Inside the Winning Recruiting Strategy of Language-Learning App Babbel

Discrimination and intolerance in the workplace continue to be widespread. Babbel is a positive counterexample. There, diversity is understood holistically and is reflected both in the corporate culture and in the product. Diversity and inclusion also play a major role in recruiting at the company behind the language-learning app with the same name. We discussed all this with Tamara Menéndez Morena, Babbel’s Senior Talent Acquisition Manager.

Glassdoor: Looking at potential areas of discrimination – gender, age, race or LGBTQ – where do you see room for improvement; where are you strong?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: As a company employing 750 professionals from over 50 nationalities, diversity is at the very core of Babbel’s values. We celebrate people of different backgrounds, faiths, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations coming together, and we work to implement an environment of open discussion in all that we do. That’s why we offer training around difference and inclusion to our employees, in addition to lectures led by professionals and sessions where Babbelonians are invited to share information and knowledge from their own perspectives. I think we bring a really organic, deeply democratic approach to inclusion and empowerment, and that’s what has been key to our successes.

As for room for improvement — there’s always room for improvement. We are lifelong learners, especially on this front.

Glassdoor: What is your specific approach to fostering diversity and inclusion in your company culture? 

Tamara Menéndez Morena: When it comes to oppression and discrimination, the people most impacted need to be empowered to set the terms of how we challenge behaviors, examine structures, and transform culture. Ultimately, that boils down to democracy; allowing people the autonomy to talk about  their experiences and listening to them when they do. So, our approach is often very bottom-up, with people at all levels of Babbel engaging with and driving our policies. It’s not just management or HR making decisions behind closed doors. And the results of that approach are so dynamic, so inspiring.

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Glassdoor: Do you have specific initiatives with which you try to become more diverse and inclusive?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: Absolutely! That very bottom-up approach has produced a number of vibrant projects, all of which have impacted both the company and the product.

Our most recent initiative is the Femgineers, created with the mission of empowering and supporting women working in tech at Babbel. Founded by the Femgineering Community of Practice (CoP); a few women in the Engineering department, whose initial vision has been transformed into the creation of guiding principles that are shared throughout the company. Represented at the European Women in Tech Conference, the Femgineering CoP is also responsible for hiring and promoting female engineers within Babbel. As a result of their initiatives, we’ve already seen an upward trend in the number of women in senior engineering positions and engineering leadership roles at Babbel.

Glassdoor: How do you make sure to be inclusive in your recruiting?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: Throughout our internal recruiting processes, we’re open to receiving applications from all over the world, with a diverse hiring panel in place in terms of knowledge, roles and gender to assess and hire new employees. I myself am currently implementing training on ‘unconscious bias’, targeted towards further integrating a diversity-driven recruitment process at Babbel. All of our successful applicants are also supported with working visas and relocation packages, whether they’re set to work in our Berlin HQ or New York office. 

Glassdoor: You adjusted the wording that you are using in your job postings. How did this come about?  

Tamara Menéndez Morena: We want to ensure that people of all genders feel comfortable applying for roles at Babbel, however they identify. We’d previously advertised for roles using quirky wording in job postings, like “Didactics ninja” and “PR rockstar”, however soon realized that such terms could discourage women from applying. Similarly, research showed us that words with more masculine connotations, like ‘fearless’, ‘hungry’ and ‘competitive’ significantly reduce the number of female applicants. To ensure that we build a genuinely diverse workforce, we adjusted our internal HR procedure, to adopt gender-neutral job terminology for postings. 

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Glassdoor: What did you change exactly?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: In May 2019, we began using a gender bias decoder tool to identify and modify words that are more likely to resonate with male candidates. Our open job descriptions now employ a more neutral tone, hopefully emphasizing that want to hear from everyone. We now use words like ‘collaborative’, ‘together’ and ‘inclusive’ to describe our roles and titles such as ‘Manager’, ‘Engineer’ and ‘Strategist’, which relate to both men and women. 

Glassdoor: Did this have any effects on the candidates that you attract?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: The initial results have been encouraging, with 40% of the applicants for one of our Senior Engineer positions being female, representing a marked increase over the previous month. 

Glassdoor: Beyond gender, which backgrounds are hardest for you to attract. Are older, more experienced professionals interested in a start-up workplace like Babbel?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: We’re actively seeking out candidates from every background, but the startup world does tend to attract a younger crowd. That’s not exclusively true, obviously. So we work hard to hold space for people in stages of life where they’re starting families or are well into family life – we’ve implemented a number of policies aimed at supporting people balancing work and family life, and parents at all levels of the company are collaborating on improving that still.  

Glassdoor: From your experience: What is the most important thing other companies should start with on their journey to be more diverse and inclusive?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: What we find most important, is not just using the vocabulary of diversity, but investing time in people and empowering them to make Babbel a place they see themselves reflected in. That environment of openness and sense of belonging can’t be brought into being through buzz words or lip-service. It requires listening, humility and the willingness to make structural changes. We have to support one another in creating and contributing to each other’s initiatives – that foundation is critical. And what follows isn’t some magic trick. It’s a recurring, patient process of letting go of what we think we know, and embracing new ways of showing up to our work. We’re home to enormous technical skill. But what this process has shown us is that we’re also home to an incredible emotional intelligence and empathy. That can’t be faked. You actually have to do the work.

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Glassdoor: What challenges do you still have to overcome to be even more diverse and inclusive?

Tamara Menéndez Morena: While Babbel is dedicated to being a diverse company through our various initiatives and company culture, we also want to ensure that our values are fully integrated into the app and clearly reflected in our messaging. Our PR and marketing departments run global campaigns to make this happen, upholding Babbel’s social responsibilities and promoting dignity across cultures worldwide.

Our campaigns around gendered language and stereotypes are one such example. In the lead-up to the 2018 Russian World Cup, we faced a dilemma: We obviously wanted to offer Russian courses tailored to people traveling to see the games. But we also didn’t feel like we could pretend everyone could experience that in the same way, or even with the same degree of safety. LGBTQ fans were being advised by authorities that their safety couldn’t be ensured. We’re just not a brand that pretends that’s a neutral scenario, or a moment for business as usual. We wanted to engage with it in a way that showcased both our love of the Russian language and culture, as well as the non-negotiable value of queer rights.

Our Russian course designers noted that there are two different expressions for “I am married” in Russian. Women would use: ‘Я замужем’, literally meaning: I am behind the husband. This, of course, excludes gay and lesbian couples. Erasure of LGBTQ experience was nested within the language itself. So, we started there; placing the female sentence on a poster, in front of an image of a gay male couple in national team football jerseys, usurping the traditional linguistic and social use of the expression. Our team of language revolutionaries also created a second poster, adding an -a (female ending) to the word ‘Я женат’ (meaning I am “wifed”); a term only used by men in Russian. These became billboards around Berlin, and eventually Spain, timed to coincide with Pride celebrations.

Our commitment to subverting stereotypes and creating a more inclusive world is central to what we do, both in our external campaigns and internally amongst our 750 dedicated staff members. 

Learn More

Guide to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace