Faces of HR

Belonging Means Asking Employees to Be Who They Are

When it comes to creating great diversity, you have to balance the overall drive for diversity with equity and inclusion. According to this issue’s interviewee, the best diversity programs don’t ask employees to fit in; they create spaces for people to be themselves.

Meet Tara Ataya, VP of People at Hootsuite, a social media management platform.

You know, typically, the way we start this is to just ask you how you got into HR.

Interestingly enough, it was during a summer job at university talking to somebody in HR. I was deciding between working in the human capital consulting field or doing an internal HR function. I did some informational interviews with different folks who were working at that company. One of the things I came to realize pretty quickly was that consulting probably wasn’t for me because I like to build longer-term relationships with my client groups and the people I get to work with. I decided pretty early on that in-house HR was where I wanted to be. I realized that HR is really the lifeblood of any business because it’s focused on its people, and the people are the heart of the business. People are the ones who impact customers and clients. I also realized that I love solving problems, so I pursued my degree in HR and have worked in HR for my entire professional career.

One of the emerging issues, other than the coronavirus, is the upcoming election. We’ve seen a lot of racial tensions stemming from the inherent racial disparity that exists in our country. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement has expanded and taken on a larger, more widespread role. Is that something you guys are thinking about as we approach the ramping up of the election season?

We started our journey into diversity, equity, and inclusion back in 2017. The Black Lives Matter movement has definitely heightened the sense of awareness in a lot of the regions where we operate. It isn’t the beginning of our journey, but we definitely have a ways to go on it. We’ve partnered with the Black Professionals in Technology Network to help diversify our candidate pools and help with learning and development around Black professionals in tech and with training our employees. It’s a really fantastic partnership that we just recently announced. I think this is an inflection point in the world, and the world is calling for change right now.

When we think about our H2 strategy from a people perspective, one of the primary areas of focus is diversity, equity, and inclusion. The goal of our organization is to create that sense of belonging for employees. When we talk about belonging, belonging is not about asking employees to fit in. It’s about asking employees to be who they are, bringing the best version of themselves to work every day, and then understanding how we as leaders can ensure we’re leveraging their skills and their points of view and that everybody feels heard and included.

I think that with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that’s really ramping up in the United States and globally right now, there are more eyes on this than ever before, but it definitely isn’t the beginning of our journey. Diversity, equity, and inclusion have helped enable that for us and really created a sense of awareness, not just with our employees but also with our customers.

It’s good to have had something in place ahead of time. There are a lot of organizations out there that are tackling this for the first time, and there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. Many try to solve their lack of diversity through hiring alone but then don’t create a culture or even know how to create a culture to get people to stay once they are hired. I really liked when you said, “We’re not asking you to fit in; we’re asking you to be you.” Is this something you feel like you’re well-prepared for personally?

I don’t know that anybody can be well-prepared for it. I think this is really like a muscle. Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t things you check a box on and say, “We’re done.” It’s about pulling a muscle and becoming stronger as an organization regarding how we do these things. We look at our journey; we’ve been doing D&I audits, and we partner with a company called Paradigm based in the Valley. We also do pay equity audits. So rather than saying that, as a company, we’re pay equity-compliant, what we do say is that this is a muscle we use, and we are constantly making sure we’re evaluating and challenging ourselves to do better and be better as a company.

To your point, diversity is one piece of it, but inclusion is actually the hardest piece of it. There is no perfect solution for any of this. It’s really about making sure you’re reinforcing the values and creating that sense of belonging and that the leadership team has a shared accountability because I fundamentally believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not solely owned by the HR function. They’re actually a shared ownership throughout the business and throughout the world. Every single human being owns diversity and inclusion. It’s something we all contribute to.

As an organization and as a leadership team at Hootsuite, we’ve really made sure we can look ourselves in the mirror as leaders and hold each other accountable to owning diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Would you say there’s something during your time in HR you’ll never forget?

Well, this COVID. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this. I don’t know if you know this, but I actually started 6 months ago today.


I had a week and a half in the office and have basically been onboarding virtually ever since. I think this has been just a remarkable time in my career and in the history of the world in which we work. So I will never forget this for sure.

I mean, it changed everything so much. It’s a sea change. There are so many things from before that just don’t matter anymore. We’ve talked about it possibly too much, but it’s one of those things you have to keep talking about because it has affected everything. And so everything needs to be discussed.

When you think about things like that from an HR perspective, it’s been probably the single greatest point in time when we’ve needed change management the most. When I think about good change management, I always use my fly-walk-drive analogy. Think about a worst-case scenario from a change management standpoint in which you blindfold your employees and fly them to their new location, so to speak. And you say, “Welcome to your new world.” Now they have to figure out what’s going on, where everything is, and how to navigate this new scenario you’ve just put them into. That’s a sort of worst-case example of change management, but you have to recognize that in a lot of situations, you can’t just walk them there either, right?

It would just take too long to walk them to the new location. When I talk to leaders about good change management, it’s about taking them on the drive with you and pulling over every now and then and letting them have pit stops and getting to see the key points along the way in terms of your decision-making process and making sure they have time to opt into or out of the change and acclimatize to the change. I think COVID has forced the change. It’s more of the blindfold approach, and the leaders haven’t made the decision; it’s just happened. So what’s been really key for us as an organization is making sure we have high trust and transparency with our employees and that we’re really focused on mental wellness and giving them space as human beings, not just employees but also human beings, to cope with this and come to terms with it and recognizing that not everybody’s going to be at the same point at the same time on this journey.

We’re going to see regressions whereby people just become very frustrated with the current circumstances and feel hopeless. What we’re doing as a leadership team is trying to create a stronger focus on that mental wellness by creating wellness programs that help support people and meet them where they are. Obviously, there are longer-term discussions about what this looks like beyond the pandemic, but I think trust and transparency and open lines of communication have been so important through this to help people cope with the change and understand where we are. In some of the scenarios, we have to take the “walking them” approach because they’re dealing with so many different variables that it can be quite a challenge to cope with.

By the time this publishes, a bunch of kids will have gone back to school. Have you been getting ready for that?

Being a global organization, we’re talking about it in different regions, and each of the regions is at different points in this journey of COVID and opening up restrictions; some regions aren’t opening them up, and some are. We’ve done a lot in just creating a support network for parents. We have a Hoot parents group on Workplace, which is our internal communications tool. It’s our platform; it’s Facebook for work. We have a Hoot parents page that is actually solely dedicated to helping parents navigate through this completely new time and trying to juggle. We’ve also created more leave time for people who need to take time.

We are also talking about it and trying to figure out how we can continue to help and support the individuals who do have kids at home, especially young kids.

We use Google Hangouts with their kids so their kids can interact while they’re doing work. There are virtual meetups with their kids at different age ranges and with different support material based on the different age ranges because that’s the other part of this: having a teenager at home versus a threenager. I have both. It’s a very different ballgame. So, we’ll continue to do those things as we start to see things progress and restrictions change. But it’s definitely not easy for people.

We’ve got the opposite, as well; we have some people who have actually been isolated for months by themselves because they live alone. So we’re also thinking about how to make sure we continue to manage the well-being of those individuals, as well.