Black History Month – why Zendesk sees targeted sourcing as vital for hiring and retention of Black talent

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 21, 2022 Audio mode
In the first of our Black History Month series, Zendesk VP of DE&I Dave Kim, argues that under-represented groups need humility, not a white knight.

Dave Kim, Zendesk

During his 20-year career, Dave Kim has seen the motivation for diversity in the workforce shift from an affirmative action process tied to government reporting, to a proven business case based on bottom line impact.

Kim is now Vice President of DE&I at Zendesk, a role he took up seven months ago, following stints in diversity at Dell, Electronic Arts and biotech firm Gilead Sciences.

When the call came from Zendesk, Kim was swayed by the company's approach to diversity and equality. Rather than taking the stage and talking about its commitments from a white leadership standpoint, the firm was taking a more internal focus, shaping the future together with under-represented, marginalized groups.

Kim is keen to avoid 'white knight' syndrome, one that focuses on training under-represented groups so they can progress. He adds:

Maybe they don't need the training. Maybe we need to think about the culture and what we need to expect from leadership for people to progress? There's a piece of humility that's required to do that. That's what we're committed to.

Action plan

As part of this commitment, Zendesk is currently running a range of initiatives to support and promote under-represented groups, with the key focus on women, US Black and US Hispanic populations.

The firm made a number of commitments in 2020, during the period of social unrest around the world catalysed by the murder of George Floyd, and is focusing on ensuring those pledges are not forgotten.

These pledges fall into four key areas. The first is people, covering the sourcing, hiring, onboarding, developing and retaining of diverse talent.

Culture is second, and the firm is now offering a raft of training around areas like antiracism, psychological safety, micro inequities and bias. Kim explains: 

Many of those are aimed at frontline managers. Because we're scaling and growing so fast, we need to make sure that all of our managers and leaders are equipped to deal with diversity and to create a culture of belonging and respect.

The third is around Zendesk products and services, he goes on: 

We are the company that helps other companies meet the needs of customers that are diverse. When we talk about inclusive design or accessibility, when we talk about how can we support the diversity of customers that our customers face on a regular basis, and to respond very quickly to their needs, that's really pivotal and important for us.

The fourth and final commitment is external relationships. Kim outlined several the firm has developed to target the Black community, including teaming up with the National Urban League to fund research into the state of black America. Zendesk is also partnering with organizations like the European Network Against Racism, the Black Young Professionals Network, the National Sales Network, Sistas in Sales and AFROTECH as part of its targeted sourcing approach. Kim says: 

We're beginning to really be intentional about where we source and compete for talent. It's no longer successful for companies to wait and have people apply. We need to take this approach of going to where those populations are and show proof points of our investment and commitment to an inclusive culture.

Hiring goals

It’s not hard to see why targeted sourcing is such a priority for Zendesk – the firm hired about a thousand people in the last quarter alone, a huge number for a company of 6,000 staff.

Black or African American people - a group which make up 13% of the US population - account for 3% of the firm’s US workforce. Zendesk is by no means an outlier here - Black talent represents just 5% of the overall tech workforce, but at many enterprise technology companies, this figure is typically closer to 3%.

To tackle this and enable an upwards shift in the numbers, Zendesk has set itself internal hiring goals, as well as overall aspirational goals around hiring, parity around compensation and attrition numbers.

Kim says that when Zendesk updates its diversity numbers in June, these will show progress in all areas, including the proportion of Black/African American staff. He adds that Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane wants to ensure progress is seen to be happening and the only way to do this is to measure it.

As such, Kim explains, the firm has two specific goals around hiring. The first is to hire four times the attrition rate of its diverse populations:

It’s an absolute aggressive goal. We're measuring the efficacy of that and we're seeing if that's reasonable with such high attrition rates that many companies are seeing now with the 'Great Resignation'.

Zendesk also has its own version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, expecting every open vacancy all the way up to board level to have two or more diverse candidates on the interview slate.

Another measure the firm has taken to help meet its DE&I targets is establishing a diversity council made up of leaders at the company rather than heads of ERGs or line managers. Kim explains: 

I wanted to make sure that it was the highest level of the organization. This was a working council, meaning that we wanted to get comfortable and have a regular discussion around uncomfortable topics when it came to race or gender-focused policy changes.

This group of leaders helped create the aspirational goals that the Global DE&I team measure against, and every function and region of the business now has its own diversity action plan, he adds: 

We want to know exactly what are you doing to attract, develop, retain diverse talent in your function because each organization is going to have different needs and different levels of demographic, and areas where they need to invest in and focus on.

At the employee level, staff can access coaching and sponsorship through schemes like BetterUp and Zendesk’s own Ignite program, which gives talent from underrepresented communities at all levels access to a one-to-one mentor, C-staff networking events and group coaching. Kim says: 

We're seeing a lot of metrics around higher retention and higher satisfaction from these programs, but we also want to measure people moving and getting promoted, and what does that look like for each function, location, country and region. That's one of the things that we've embedded as part of this expectation that every function has a diversity action plan, that it is data driven: what does your demographic look like, what did you start the year with, what are you doing around hiring, development, promotion and movement, what does your attrition look like and where did you end up at the end of the year? What does that look like for every level in your organization, country or region. In that way, we can create an educated action plan to address those opportunity areas.


The rapid growth Zendesk is experiencing offers a great opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion among all the new hires, according to Kim:

We're estimated to about double our size every two years. At any given time in our company, because of our rapid growth, we also have an opportunity to invest in development training and onboarding in terms of our views around our value of inclusivity.

Where there are promotions into being a people manager or focused development as a key talent in one of our accelerator leadership programs, this DEI-based training is embedded into that process as well.

Creating the right culture is a work in progress, Kim noted, as opposed to a silver bullet exercise where it can be fixed quickly and by a specific action. It's an ongoing commitment to have uncomfortable conversations, take data-driven approaches, and look at outcomes of those approaches to understand what works for each part of the business.

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