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Opinion

Week in HR: Snowflake CEO causes stir with misguided diversity comments

Oh dear.

Yessi Bello-Perez

Leader

Unleash Your Diversity Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman seems to think diversity and merit are mutually exclusive.

Frank Slootman, the chief executive officer of cloud software provider Snowflake Inc, has said the company needs to put a greater emphasis on merit when hiring and promoting, rather than focusing on diversity goals.

“We’re actually highly sympathetic to diversity but we just don’t want that to override merit. If I start doing that, I start compromising the company’s mission literally,” Slootman said on Thursday during an interview with Bloomberg TV. 

He continued by saying that other CEOs felt the same way about the need to reach a more “moderate” approach to diversity but, he claimed, are reluctant to disclose this publicly presumably for fear of backlash.

“From my own experience talking to many CEOs privately, we are of the same mind, just publicly they find it hard to be that way.

“We need to come to a more moderate, real place. There’s really no room for the hysteria and the outrage. We’re CEOs, we run companies, we have to produce results for our employees and our partners and our investors and our customers. We can’t get distracted in that mission. When you do, you might as well hang it up and let somebody else do it,” he added.

A massive step back

Whether you agree or disagree with Slootman, there’s no denying his comments are controversial given the push by organizations, and HR leaders, to drive greater diversity within their ranks. It also goes against the widely held, and well-documented, narrative that diverse teams drive better profits and business outcomes. 

As an example, McKinsey, as cited by Bloomberg, has found that most gender-diverse businesses were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than the least gender-diverse group. When it came to ethnic diversity, the gap stood at 36%. 

But, let’s face it, this narrative is somewhat dangerous, too — and businesses shouldn’t chase diversity just because it’s allegedly better for their bottom line. Companies should strive to be diverse because every single individual has the fundamental right to be considered for a job or a promotion.

Capitalism and diversity can co-exist

Commenting on Slootman’s comments, Sheree Atcheson, a multi-award winning diversity and inclusion executive, said on LinkedIn

“The assumption here is that those who aren’t white men aren’t qualified and don’t have merit or are skilled at what they do.

“If he really wanted ‘merit’ to play a leading role, he’d advocate for not hiring based on legacy; ‘I know a guy who’d be perfect’ approaches and personal relationships.

“But that’s not what he really wants. Because what he’s really saying is that he can’t possibly believe that someone who doesn’t look or think like him would have anything of value to add.”

I couldn’t agree with Atcheson more. Slootman is essentially saying that merit and diversity are mutually exclusive. Quite frankly, this couldn’t be further from the truth — and he shouldn’t be surprised that his comments are causing such a stir online, even though he’s no stranger to controversy.

Slootman, whose business success is undeniable — he took software company Snowflake public in one of the biggest tech IPOs of 2020 — is reportedly part of Silicon Valley’s less-talked-about conservative echelons. Yes, they do exist — look at Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, for example.

Sources cited by Business Insider say Slootman has “torn up the do-gooder playbook of Big Tech’s liberal elite and replaced it with a hard-charging, profit-driven ethos that doesn’t pay lip service to things like diversity and social justice.

“And while some warn of a backlash, for Slootman, who has compared himself to World War II Gen. George S. Patton, his main concern is winning.”

His balance sheet may say otherwise, but in my eyes, he, and those who continue to think like him, are losing.

If a company isn’t diverse, it’s likely due to the fact that culture and recruitment are riddled with bias — it’s not because you’re hiring people based on merit or because you’re too focused on your company mission. You’re letting yourself, your business, and your employees down. Oh, and just think about the message you’re sending existing workers, but also prospective candidates.

My advice to Slootman and others out there? Stop making excuses and really think about what you’re doing wrong. Diversity isn’t a nice to have, it’s an imperative. As a C-suite executive, you’re in a position of power and with this comes responsibility.

You shouldn’t need stats or data to justify a decision to promote diversity within the organization — you can, and should, do better.

I for one can’t help but despair — from my position of privilege as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual woman — at the thought of yet another billionaire failing to see the significance of diversity.

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