KeyAnna Schmiedl is Wayfair's global head of culture and inclusion (Photo courtesy of Wayfair)

For the decades since work on diversity and inclusion has been happening, many people have talked about it as a nice-to-have feature of the workplace. As in, “Can we get this into training?” Or, “Can we get our managers to consider this?” Those are some of the mild requests that KeyAnna Schmiedl, global head of culture and inclusion at Wayfair, had been hearing before she joined the fast-growing furniture retailer in July 2019.

Then, in the past year, spurred by the marches for racial justice, things started to pick up more momentum. “Really, what the shift has been most recently is, unless it is part of the fabric of how we do business and interact with each other, people will question everything,” she told journalist Lydia Dishman in a one-on-one conversation at From Day One’s recent virtual conference, “Diversity: How Employers Can Match Words With Deeds.”

At Wayfair, making this part of the workplace cultural fabric, though, required substantial foundational work, which included frank conversations, a greater reliance on objective data, and a reassessment of what it means to be a real meritocracy in Corporate America, Schmiedl said. Among her insights:

Start With a Dashboard

Last year, Wayfair launched a dashboard to monitor its efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), measured according to metrics. The dashboard follows all the steps in the employment trajectory, starting with recruiting and hiring. “We have metrics on overall performance ratings, attrition rates, and all of that can be broken down to dimensions of intersectionality and diversity that we have self-reported data for,” Schmiedl said.

This meant that information was at the fingertips of virtually everyone. “We need to talk about transparency, and the rule that we wanted to push is that everybody sees something, and some people see everything,” she said. At Wayfair, anyone who is an associate director and above sees everything. “This makes a huge difference. If I am now given access to data, there's an onus on you to look at it and do something about it. You're now my accountability buddy.”

The data proved to be a catalyst for honest conversation. “People can no longer ‘ostrich’ their head in the sand,” says Schmiedl, especially when everybody sees the same data. “Data neutralizes so much. Data is both quantitative and qualitative, and certain pieces are irrefutable,” she said. At Wayfair, this led to more candid discussion about what's happening with promotion and engagement, how to understand better what's going on within a specific population, and how to bring those groups to the fore to tell leaders what's going on–and what they'd like to see changed.

Deal With Internal Issues First

Having a dashboard fostered collaboration and changed internal culture. Dealing with DEI challenges internally before performing outreach is one of the main tenets of Schmiedl's modus operandi. “If your culture can't sustain that type of diversity they're trying to bring in externally, then you're just going to be in the same place for longer,” she said.

A conversation on real inclusion: KeyAnna Schmiedl of Wayfair and Lydia Dishman of Fast Company (Image by From Day One)

On that note, when companies went all out in making DEI pledges and promises in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Wayfair emphasized the internal conversation. “We decided to show our people you’re who we care about,” Schmiedl said. So company leaders set up a series of panel discussions, which included members of employee resource groups (ERGs), and gave employees the opportunity to share their stories unquestioned, and to talk to their leaders about how to ensure that bad experiences are not replicated.

Employees also asked how they could use their employee matching grants to support disadvantaged communities and donate to racial-justice organizations, to which Wayfair responded with a double-match program. “By the end of that campaign, in the month of June 2020, we raised over $900,000 to be donated to those organizations,” said Schmiedl. “And so that's really powerful that our folks own that success, and that our organization can see that this is what our folks care about.”

Educating Others Is OK, But Consider the Emotional Toll

Schmiedl said she is always nervous about asking a group that is “other” to share their stories so that folks can learn. So when leaders set up the aforementioned discussions, they were very clear in the beginning about what these conversations would and would not be. In the first place, it was explicitly stated that that was not a forced thing. “I also said the employee-story share format is not going have Q&A. I don't believe that people's experiences should be questioned in this context,” she said.

Then they dug into topics that in the past they did not always have the right talking points for. In this context, ERGs have been instrumental. Wayfair mandates they have an executive sponsor, a person who will advocate on their behalf. “The executive sponsor should not represent the dimension of diversity of the group that they're representing,” said Schmiedl, “because that is an opportunity for them to learn to be active allies, to people that maybe they have not spent a lot of time with or really understood what their challenges are. The sponsors become the biggest advocates in the company and an unexpected voice of support.”

Reassess the Concept of “Meritocracy.” Yes, Through Data Too

Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah, who is the son of immigrants from India, would frequently say “we're a meritocracy,” said Schmiedl, who observes that, besides being an old-school Protestant value associated with white males, the word meritocracy holds a strong grip on people of immigrant backgrounds. “So the first question I pitched him when we first had our conversations around change was: Given the stories that you just heard from employees, their experiences outside of work at other workplaces, etcetera, do you still feel like Wayfair is a meritocracy?”

Four thousand people who were tuned in heard the CEO’s response: “You know, Wayfair isn't a meritocracy, but I want it to be.” Yet in understanding the kind of data will move the company in that direction, there are theoretical and practical challenges, said Schmiedl. “I don't always know exactly how to formulate the question in a way that clearly translates to our analysts where they can easily say, “here is how we solve that,” she said.

Data, with the aid of artificial intelligence, can start illuminating patterns. For example, thanks to a DEI analytics team, Wayfair has been able to build a tool that uses natural language processing (NLP) to understand what's going on in performance reviews. First, they had analysts build scripts for “what are words that show up for folks with different genders in performance review as opportunity areas?” For women, hardly to anyone's surprise, the word was “confidence,” which, upon further investigation, was being used in a biased way, so the word “confidence” was built into the calibration facilitator, which prompts participants to ask for more objective information upon the mention of the word. Wayfair’s team translated this script into a model that fits race and ethnicity as well; contentious words are flagged and further resources are given. Said Schmiedl: “This is a different way for us to use the data and to then move the needle.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.