Ethics might be an unusual course of study for the average CEO, who more commonly earns a degree in business administration or finance. For Lucy Suros, however, the master’s degree in ethics she holds informs more than her outlook on life — it has been integral to employee management at learning platform Articulate, the company she helms.
Articulate has developed its own management framework, called the Human-Centered Organization Framework, to guide how the company thinks about its workers and mission. It’s more than just talk; Articulate consistently performs highly in the workplace happiness rankings, ranking on Inc.’s Best Workplaces list for 2020 and 2022 and among Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work 2022. In addition, Suros has a 97% approval rating on Glassdoor and the company boasts a 4.9-star rating overall.
Suros spoke to HR Dive about how her background informs her approach to work and why Articulate plans to stick to its employee-first approach — even if the company undergoes an economic downturn.
The ethical workplace
Coming from a mindset rooted in creating purpose and meaning, Suros rejects the increasingly outdated notion that personal and professional life can be evenly divided, and that people can or should derive most of their meaning outside of the workplace. “I'm very interested and always been very interested in [questions like], ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What are we here to do and how do we live our best lives?’” she said.
“I'm interested in that whole spectrum, from the individual [perspective] — ‘What can I, as a human, as a leader, do to operate in the most healthy way for myself and for the others around me and create an impact I want in the world?’ — to … ‘Okay, so how do we build healthy teams? How do we build a healthy organization?’” Suros explained.
In some ways, Suros said, it doesn’t really matter what product or service an organization creates; if the workplace culture is toxic, even the most mission-driven nonprofit can drive workers away. The tasks aren’t often the elements of work from which employees derive meaning. Rather, Suros noted, the relationships and strategies employees rely on to tackle that work can give them a sense of purpose.
“A lot of the growth we do as a human isn't about, ‘How many emails did I send today?’ It's about, ‘How did I unlock, you know, some new ideas about how I'm going to approach whatever that task list is by being in a healthy conversation with my co-worker or having the time and conditions that allow me that free headspace so I can really just do deep thinking?’ So it's more about how we work and how we are being at work that creates that meaning,” Suros said.
From a business perspective, Suros sees a strong connection between employee meaning-making, personal satisfaction and workplace success. If an organization wants to drive productivity, engagement and results, she told HR Dive, it needs to “create the conditions where humans are at their best.”
The Human-Centered Organization Framework
Suros’ approach to employee engagement has given rise to Articulate’s Human-Centered Organization (HCO) Framework. She described HCO as a set of “belief systems or tenants” Articulate uses to encourage particular behaviors among employees and the set of outcomes it hopes to achieve through those beliefs and behaviors.
Six core beliefs form the framework:
- We are all human.
- We are all connected.
- We are all works in progress.
- We are responsible for ourselves and accountable to one another.
- We are ethically called to create an equitable and empowering workplace.
- We are focused on results and strive to make a positive impact in the world.
Grounded in relationships, the framework sets out to foster real connections among co-workers, creating an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns (circumstances often referred to as “psychologically safe”).
Suros uses the words “authentic” and “healthy” in describing the co-worker relationships the company strives for. While accountability to each other is important, she said, grace is also necessary for healthy relationships. “No one's perfect. We're gonna mess up. So how do we give each other space to be human?” she asked.
The HCO model is integrated into Articulate’s company culture. New employees are trained in the framework through an employee-developed, “robust” onboarding process. It’s threaded into performance reflections. HR considers the framework as a jumping-off point to develop benefit offerings. And it’s a tool the company reaches for “when we are in sticky situations or we're trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what's the decision we want to make?’” Suros said.
While Articulate adheres to the employment law compliance requirements expected of any company, it encourages a restorative justice process early on if possible, before a conflict becomes untenable and HR needs to get involved or invoke legal action.
“Disconnecting is a big problem in our society right now,” Suros said. “It's very binary. You're in or you're out, [it’s] dualistic. And we're trying to say it's harder to actually come together and to work through stuff together. But that's what we're urging people to do, and hoping people do that as much as possible, because we think that there's power and healing in that process.”
In developing its slate of benefits, Articulate begins with an industry comparison, looking at what other software companies are offering. That’s “table stakes,” Suros said. “Bottom of the barrel.” Next, the company refers to HCO to consider how the company can help make up the equity gap caused by broader systemic issues.
Articulate’s benefits are closely aligned with its DEI goals and outcomes. “For me, it's how do we address — in terms of creating equity — the systematic things that our population has experienced in life? How do we help people address some systems of oppression in a material way?” Suros said. Some populations or individuals have not had access to the wealth opportunities of others, she noted, and the company works to help through student-loan repayment, child care assistance, tuition reimbursement and other forms of funding.
The final benefit level looks at the promotion of “human flourishing,” Suros said. It includes providing two companywide weeks off per year to support workers’ mental health, a monthly wellness stipend, the opportunity to take a three-month “service sabbatical” to focus on volunteer work and access to an app called Wellness Coach, which connect employees with life coaching, financial counseling, fitness coaching and more.
Articulate also uses the HCO method to develop creative and tailored benefits, requesting employee feedback on pain points and needs. Recently, after the company heard that workers were experiencing financial stress due to inflation, it decided to provide a one-time, $4,500 bonus to all workers at director-level and below in order to provide some relief. While it was initially out of budget and Suros had to sell the decision to the board, “we just felt like this is the thing that's going to help [people] focus.”
Another responsive offering Articulate extended was gender-affirming medical care, after learning from an employee that the company’s medical insurance didn’t provide the coverage. “We do a lot of just listening to what our employees are saying that they want,” Suros said.
No downturn playbook shift
In a market that has many tech companies nervous about a prospective economic downturn, Articulate’s decision to keep investing in employees benefits and even offering a lump sum of financial relief may seem bold. Is the company concerned about having to cut off the generous benefits in the event of a recession?
Suros noted Articulate is in a relatively unique and privileged position in the market in that the service it provides is needed both in good times and difficult ones. “Whether the economy is doing great or if it's doing terrible, you need to train your people,” she said. “You need to train people because you're hiring like crazy and you have all this stuff that you need to get your new employees up to speed on, or you're cutting back and you need to be reskilling people to do more than one job.”
Regardless, Suros doesn’t think layoffs and benefit reductions are a productive way through a recession — whether the company is doing well or not.
“We just don't think that the playbook of stripping away the things your employees need to do their best work is a good philosophy to get the business outcomes you want,” Suros said. “If you do that, then you just get lower productivity and your workforce becomes disengaged. So it doesn't really help you that much.”
“We're definitely taking a philosophy of your people [being] your most important asset,” Suros added. “If you have people who are … engaged and creative and productive, then that is your biggest tool in getting through any kind of economic issues.”