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Gusto RISE Report: Our Past, Progress and the Path Forward

Bernard Coleman Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer, Gusto 

Amid a global pandemic and the most critical juncture in the fight for equality and civil rights we’ve seen in generations, businesses are being asked to take a stand, acknowledge the inequities that exist in our world, and address this moment of reckoning head-on. 2020-21 in particular was punctuated by a series of events that challenged nearly every facet of the way we all live, work, and interact with one another. Meeting the moment has spawned discussions and debates that reveal a great deal about who we are—as a nation, as companies, and as individuals—and what it takes to rise higher, dig deeper, and go further to create the change we seek.

Here at Gusto, our mission is, and has always been, to build a world where work empowers a better life—both for the 200,000+ businesses we serve and the people here at Gusto who serve them. To do that effectively, we need to employ a representative workforce that reflects our diverse customer base and understands their wide-ranging needs. In April 2020, Gusto launched our RISE (Representation, Inclusion, Social Impact, and Equity) strategy. For us, RISE is more than the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of learnings at Gusto; it’s our lasting commitment to continue to build a company we’re proud of by advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

RISE at Gusto

When RISE succeeds, we get Gusties that can advance in their careers, feel accepted and welcomed for who they are, and show up to work with their best energy. When RISE succeeds, we create a product that customers of every background feel includes them, and that they’ll want to keep using.” -Dre, Juntos with Gusto leader

Our RISE strategy has four key areas of focus:

  • Representation: Gusto’s workforce through the entire employee life cycle (attracting, inviting, hiring, onboarding, engagement and retention) – reflects the demographics of our country at all levels of the company, across functions and across teams.
  • Inclusion: Every employee feels a sense of belonging at Gusto. Employees foster allyship and build community, connection and coalitions. We want leaders at every level to understand why inclusion and diversity matters and amplify the message throughout the company so that it becomes fully embedded in everything we do.
  • Social Impact: We leverage the mission and purpose of the Gusto platform.  We use Gusto’s position and capabilities to promote social impact. We want to do meaningful work at our jobs, make a difference in society and plant seeds to positively impact others.
  • Equity: Gusto’s culture, people systems and processes produce equitable opportunities and provide equitable resources for everyone, creating a level playing field.  We want to create systems that decrease bias, improve fairness and equitable treatment, no matter who you are or where you are from.

Our first-ever RISE Report, which you can read here, provides a snapshot of time and represents our collective efforts, learnings, revelations—as well as hurdles we’ve overcome—during our first full year of RISE (May 2020-2021). This RISE report is the most comprehensive, intentional reporting Gusto has done to date on our DEI efforts and we took the time that was needed to go beyond the quantitative facts and figures.  We felt the report should include multiple perspectives, learnings we experienced, and challenges we overcame across the entire employee life cycle of attracting, hiring, onboarding, engaging, progression and retaining our folx across all teams. We spent the past few months condensing a range of efforts across the dimensions of hiring, progression, engagement, and retention into a singular report so that we could truly measure improvement and take actionable insights from the data.

Our motivation for sharing this report is not only to share our progress, it’s to create continuous transparency and most importantly, accountability — our RISE effort is a shared accountability that involves the commitment and effort of every Gusto employee to truly endeavor toward progress. It’s our hope that the broader community can find value in our journey by sharing the hurdles we had to overcome in evolving our RISE plan to truly meet the enormity of the moment.

Gusto RISE at a Glance

“Employers must have a deep commitment and responsibility to create an environment that embraces and recognizes the incredible value of a diverse and representative workforce. This commitment to diversity and inclusion can foster an environment where employees can be their whole selves and do their best work.” Eddie, Executive Sponsor of Juntos with Gusto

The full report includes in-depth details across multiple spectrums of DEI. Here is a high-level breakdown on our overall progress, as well as areas we want to improve.

Overall Progress

Key areas where we’ve made improvements 

  • Increased Women in Leadership roles from 37.8% to 41.6% and Black+ from 5.2% to 7.5%.
  • Black+ and Latinx+ technical representation each increased by 1%.
  • Retention: We improved retention overall for our Asian+ and women employees and we maintain similar levels for Black+ employees.

Key areas where we didn’t improve

  • We saw a decrease in leadership representation for Asian+ (-0.5%), Latinx+ -0.1%)(, and Native American+ (-0.1%).
  • We have important work to improve retention for our Latinx+, Native American+ and employees that identify as 2 or more races.

Lessons + Learnings

“Inclusion requires courage – the courage to question established norms and be open to learning something new. Sometimes, courage means stopping a moving bus to make sure that others can hop aboard. It can take courage to say “stop the bus,” but it’s required and necessary for teams to be successful.” Heather, Executive Sponsor of AVID with Gusto

By far, the biggest lesson we learned as a company was how to channel energy into meaningful action. The existential societal crisis caused by the combination of George Floyd’s murder and Covid-19 generated widespread calls for action and renewed attention to inequities and injustice. Fast action often feels good on this front, but can often lead to results that feel short-lived, hollow, and scattered. Following the murder of George Floyd, there were a great deal of ideas offered and in hindsight, some of those actions would have been performative if actually enacted. But we made a conscious decision to fight that tendency.  We know we may not always get it right, but we will always try to align our organizational intent to our impact.  At Gusto, we saw a greater awareness and deeper conversation around race and its intersections as well as a deep willingness to do more. So we fought against the urge to “move fast and break things.” Instead, our north star was taking meaningful action by aligning organizational intent to impact. We dug deeper into durable DEI work by:

  • Embracing an Unexpectedly More Intentional Hiring Pace: Hypergrowth, and hiring at warp speed, is a hallmark of Silicon Valley startups—including us. And you’d think more hiring should mean more progress in hiring a representative workforce. But oftentimes, DEI efforts fall to the wayside as speed to hire the first qualified outstrips intent to hire the right candidate. As a result, folx go back to the same old, “sure bet” wells of talent they’re used to, instead of exploring new, untapped talent pools. At the start of 2020, Gusto was on pace for another big round of hiring—then, COVID happened. We didn’t expect it or see it coming, but the COVID-19 era forced us to recalibrate business priorities, including hiring. During the early months of COVID, we slowed down hiring because we didn’t know what was next. This gave us the ability to  focus more on the key elements needed to build a more inclusive environment. It wasn’t by design, but it’s an important learning. Durable advancements require making space to focus across all four core dimensions of the employee life cycle (progress, engagement, retention, and hiring) to build a solid DEI foundation.
  • Empowering Leaders Who Are Advocates: As a company, you can set all the strategy you want but unless leadership is onboard with RISE as a core belief, you won’t get far. We know representation matters in every level of Gusto from our board to early career talent.  We’ve been intentional about building a representative board and hiring senior leaders who are world-class business leaders and technologists, but who also demonstrate a call to advocacy and a commitment to hiring for skills and potential over pedigree. For example, our CISO Fredrick “Flee” Lee does not require cybersecurity certifications as prerequisites for jobs on his team. Or Nimrod Hoofien, our Head of Product Engineering, who has architected rotational programs to discover new technical talent in unexpected, overlooked places. Or Debbie Ferguson, our Head of Foundation Engineering, who actively supports work to ensure our internal inclusive pronouns policies are extended to Gusto’s platform to make it inclusive by default for the 200,000+ businesses we serve. For these leaders, speed is secondary to prioritizing hiring practices that are harder, but necessary, in building a representative workforce.
  • Examining the Employee Experience: With hiring set at a more intentional pace, and work shifting remotely, Gusto focused additional time, energy, and resources on our existing employees. We pulsed them more frequently, created more training sessions about what it means to hire and operate with a RISE lens and how to create inclusive environments. We also created space for Gusties to connect virtually and share more with one another about their lived experiences.

Our Path Forward

“Teams with diverse members generate better outcomes by broadening the aperture with which we see the world.” Omri, Asians with Gusto, Parents with Gusto Leader

Our inaugural RISE report isn’t just a progress report. It’s a promise to do more and do better. When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the biggest trap any company can fall into is that the work is going to be done. This work is never done—there’s no arrival or destination point. There’s no checkered flag or box to check. This work is ongoing. And ultimately that’s what drives us—to keep going, keep evolving, keep striving for better despite hurdles and challenges along the way.

This work isn’t easy. It requires grit, determination, and a commitment to making hard, but necessary, decisions with equity at the core. Case-in-point, Gusto’s decision to reopen with a remote-first, hybrid workplace. Calling everyone back into the office, or having everyone go completely remote, are cut-and-dry calls to make. It ensures everyone has a uniform experience once they walk through the door or fire up their laptop. But a uniform experience isn’t necessarily an equitable one—and it doesn’t always take into account the holistic view of employees’ ever-changing life circumstances and needs.

Hybrid work is a harder model—with more variables and open questions than any other option—but we chose it anyway, because putting equity at the center of the employee experience matters. There are important issues we need to watch-out for and processes to build, to be sure, particularly when it comes to visibility, opportunities for advancement, and equitable treatment of team members. But without geographic restraints in finding talent, we can build even more representative teams and leverage different working styles—which helps Gusto deliver on its mission to help empower a better life for our over 200,000+ Gustomers and their millions of employees.

Our hybrid approach also extends to the way we interview candidates and onboard new Gusties. Interviewing is nerve-wracking enough for candidates without the added pressures and high-barriers-to-entry that come with carving out hours at a stretch to do them in person. And, once folks are hired, onboarding remotely and adjusting to a new working environment is another significant transition that requires care. During COVID, our interviewing and onboarding  process went completely remote at Gusto as part of that process worked to make our onboarding process relational as opposed to transactional. Instead of large, in-person blocks of time, we could space out interviews to suit schedules for both the interviewers and the interviewees to enhance the experience. Candidates could interview from the comfort of whatever setting they chose. And new employees could attend onboarding workshops from whatever environment was most comfortable for them. These changes are working: we’ve seen a significant increase in candidate acceptance rate and a huge decrease in “time-to-hire.” Candidates and new hires have also told us the process enabled them to bring their best, most authentic selves forward.

Finally, there’s community and connection — there are so many factors in operating in a hybrid environment. There’s no longer the regular in-person interactions like at the water cooler or random conversations in the hallway. Hybrid work requires putting equity at the center of everything so that the connection is felt everywhere. We know absent human connection, words and actions can feel hollow, so the challenge is how do you foster and enable community and connection in a hybrid world. To support greater community and connection, we created a workshop called Leading Inclusively so that leaders are prepared to deliver on RISE through inclusive leadership practices. Our theory of change and what we try to put into practice is showing up for our employees, attempting to be real, at every level and conveying vulnerability as well as accountability in conversation, so that we can truly have a more equitable and hybrid workplace.  The rules of engagement have changed, it’s being more honest and authentic and we are constantly making sure we can meet our employees where they are.

At Gusto, we all are owners of this company and we all bear responsibility for the success and progression of our plan not only for the sake of our company, but, more importantly, for society.

View Gusto’s 2021 RISE Report here.

Bernard Coleman
Bernard Coleman Bernard is the Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer at Gusto where he leads diversity, equity and inclusion, and employee relations as well as people integrity, governance, and compliance efforts.
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