Ahead of her talk at AHRI’s convention in August, HRM caught up with Aubrey Blanche to talk about mental health at work and why we need to ditch the concept of ‘culture fit’.
For Aubrey Blanche, the path to becoming a diversity and inclusion leader was anything but linear. And yet, it was practically inevitable.
“I’m not sure there was another career I could have ended up in, even though my journey was a little twisty-turny,” she says.
Before joining Culture Amp as its Senior Director of Equitable Design, Product and People, Blanche had a varied career, working as a university researcher, journalist and diversity engineer, among other roles.
But her passion for the work she’s currently doing goes back further than that.
“Even as a five-year-old, I always wanted things to be fair,” she says. “I was a super curious kid. The answer ‘no’ or ‘because I said so’ was never enough for me.”
She also credits this ability to think critically to meeting a range of people who opened her perspective.
“Growing up, my parents had a lot of queer friends, my younger brother was disabled, and I was the only Latina member of my adoptive family.
“I think being exposed to lots of different perspectives helped me understand that my lived experience is not the only one. This is what gets me excited about the work I do.”
Normalise invisible disabilities
In 2021, Blanche was hospitalised after having a severe manic episode at work. She was diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder.
Blanche struggled to connect with her colleagues about her experience.
“It’s one of those invisible aspects of diversity,” she says. “We talk about stigma all the time, but this experience gave me a new understanding of what stigma actually feels like.”
Read HRM’s guide on how to support employees living with bipolar.
“If someone with my level of privilege and access to support was quietly struggling, there had to be others too. I realised that if I wanted other people to be visible, I had to go first.”
She joined discussions in the company’s Employee Resource Group for employees with mental or physical disabilities. She heard from them about their experiences and shared her own diagnosis and how it had impacted her life. She broadened the discussion to other employees too – making space for more robust discussions around mental health and cognitive diversity.
Aubrey Blanche. Photo: Alexandra Blackman
“I think it opened a door for many people to feel comfortable sharing their own experiences after seeing me speaking so openly about my experience,” says Blanche.
“Having these kinds of conversations and building communities normalises the fact that many of us go through mental struggles.”
Build frameworks for people, not numbers
“There are so many invisible things your employees could be going through and will need support for.”
But that doesn’t mean you should draft a policy for each kind of disability out there. To support your people, your company needs a set of frameworks that are broad enough so each person can get the support they need for their unique issues, without having to qualify their struggle to their manager.
And nobody expects people managers to become qualified psychologists. Nor should you force people to share their struggles if they’re not comfortable doing so. What’s important is helping employees feel like they belong by letting them know they are in a safe space and supporting them to do their best work.
“Our job as leaders is not to dictate what support looks like for every individual. We’re not the experts on their disability or what they need. We need to co-create that inclusion experience to fit with what they need.”
Re-think ‘culture fit’
When it comes to vague concepts like culture fit, Blanche doesn’t mince her words.
“Culture fit is a great thing to pursue if you want low-quality hires, groupthink and a lack of innovation,” she says. “If you’re only looking for fit, you’re inherently selecting out for diversity of experience and diversity of identity.”
That’s because attributing an outcome to “culture fit” is usually a subjective gut reaction and another way to let unconscious bias do the decision-making. Quite often, many people won’t be able to qualify what they mean when they point to culture fit.
“Our job as leaders is not to dictate what support looks like for every individual. We’re not the experts on their disability or what they need. We need to co-create that inclusion experience to fit with what they need.” – Aubrey Blanche
It’s been well documented that having a diversity of experience will have positive impacts on your company culture, innovation and bottom line.
“When you bring people together who have different identities and lived experiences, the team becomes stronger because they can learn from each other and amplify others.”
If you’re using concepts around culture when recruiting, you need to home in on specific behaviours. For example, if someone was rude or dismissive to you in the interview, that’s important – but don’t bury that behaviour under culture fit. Instead, clearly explain what the issue is.
When you’re designing an interview, do some reflection first. Here are some questions you could ask:
- What’s missing on the team?
- What can this new person bring in to make us more balanced?
- What new perspective or skill set are they going to add?
Then, think critically about the behaviours and skill sets you’re looking for and design a rubric around what behaviours you’d hope to see.
“We know structured behavioural interviewing is the most powerful thing we can do to limit the application of bias in hiring, assessment and decision making,” says Blanche.
Before setting up interviews at Culture Amp, Blanche and her colleagues clarify what behaviours they’re looking for, and design interview questions to allow candidates to share their accomplishments and the skills and behaviours they relied on.
But fairly assessing someone goes beyond that: “I’m someone who specialises in reducing biases, and yet, I too am a human with biases. That’s where doing the pre-work and providing structure to interviews is the best tool for overcoming inequitable biases.
“You also have to require a higher standard of proof, and samples, documentation and hiring process,” says Blanche. “That way, you’re not just saying you want an equitable hiring process – you have a process in place that will help you achieve it.”
Want to hear more from Aubrey Blanche on designing equitable work experiences?
Sign up to attend AHRI’s Convention to hear from Blanche and many other impressive speakers.