by Erin M. Faverty | PeopleTech Partners

Sarah Sheehan and Toby Hervey | Co-Founders of Bravely

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are now standard workplace lexicon. According to Workforce Management, HR teams spent more than $8 billion on D&I trainings in 2017—and while this number is projected to continue growing, companies are still struggling to meaningfully support their diverse talent.

In a survey of 500+ U.S. workers, PeopleTech Partners’ Portfolio Company, Bravely, found that 50% of employees aren’t even aware of their company’s diversity, equity, or inclusion initiatives. Additionally, 45% reported being afraid to speak up about workplace issues for fear of retribution, with this fear being magnified further for those who identify as LGBTQ+. Of that population, a staggering 80% of people are avoiding tough conversations due to negative experiences at past companies. This is unfortunately not surprising given that 7 in 10 of these employees say they’re afraid to bring full selves to work (Human Rights Campaign), and 20% report having experienced discrimination when applying for a job (National Public Radio).

By addressing these gaps in conversation, company leaders can better address challenges faced by their diverse employee populations, and improve the employee experience overall. As co-founder and CEO of Bravely, Toby Hervey has helped enterprise organizations and fast-growth startups across the tech, hospitality, and media space do just that. His platform connects people with professional coaches for confidential conversations about their performance, growth, relationships, and company culture—helping them go forward and approach the situations they’ve been avoiding, and providing HR teams with a way to improve engagement, productivity, retention, and culture overall.

I had the opportunity to talk with Toby about Bravely’s founding story, how they’ve partnered with companies like Zillow Group and Chipotle, and why professional coaching for all employees is a must have for progressive HR and People leaders and for sustaining a healthy workplace.

What gave you the idea to start Bravely?

One day, I got a call from a friend who was reeling from a fight with her boss. I tried to help but realized that I was telling her what she wanted to hear to make her feel better—like many friends would!—instead of coming at it from a place of objectivity. I decided to introduce her to my friend Sarah, a former colleague from the Gilt Groupe who had started her career in HR and had helped me in many a moment of work-induced stress.

She called me after she spoke with Sarah and told me that she had been able to go forward and resolve her issue. Immediately, the experience struck a chord. Sarah’s guidance had been helpful because she encouraged her to look at things from a different perspective and consider what her boss was dealing with—in other words, she coached her.

I had been building a platform for on-demand healthcare for years, and saw how impactful it could be to provide people with the help they needed in the very moment they needed it. I thought to myself: “what’s the telemedicine equivalent for the HR space?” I wanted everyone to have access to someone like Sarah when they were facing an important moment at work.

Who benefits from your solution?

We’re really helping both employees and the companies they work for. We sell to HR leaders and their employees have access for free—Bravely is really a new kind of benefit in that sense.

For employees, we make it possible to connect with an unbiased expert to get guidance and a game plan for going forward so that they can address whatever they’re dealing with in the moment, come to a resolution, and move forward in a positive direction. Sometimes it’s reactive, like my friend trying to think through next steps after an argument, but often people are working proactively to set goals and prepare for important milestones or conversations.

We’ve heard people say that they can see how busy and strapped their HR teams are, and that while they wanted help, many issues didn’t feel “big enough” to ask for the time. So we’re helping HR teams get into the corners and make sure their people are supported.

Second, the truth is that some employees don’t feel like they can trust HR with their issue—so they end up avoiding it and growing disengaged in turn. We’re helping companies show their people that they are supported by providing them with multiple pathways to address what matters to them.

Why is this so important?

We’ve coined a term called the “Conversation Gap” to describe what happens when employees fail to approach conversations with their managers, colleagues, and direct reports. According to our research, 70% of employees are avoiding this dialogue—and are struggling to find happiness and purpose at work as a result. Of course, it’s also wreaking havoc on company culture and the bottom line. Studies point to a single failed conversation amounting to $7,500 in lost productivity and attrition costs, and of course that really takes its toll on people and their happiness.

Beyond that, employees have never been less trusting in the organizations they work for. Our research also showed that 46% of people were avoiding these conversations because they either feared retribution or felt like nothing would change if they did speak up.

What are some examples of companies leveraging your tool?

We’re really proud to be working with companies that value company culture and believe in the power of coaching. One of our clients, Zillow Group, is consistently named a “Best Place to Work.” Their Chief People Officer, Dan Spauding, speaks openly about the fact that some employees simply aren’t going to bring their concerns to their manager or HR. He’s an example of the kind of progressive People leader that we love to work with.

We’re also working with two companies in the restaurant space, Chipotle and Dig Inn, which has been really interesting because we’re supporting people who work outside of the traditional office. We’re providing their restaurant leaders—people who have had limited access to professional development—with an opportunity to learn and grow as leaders. Jamie Viramontes, Chipotle’s VP of Talent, really sums it up nicely:

“I’d rather have conversations happening and get people the coaching that they need than have a situation escalate. We do have an HR business partner team … and initially, they asked, “Don’t we want people coming to us?” But once we got going with Bravely, the value was so obvious. We actually hear more from our people than we did before.”

What have you learned from your users and customers so far?

To be honest, we’ve learned that people need a confidential outlet. The workplace has changed—teams are more distributed, technology has changed the way we communicate, millennials have challenged company leaders to be more transparent and to provide people with real room for growth and development. Everybody needs someone to talk to, and the engagement and feedback we’ve seen from employees really proves that.

We’ve also learned certain employees are particularly ripe for this kind of support: especially new hires (not surprising, given that 30% of people leave their job within the first 90 days), new managers, and those from underrepresented groups. We’re proud to support all employees  in key moments.

What would you like to say to People leaders who are thinking of using your platform?  Occasionally, we speak with HR leaders who worry that Bravely is trying to take the place of the HR team, or that they want these conversations to be happening strictly inside the company. I always tell them that that’s exactly the point: we’re actually here to drive more people to their peers, managers, and HR teams, earlier and more productively.

After every session, employees and coaches fill out a survey, and one of the questions is about that employee’s likelihood to go forward in the wake of their conversation. We’ve found that 85% of people say they’re more likely to go forward and approach thee situation directly after having a session with Bravely.  

The truth is that many people feel comfortable approaching their HR teams from the start, and these aren’t the people who are coming to Bravely. We’re here to support the people who aren’t going forward, and who need extra support.

As a founder, what has been most challenging for you or your company?

The hardest part of building Bravely has been figuring out how to support our people in a way that marries the needs of our fast-growing business with individuals’ goals and the role that work plays in their personal journey. It feels very meta, because this is exactly what we help our clients with every day. And it’s especially challenging when creating something from scratch and a concept that’s never existed before, therefore having to write the playbook while executing it. The constant need for invention means the work is often stressful, challenging, and all-consuming, and that means the team has to be communicating early, often, and productively. The irony is that we know exactly how hard that is, because it’s the very reason Bravely exists!

A second challenge worth noting: we consider ourselves a progressive, values-driven place to work and often, living those values comes with difficulty. This applies at a more macro level (we’ve passed on financing from venture capitalists who didn’t align with our view of the world, at a time when we really needed the investment) and on a day-to-day basis with the team (we have generous leave policies because we know that’s the right thing to do, but every person and every minute counts at this stage of the business). We live our values because that’s the world we’re trying to help create, and everything worth doing comes with challenges.

What has been the most fun or rewarding?

On the hard days, I only have to read through the testimonials and comments that people have written about their Pros and their Bravely sessions to feel a surge of inspiration and drive. We have built something that truly helps people, and it’s tremendously rewarding to feel that our company is making a real impact. Not dissimilarly, watching my own team grow, thrive, and ‘walk the walk’—committing to creating the kind of culture we help to bring to other organizations—is profoundly energizing. The opportunity to make an impact in peoples’ work and lives is what this journey is all about for me.

What advice do you have for other founders who are looking to focus on their people and culture?

You have to have the tough conversations, especially when they’re uncomfortable and stress-inducing. Whether you leverage professional coaching like Bravely to prepare for them, talk out loud to yourself in the mirror, lean on personal networks, or study up on conversational models and frameworks (all of which can be valuable!), you have to force yourself to address people and situations directly, assertively, constructively, and warmly. Every conversation is an opportunity to earn that all-important trust, uncover brewing challenges, and solve gritty problems—seize those opportunities!

What’s next for you and Bravely?

In a relatively short period of time, we’ve seen that Bravely has a powerful impact on people and organizations. This early momentum only fuels our drive further to get every employee access to this resource, and every organization hosting healthy conversations in important moments.

We’ve also seen quickly and unsurprisingly that not every employee is the same in how they approach key moments in their life at work, and there are some support mechanisms—like texting instead of phone calls, or group sessions in place of individual one-on-ones—that serve some employees better in some contexts. We’re building a richer platform day-by-day to better meet people where they are.

We’re laser-focused on getting Bravely into the hands of more people, and coming up with new ways to provide them with this critical support. The more we grow and evolve, the more we can deliver on our mission: making life at work better for everyone.

 Erin M. Faverty is a serial entrepreneur and Operating Partner of PeopleTech Partners

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