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Best practices to hire and retain diverse talent | GDC 2021

Unity's Movell Dash, Niantic's Trinidad Hermida, and PlayStation's Davina Mackey sat down with IGDA Foundation's Nika Nour to discuss ways to improve diversity in games

The average turnover rate of a gaming professional is two to five years.

This fact, from the IGDA developer satisfaction survey, was the starting point of a GDC panel discussion entitled 'Building pipelines to find, grow, and retain diverse talent' last week, hosted by IGDA Foundation executive director Nika Nour.

Featuring Unity's interim global head of inclusion Movell Dash, Niantic's head of diversity and inclusion Trinidad Hermida, and director of PlayStation Studios QA at Sony Davina Mackey, the discussion aimed at addressing the mechanics at play when it comes to recruiting diversity and the systemic issues with retaining diverse talent in games.

"From the IGDA Foundation side every year, we award and support a hundred different types of scholarships and recipients [and] we are seeing underrepresented talent face severe imposter syndrome, feelings that they don't belong, that they weren't meant to be leaders, that they can't be promoted, or that they shouldn't shoot for the moon," said Nour to introduce the topic.

Panellists explored what can be done to retain this talent and to make sure it's considered in the first place, not just at a company level but also at an industry level.

The changes needed at the executive leadership level

One of the first issues identified by the panellists was the fact that many leaders in games come from the same mold.

"[Change] starts at the executive leadership level," Niantic's Hermida said. "If you really do believe in this [diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging] journey, you have to show it at your leadership level. I mean your board, I mean your executive leaders. Do they look like the communities that you're trying to attract? And if they don't, that's a hard miss in my opinion."

She highlighted that the industry is very particular when it comes to appointing its leaders, typically demanding decades of experience in games to access the most senior roles, which plays a role in the lack of diversity we see at the top and in how marginalised groups are treated in games in general.

"If you really do believe in this D&I journey, you have to show it at your leadership level. Do they look like the communities that you're trying to attract?"

Trinidad Hermida, Niantic

"We have Movell [Dash] on our call, who didn't come from the games industry. I didn't come from the game industry. I'm a leader. Movell is a leader. And I truly believe that at the executive level all you need to do is give them a little bootcamp, have them meet some industry professionals and pillars within the industry, and they too can be an industry professional and leader. And I think that's just a nuance, it's something that we want to do, because it's a blocker."

Unity's Dash added that it's critical that leadership teams are able to deal with hiring and retaining diverse talent, and understand why these issues matter. Training your leadership teams goes a long way.

"A lot of the time, leadership wants to be helpful, but they don't necessarily understand the issues," she said. "We've just spent the last six months embarked on a leadership training course. We brought in an external provider to look at how leaders at director level and above can understand race and inclusion in the workplace. And we're making sure that we're embedding those practices. We've just finished the training, so we're now completing plans for each leader to have targets on how they're going to embed their learning."

PlayStation's Mackey explained the value of having diversity and inclusion embedded in your leadership values. It highlights as well that change lies in appointing the right people to do the job.

"[Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO] Jim Ryan has come in and made some instrumental impacts that has allowed us to do a lot in D&I," she said. "First, he understood the need for D&I, and he brought a very strategic and seasoned individual with [global head of diversity, equity and inclusion] Tiffany Hester. And he's also changed HR, so now we have Orit [Ziv, PlayStation's SVP of global HR since October 2020] who is very instrumental and knowledgeable about the talent that we bring in."

"A lot of the time, leadership wants to be helpful, but they don't necessarily understand the issues"Movell Dash, Unity

Mackey added that PlayStation also changed its performance management tools and framework so it includes cultural leadership values, with diversity and inclusion being embedded in these values.

"[Cultural leadership values] is not just about what you do and your goals, but also about how you do it," she said. "And so we specifically can carve goals out within the D&I space. That has been a big change in how we execute, and how we treat our employees who are underserved."

Unity has been working on an interesting approach that both educates leadership and supports underrepresented talent.

"I think the biggest issue is with gatekeepers and identifying talent," Dash said. "Because even when you get people from underrepresented groups through the door, then you don't recognise them as talent, so they don't progress. And then what happens in terms of your retention is they slip, because if I'm not progressing and I'm not seen as talent, why would I stick around? So people leave.

"So what we're focusing on at Unity is building a sponsorship program for our underrepresented groups. Our most senior leaders [are] responsible for sponsoring individuals from an underrepresented group who decides to nominate themselves. We're not going to have the gatekeepers nominate who the talent is, because then we're just going to perpetuate the 'same old, same old'. So you're going to decide that you're a talent and [you're] going to nominate [yourself] for this program, and then the program's going to run for about a year, so you'll spend a year being sponsored by some of the most senior people within the organisation."

"I'm not progressing and I'm not seen as talent, why would I stick around? So people leave"Movell Dash, Unity

Unity decided to focus on sponsorship rather than mentoring because they wanted a more involved approach, and "mentoring only takes you so far," Dash explained.

"Sponsorship allows the senior person to advocate for their talent when they're not in the room," she said. "We know that when these discussions about who's talented take place, it's very rare that somebody who's from an underrepresented group is even mentioned. And that's because the gatekeepers have not put them forward as talent, they've not been given some of those career defining opportunities that would allow them to stand out. So we have to be explicit about how we manage that, and that's why we've decided to create a sponsorship program.

"So these people would then have that one-to-one key into leadership, they'll get to see how the business itself operates, they'll get to mix and mingle with people who are outside of their management chain, so that they can then see for themselves what it's like outside of their management chain, but also those people are exposed to them. And what we hope will happen there is that once we've got one cohort through this process, and people can see that talent does not just look like one thing, then people start thinking: 'okay, actually some really good people came through that sponsorship program last time, let's have a look at talent in a different way'. We really want people to start re-examining what talent looks like. Because if we don't, we're not going to retain people."

The changes needed at a management level

One step down from leadership levels is management, with some issues around retention of diverse talent coming from managers and how they handle employees from underrepresented communities.

"[Change] starts with a people-first mentality within management," Hermida said. "I like to call managers the 'frozen chosen'. They're hit from both sides; they're hit from executive leaders giving them direction, objectives, and then you have individual contributors who you manage who have their concerns. Depending on the company, you're stuck in the middle.

"I do think that a lot of companies need to invest more time, more education, more empowerment to their managers, educating them on how to be an inclusive leader, how to inclusive hire, also empowering them with opportunities for stretch goals to show their leadership skills and be developed.

Hermida highlighted that there's a lot of performative actions happening in the games industry. While acknowledging the existence of "great D&I leaders," she pointed out that, in games, only the most resilient last.

"What do we do about those bad managers? Because people leave these managers, not necessarily these companies"Trinidad Hermida, Niantic

"And that should not be the case, and that's the problem," she continued. "What do we do about those bad managers? Because people leave these managers, not necessarily these companies.

"Those are things that companies overlook because they just want to focus on a pipeline, but not focus on the rotten apple that is rotting and creating a stench, and you're like: why does nobody want to work for this manager or why does nobody want to work in this organisation? I mean, if I take a magnifying glass I could probably figure it out."

Training and education at a manager level is crucial then, with Dash expecting that Unity's recent training courses bear fruits further down the hierarchy as well.

"We're talking the top down and the bottom up approach," she said. "The training I mentioned before for our senior leaders, we're expecting them to take what they learned and start helping. That trickles down into their management chains. And that's why we're going to be working with them on an implementation plan, how they take some of that knowledge they acquired and pass it on to the gatekeepers, and they can actually start fixing some of those issues that occur where we've got some of those bad managers who have unconscious bias, or have racist tendencies or sexist tendencies.

"Because if what we start doing is focusing on those people and giving them the tools to do better when they don't, you then have the reason and the rationale for saying: it's time for you to leave this company."

  • The importance of giving feedback

On the topic of management and how managers can do better to retain talent, a key topic that was mentioned is feedback. Feedback is an invaluable retention tool, and the GDC panel highlighted issues when it comes to managers handling feedback for marginalised ethnicities.

"I don't think all of our managers are prepared to manage people who don't look like them or may not represent what they represent," Hermida said. "So why are we not focusing on our management styles and how we empower our culture, and we're focused more on a pipeline?

"Anybody who's listening to this, if you are a manager, and you manage a Black, brown, marginalised gender or ethnicity person, you better give them feedback"Trinidad Hermida, Niantic

"You know, your pipeline is trash if the manager [of] the person who is coming in doesn't understand how to work with them, empower them, see them, give feedback. Feedback is not a dirty word. And guess what? Anybody who's listening to this, if you are a manager, and you manage a Black, brown, marginalised gender or ethnicity person, you better give them feedback. Because if you don't you're telling me that you really don't care about their growth and empowerment at your company, period. That's a systemic crack.

"White and Asian people don't like giving Black people feedback. Are you scared? You think we're going to yell at you? Come on. You give your buddy feedback at the bar with a beer, give me the same due diligence and give me feedback. And, yes, I might not like your feedback. But [my old boss] cared about me enough to tell me: if you don't change your ways here, here, here, you're not going to make it. And look where I'm at today. Because she gave me feedback.

Dash wholeheartedly echoed Hermida's thoughts on feedback, adding that it's an integral part of how you retain people.

"I have a teenage daughter and I used to tell her: if your teachers are not complaining about your bad behaviour, if you behave badly, it means they actually do not care," she said. "If they're talking to me about your behaviour, that tells me that they recognise you as talent and they want you to do better. And it's the same in the workplace.

"At the end of the day, there are going to be high performers who are from underrepresented groups, and there are going to be low performers. But in order for people to progress, they need to know that they are low performers so they can improve. And that's part of how you retain people, you give them that constructive feedback that is not always favourable, but they're able to understand: this is where I need to grow."

The changes needed at a recruitment level

Last but not least, a very important part of the equation is the recruitment process itself and how managers in recruiting positions can reach out to more diverse talent.

"We have to start looking at the way that we recruit," Hermida said. "I think that we're sort of happy with only [considering] certain schools. There's a lot of opportunity, and we need to start [looking] into some of these colleges that are less represented in this space, and offer them opportunities to create a pipeline, empowering more programs like Gameheads.

"We all partner with Black in Gaming, Latinx in Gaming and Gay Gaming Professionals. How are we keeping the companies that partner with these organisations accountable to actually hiring the talent from these organisations? Because we can run all these career fairs [but] they are a waste of most people's time if you're not willing to interview people on the spot or at least get some type of schedule committing [to interviewing them]."

Mackey highlighted a false narrative that is to say there is simply not enough talent coming from underrepresented groups, and that's why there's low diversity in games.

"There are gatekeepers, these managers [we] talked about that have unconscious bias. I think that's a new fancy word. Let's just say what it is: it's prejudice"Davina Mackey, SIE

"I did a presentation that showed that nationwide the Black representation [in tech] in the US is between 5% and 7%. When you come to Silicon Valley though, that decreases down to 2.5%. So half of the representation nationwide. And if you go into the game industry, I think there's less than 1% from a survey that IGDA created, based on GDC attendance. We have to do better than that. Underrepresented communities play games, they hold large markets that need to be tapped into.

"But when you go to the universities, you'll see like Stanford, if you look at the engineering program there, they have about 5% Black representation. So there's this misnomer that there's not enough Black talent, for example, in the pipeline, but that's not true. There are gatekeepers, these managers [we] talked about that have unconscious bias. I think that's a new fancy word. Let's just say what it is: it's prejudice.

"The companies are not doing a great job at providing training and holding them accountable for being prejudiced, point blank. And they're keeping talent out of the pipeline, period. I believe we, as an under-represented community, have to take responsibility as well. So we are looking at providing awareness that there are opportunities in the video game industry starting in middle school. You [need to] tap into middle school kids and let them know that talents that they have in computer science skills or even in the arts -- music, visual arts, creative drawing -- can translate into a career in the video game industry."

As part of PlayStation's Career Pathways Program, Mackey is working with non-profit organisations to build programs that start at a middle school level and ensure that pipelines can be created from a young age.

It's a topic that we've explored in the past on the Academy, for instance in this article exploring the UK talent pipeline and how to improve it. Partnering with educational institutions is absolutely instrumental in bringing more diversity in games.

"We're working with schools, we're working with the universities and then creating programs within Sony that allow for that talent to come in," Mackey continued. "Specifically HBCUs [Historically black colleges and universities] are our target as well. [It's about] creating the pathways, creating the internships."

Internships are a great tool to bring people in from various walks of life, and Mackey admitted that Sony's internship can be a challenge.

"If you're not at a certain school, it's pretty challenging to get in," she said. "So we're creating a separate internship program that allows for talent within the HBCUs to pipe in. Those [interns] start as a freshman and then come back as a sophomore, and then they come back as a junior and come back as a senior, and they end up with some sort of apprenticeship opportunity and an actual career at PlayStation. That to me is impacting the pipeline.

"I think the place where we've not targeted yet is the unconscious bias that we face, making sure that those gatekeepers, we break that down as well. And we've asked for data. We want to know things like: how many Black managers are there? How many have been promoted? How many are being paid equitably? We want to know these things because if we understand the metrics then we can bridge the gaps. And if you don't have the metrics, then you really don't really have a justification to base what you're doing off of."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar

Marie Dealessandri

Deputy Editor

Marie Dealessandri joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.