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Salesforce's remote work hiring strategy raises questions

Salesforce says its remote work hiring, or work-from-anywhere, model will improve its diversity and hiring goals. Hiring in inexpensive areas may be critical, according to experts.

Silicon Valley firms get criticism for their white, male-dominated workforces. Salesforce is among the tech firms that says it wants to improve its diversity hiring.

On Tuesday, Salesforce, which is based in San Francisco, outlined a plan to allow most of its employees to either work in the office part-time and from home part-time, what it calls a "flex" schedule, or work remotely full-time if they live far from the office. Salesforce said this "work-from-anywhere model" will help improve its diversity and inclusion hiring by enabling the company to break out of the Silicon Valley hiring bubble.

But the plan is also raising questions. A remote work hiring strategy doesn't guarantee that Salesforce will reach its diversity goals, or that the potential for hiring biases will go away. The plan's success will also depend on how much of its hiring is "flex," which may mean hiring near offices in expensive areas, versus fully remote, which may mean hiring in less expensive, more diverse regions, experts said.

And some experts, such as Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, are wondering about any underlying motivations. "The last thing we need right now is tech companies using the pandemic as a way to make even more money and use the opportunity to burnish their social responsibility credentials," he said. "In summary: I would like to see a plan."

Salesforce said its remote work strategy will allow it to pursue "untapped talent from new communities and geographies."

Salesforce's U.S. workforce today is approximately 64% men and 36% women, according to data posed on its website. By race and ethnic distribution, its U.S. makeup is 60% white; 26% Asian and Indian; 4.5% Latino; 3.4% Black and African American; 2.8% multiracial; and 2.7% undisclosed. The firm employs about 49,000 globally.

It has previously outlined goals that include increasing its U.S. workforce of underrepresented groups, including Black, indigenous, Latino and multiracial employees, by 50% by 2023.

Roadblocks to diversity

In a recent Harvard Business Review essay, Chakravorti argued for a remote work strategy as a way to help tech firms improve their diversity.

"One roadblock on the path to closing the diversity gap is the extreme geographic concentration of tech companies, which limits the industry's ability to connect with, recruit, and retain talent from a widely dispersed pool," Chakravorti wrote.

When a woman's status as a parent or single parent is known, she's less likely to be hired.
Roberta GuiseFounder and president, FemResources Inc.

But Chakravorti said Salesforce has to explain "how their new talent recruiting strategies are being organized to realize those goals."

Among the reasons why the remote work hiring strategy is important is that other hiring issues can undermine it, experts said.

In particular, women who want to work remotely may face "old biases" from hiring managers, said Roberta Guise, founder and president of FemResources Inc., a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to establish gender equality in the tech workforce. Those biases include notions that women won't be able to balance work and children, she said.

Guise said that when a woman's status as a parent or single parent is known, "she's less likely to be hired."

Salesforce, when asked, didn't share additional details about its recruitment strategy.

Salesforce said its reopening plan is to give employees a choice of where they work. About 80% of workers want to maintain a connection to the office. Most of its employees will work a flex schedule of one-to-three days per week in the office. Employees who don't live near an office will be fully remote, Salesforce said.

Full-time remote work hiring key

If most employees are in flex jobs, that may imply local recruiting, noted Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor and the head of the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Where a firm recruits matters in terms of diversity, according to the center's data.

For example, in a 2018 study, the center found that the average number of Black employees at Silicon Valley firms was 4.4%. Areas such as Boston and Seattle are as homogenous for professional skills as Silicon Valley with equally low numbers of underrepresented groups.

That Salesforce will consider remote work hiring in other locations is a start, "but they probably also need some outreach that makes clear they are looking for increased diversity in hiring, in order to get the applications," Tomaskovic-Devey said.

Remote work hiring may help with diversity and inclusion efforts, said Katherine Giscombe, an organizational psychologist and equity and inclusion expert, because it takes cost of living out of the equation.

"African Americans, in particular, have much less inherited wealth than whites," Giscombe said. "Having to live in an expensive area could be prohibitively expensive for many people of color."

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