Where other executives may cringe or recoil, Gusto's Bernard Coleman embraces radical honesty from his co-workers. For example, as Gusto's chief diversity and engagement officer, Coleman sought to have frank conversations with his direct reports about mental health — especially during the pandemic.
"Sometimes, just acknowledging the elephant in the room brings a sense of relief in this," he told HR Dive. Coleman has headed — or, as "Gustees" say, "empowered" — the software developer's employee engagement team since January 2020. Previously, Coleman served as Uber's global head of inclusive engagement. Prior to Uber, he was the chief diversity and human resource officer for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
In his role at Gusto, Coleman said his own boss' candor about burnout inspired him to be more transparent. "If I see my leader speaking to it, then I can talk to my team about it. I've shared with my team [before], 'I hit the wall, y'all. Struggling a little bit this week, trying to get over this hump,'" Coleman said. "It makes them feel more OK, more supported. I think that's the cascade of vulnerability."
This honesty avalanche has extended beyond mental health issues, to identity conversations at Gusto, too. Coleman launched the company's diversity and inclusion function, RISE: representation, inclusion, social impact, and equity. Here's what the exec had to say about vulnerability in the workplace.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: How would you describe your role?
BERNARD COLEMAN: There's employer relations, so that's just helping things get investigated and understanding how we can approach it with an intersectional lens. We look at it from a restorative justice lens. Then, there's policy and governance. That's related to people policy, like folks taking anti-harassment training or creating Slack guidelines.
When we look at RISE, we want to look across the entire employee lifecycle. That's thinking about, 'How do we invite? How do we attract? How do we onboard? How do we engage with and how do we retain staff?' What's critical is making sure that people understand this is an entire employee lifecycle, as opposed to what you've probably seen done in the past. Like a 'one-off,' or 'doing diversity' but it doesn't interconnect.
When we think about equity, people are at the center. From a RISE perspective, we work to make sure that's integrated in everything that we do. From day one of onboarding, [even] from your interview process, you understand that intention.
What does DEI look like as a part of Gusto's recruiting process?
We have what we call our Community Ambassadors Program, where our affinity group members can actually talk to potential candidates — to help them understand a day in the life. That's really important when you think about helping people understand your culture beyond the website. It's not like we're trying to sell you on Gusto, but people want to know what's the day-to-day experience.
It's helpful when people can identify with 'their tribe' if you will. That way, they can understand, perhaps, 'What would my experience be like?' That's been helpful in terms of opening the aperture of what it's like to be a Gustee, albeit virtually.
What does DEI at Gusto look like once talent is hired?
We have the RISE and Shine full journey. That's basically going through and reading books like So You Want to Talk About Race [by Ijeoma Oluo] and White Fragility [by Robin DiAngelo]. We have our people empowerers — which are managers — read those books. Then we come together and talk about what it means.
We teach about terminology. We use case studies to make it relevant and sticky, so that it's more salient for our folks. We've had about 90% of our people empowerers go through it. It's not mandatory but we've had high adoption. We have RISE Light, which is a monthly journey, where you're not doing as intensive reading.
We're big proponents of education and awareness. A lot of times there's history that was never told to us, and that we're learning on the fly. Think about Juneteenth, where many folks didn't know about it. You know, 'I was this many days old when I found out about Juneteenth.' Every Tuesday, we do a session called RISE Bites.
We talk about a lot of current events. Maybe it's Juneteenth, maybe it's Pride, maybe it's the case for reparations, maybe it's the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whatever it is, we want to expand the conversation so Gustees are passively being educated on the history they maybe were never taught — or areas of interest that they might want to pursue.
If folks are on the RISE journey, as we call it, they influence our products. We influence the people we work with and our customers. When we have that representation of staff, we then have a better understanding of our customers and how we could better serve them. When we think about [representation] from a hiring perspective, that means, 'Who can we bring in from onset, to make sure that we're talking to the most representative group of folks?'
When we think about inclusion, people stay longer if they feel included. If they feel like they belong. If they feel like they are valued for their uniqueness.
Can we talk about that? I'm interested in retention, as well as how DEI initiatives are integrated every step of the way with someone's employee lifecycle. What kinds of feedback have you received from employees regarding RISE and the initiatives making them feel affirmed in working at Gusto? Like it's a company where they want to remain?
Going back to RISE Bites, folks say, 'I've never had this level of conversation at work. I can really show up. I can't believe we're even talking about this.' I've heard that comment, multiple times. And I think that goes back to our intention of making sure people feel like they belong — but not shying away from the tougher subjects.
The reason it has resonated so well with staff is because we walk the walk and talk the talk. I'm not saying we're perfect. There's lots of weeks left to make lots of progress, but I think by having that level of conversation that creates vulnerability. It creates space for learning, and I think people are more open to the conversation as opposed to [feeling like they want to] shut down or withdraw. We find more and more people engage with the RISE bites conversations on Tuesday over Tuesday.
Even if you don't go, you're aware of it. And you go, 'I'm so glad to be in a place where I feel supported to have these conversations.' It's almost like a trapeze artist's net. Maybe they are never used. 'But when I fall, it's nice to know it's there.' I think RISE Bites is like that. This support that you know your organization is committed to, even if you don't necessarily go to all the sessions. 'I know that my organization cares about this and prioritizes it through its actions.'
The trapeze analogy is wonderful. Because on the flip side, employees can feel like they know if something were to happen to them — maybe harassment, identity-based like violence or microaggressions — they know that that net isn't there. Even when employees aren't experiencing hardship on the job, they can kind of gauge the climate and figure out how their company will respond.
It's a good signal. We really want to meet people where they are, both in their personal and professional life. With COVID-19, it's all meshed together. Life and location are colliding. We know when folks feel like they can bring their best selves and full selves to work, they're more creative, they speak up, they share their ideas, and they feel fully engaged. So that's our goal.
Speaking for myself, this is the best place I've ever worked because I feel that freedom. I always associated it with what I remember when I was learning about cars. They talked about this thing called a limiter, which stops you from going from, you know, 300 mph.
When I think about it here, there is no limiter. I feel like I can be free to say what I want, without repercussions. Like in times in the past, [at] other organizations, I would have held back because I was afraid of how they'd respond to what I say.
This has allowed me to be more free, which I think makes me more productive for Gusto. But it also makes me feel more valued. That's just my takeaway, but you know the feedback from staff seems to support that.