Right? And we haven’t all figured it out yet, but it’s making strides, and I think particularly as you say, the data and really being committed to measuring things is key.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I think especially at scale, the fact is, this isn’t a solved problem at scale, and so knowing that part of making progress is actually being brave and being willing to learn what works generally and also what works for your organization.

FIONA: Well, thank you so much for sharing all these insights with us, Aubrey. I’m sure there’s a lot for our listeners to take away from this session. If anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

AUBREY: I think the best way to get in touch with me is on Twitter, so I’m @adblanche. I try to provide commentary on lots of issues related to equity and justice and technology.

FIONA: Oh, thank you so much.

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Be sure to follow Aubrey as @adblanche.

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An Exclusive Interview with Aubrey Blanche, Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian

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