When Amelia Ransom joined the Seattle-based tax compliance software company Avalara in early 2018, she became the Senior Director of Engagement and Diversity and the highest ranking DEI professional in the organization. Effusive, blunt, and goal-oriented, Ransom had prior experience in diversity focused roles at Nordstrom and conviction about her approach. “I wanted my voice to be about resetting expectations,” she says. And it didn’t take her long to figure out where expectations needed to be reset for the roughly 1500 employees of her new firm.
THE BIG PROBLEM: When Ransom joined Avalara, underrepresented employees were surfacing similar issues in a wide variety of different forums and the company reacted to concerns on an ad-hoc basis. There was no formal or generally understood means by which conversations about diversity, equity, or inclusion could be elevated and result in institutional change. As such, employees felt unheard.
SMALLER PROBLEM 1: Avalara lacked ERGs and a framework for ERGs.
SMALLER PROBLEM 2: There was no internal momentum on ERGs.
Hypothesis: Strong leaders quickly legitimize efforts to build organizations designed to help employees contribute their voices and efforts toward business-aligned cultural goals.
Order of Operations:
1) Ransom identified one of the more respected women in the company and talked to her about an ERG for women. No presentation; just conversation. “The employees didn’t know me yet, but they knew her,” Amelia says. “By getting involved, she gave me the stamp of approval that I needed to move forward.”
2) Ransom started doing a road show, for those that didn’t know what an ERG was. She took her respected female executive along to voice support. “She became instrumental because she made the effort credible,” Ransom says.
3) Ransom worked with the Co-Chairs of Women at Avalara to structure an ERG that could effectively service issues and propose strategic business priorities without taking up more than 5 percent of its leaders’ and board members’ work hours.
4) After the Women’s ERG was set up, employees came forward requesting other groups. Based on the work done with the Women’s ERG, Amelia supplied a basic two-page road map.
- Employees nominate themselves into leadership roles.
- Executive Sponsors are interviewed and selected by the employee Co-Chairs.
- The board is rounded out by self-nomination.
- Each board member serves with the support of their managers, since this is technically part of company time.
- ERG leaders spend roughly 5 percent of their time on the effort
- Each ERG has pillars tied to business goals. There are metrics within the pillars.
- The groups define the goals and then work to meet them, engaging speakers and facilitating learning events.
- Budgets are uniform across ERGs.
- All leadership positions have a term of two years.
5) Eventually, work related to ERGs moved beyond a “learn as we go” stage. Ransom hired someone to come in and manage ERGs, among other tasks. The new employee had significant ERG experience and had built out a toolkit. “It does not try to solve everything,” Ransom points out. “It gives current and future leaders a framework.”
Results: In addition to the Women’s ERG, Avalara now has Veterans of Avalara, UJIMA for black employees, PRISM for LGBTQ employees, and NODE for remote workers. “There are employees who have said they would have walked away from the company if it wasn’t for one of the ERGs,” says Ransom, who credits the now-international growth of Avalara’s ERGs to the leadership of those able and willing to build constituencies and specifically to her first change agent, the respected female executive. Still, Ransom believes the ERGs at Avalara have helped with retention and driven organizational change precisely because they were never understood to be an end in and of themselves.
Precisely because the ERGs are understood to serve a business purpose rather than to function in a purely social capacity, Ransom says it has been easy for employees to opt out or in. She points out that ERGs work because there’s a core constituency of engaged stakeholders, not because every employee they work to represent necessarily participates. She says it’s critical that they be open to everyone, but structured around the identifiable leaders that give them their credibility.
- It takes less time to win over one stakeholder who already commands respect within an organization and leverage their reputation than it does to take a retail approach.
- “ERGs are not the goal,” says Ransom. “They are the conduit to the goal. They need to be presented in those terms so leaders understand that the goal is inclusivity and representation, but that a platform is necessary to gather and collect.”
- Having a model for success is invaluable when building out or restructuring an ERG program.
What’s Next: Employees at Avalara are not yet recognized for work done in service of building or promoting ERGs. Ransom says she’s not comfortable with this state of play. She points out that Avalara doesn’t do spot bonuses or make ERG responsibilities part of employee titles. She says informal recognition is common but she remains committed to formalizing a process through which employees can be rewarded and empowered.