Politics

Banning politics at work? Not at Asana, says DEI chief.

When Sonja Gittens Ottley joined Asana in 2015, she knew all the Black people at the company — all two of them.

Banning politics at work? Not at Asana, says DEI chief.

Sonja Gittens Ottley has led Asana's DEI for nearly six years.

Photo: Asana

Sonja Gittens Ottley, Asana's head of diversity and inclusion, is a bit of a unicorn. It's not because she's Black, or because she's a woman, but instead because she's been in her job for nearly six years.

There's a lot of turnover in diversity, equity and inclusion work. The average tenure of a DEI leader at any one company is about three years, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

That makes Gittens Ottley's nearly six-year tenure at Asana stand out. Gittens Ottley joined Asana from Facebook in November 2015 to serve as the company's first-ever head of diversity and inclusion. Asana hired her a few months after Twitter user @BlackGuyCoding tweeted about how there was only one visibly Black person on Asana's team page. In response, Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz said there were actually two whole Black employees across the company.

At that time, in July 2015, Asana's workforce was just 1.6% Black. But Moskovitz, at the time, said he already had a plan in place to improve diversity. The plan included bringing on board a D&I leader. That person turned out to be Gittens Ottley.

"When I joined, I knew all of the Black folks that worked at Asana," she told Protocol. "I knew them, and now I don't. When I joined, people would not feel comfortable saying 'Black' candidates. They would say 'diverse.'"

Asana overall has come a long way since 2015. When Gittens Ottley joined the company, it had fewer than 200 employees. Now, Asana employs more than 1,000 people.

Today's Asana is 4% Black, 46% white, 30% Asian, 5% Latinx and 5% two or more races, with another 11% of its employees identifying as either Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander, according to the company's July 2020 diversity report. Within the Asian employee population, 17% are East Asian, 7% are South Asian, 5% are Southeast Asian and 1% are Central Asian.

Being able to see those demographics change, as well as the buy-in from senior leaders and other employees, has made Gittens Ottley want to stay.

"We're not perfect," she said. "But I think all of those things, that's why it's still the place I want to be."

Leadership is the thing that "ultimately" keeps Gittens Ottley at Asana, she said. "Knowing the commitment we have to doing this well is not just from Dustin, our CEO," she said. "He's vocal and a real participant in this work, but so are so many of the other leaders."

The company recently completed a review of employee pay to see if there were any disparities. There weren't any statistically significant disparities, according to Gittens Ottley. The company also launched ongoing allyship workshops for employees.

But there's also more work to be done, Gittens Ottley cautioned. In the aftermath of the 2020 police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two unarmed Black people, Asana launched anti-racism training workshops and began to think more deeply around how it could be an anti-racist company, she said.

"The reckoning so many companies have had to face or deal with, I think it was a little easier for us because we had already started to lean into that work," Gittens Ottley said. "It was not new to us."

Asana has made other changes in the wake of last year's events, as well as in light of the uptick in racial violence targeting Asian people.

"Particularly with all the racial attacks, we want people to be comfortable checking in with their teams," Gittens Ottley said. "Something I'm clear about is the first time you check in with someone, it should not be because something happened. You should be building relationships with folks throughout this time because something will happen, and when you have that relationship, you're able to lean into that a bit better. And it's more authentic because you've built that relationship."

Meanwhile, the remote-first environment of the past year has motivated Asana to be more intentional about creating safe spaces through its employee resource groups. Last spring, an ERG hosted a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on Black, Latinx and Asian communities.

"People adjacent to these communities didn't really know the impact of this," she said.

Asana also tries to recognize the work and leadership of its ERG leaders, who are tasked with organizing and leading these discussions, Gittens Ottley said. Empowering ERGs is considered to be an element of ensuring racial equity at a company. Asana provides ERG leads with budgets and also offers them leadership development workshops.

"I think ERG leads are so crucial to D&I work," she said. "We want to make sure we support them as much as possible."

Asana, unlike firms such as Coinbase, Basecamp and New Relic, is firmly in favor of allowing employees to discuss social and political matters at work.

"I think that's safe to say," Gittens Ottley said. "We are not on board with [banning those types of discussions]. One of the things is we've kind of leaned into having spaces for those sorts of conversations."

Moskovitz, who was a major Democratic donor for the 2020 presidential election, echoed that sentiment on Twitter. He pointed to Asana's ERGs as one place employees can go to have those discussions. Gittens Ottley also referenced an internal Slack channel called "American Politics," which she said was "on fire" throughout 2020.

"We think it's important to have those spaces because people aren't sitting at their kitchen table or office desk — if they have an office — and are divorced from what's happening in the world," she said. "They're dealing with all of these things and dealing with these colleagues for eight-plus hours a day. I think for me, it just makes sense to have it be part of the ways that employees engage with each other, because they will engage with each other a ton on these things. And it's worked for us so far."

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