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Career Lessons from Stefani Coverson: Changing the Culture

The career of the CHRO of Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit, demonstrates a dedication to social and racial equity.

“COVID-19 and the uprising that resulted from the murder of George Floyd have turned on its ear this idea that employers should not take an interest in what their employees are experiencing outside the four corners of the office,” says Coverson, CHRO at Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides academic support and other assistance to youth in foster care throughout the state of Washington. 

The fallacy of a work/life split is especially apparent now that employees across the country, including many at Treehouse, are working from home. In the past, Coverson notes, people could escape the stresses of work by going home—and vice versa. “These days, that life/work separation is not so easy to access,” she says. “This situation is different than anything anyone has experienced in their lifetime.”

And it’s not a temporary change, Coverson says. It’s the new normal—and the future of the workplace. “I don’t think we’re going back to a differentiation between what’s considered ‘on work’ and ‘off work,’ ” she says.

That will have a big impact on how HR professionals do their jobs. “We need to help with a culture shift so that employees can bring their whole selves to work and we care for them as whole persons,” Coverson says. “We need to help organizations acknowledge that outside factors are really inside factors that impact how employees show up for work and how they do their jobs.”

Sparking a Cultural Change

That’s precisely what Coverson has worked to do at Treehouse, which she joined in February as director of HR prior to her promotion to CHRO. COVID-19 upended life during her first few months on the job, followed by the May 25 killing of Floyd that led to nationwide protests and social unrest.

Coverson had no time to ease into her new role.

Under her guidance, Treehouse increased the frequency of its all-staff meetings from monthly to at least weekly (they’re now held virtually). The company scrapped the usual agendas for the meetings and instead devoted the bulk of the time to answering staff questions about the pandemic and having discussions about the grief and trauma the company’s 146 employees were feeling about the police killings of Black individuals and the subsequent protests. The town halls also gave company leaders the chance to provide workers with information on mental health and tips on mindfulness to help them manage remote work.

Treehouse is working to become an anti-racist organization. During that process, Coverson says, company leaders must recognize that people of color are most impacted by systemic racism. “When we support employees to cope with and process institutionalized racism, it benefits all employees.”

To that end, Coverson led staff in acknowledging that the police killings of Black Americans have a deeply personal resonance for Black employees. (At Treehouse, 44 percent of employees self-identify as people of color.) Treehouse staff members gathered in virtual groups organized by race—for instance, groups of Black people, other people of color and white people—to discuss police brutality and systemic racism. These types of gatherings give employees safe spaces to come together and “process their grief,” Coverson says.

They also can help people address the grief stemming from the pandemic: “A lot of what we’re experiencing as an organization, community and nation is loss of life as we knew it pre-COVID.”

‘COVID-19 and the uprising that resulted from the murder of George Floyd have turned on its ear this idea that employers should not take an interest in what their employees are experiencing outside the four corners of the office.’
Stefani Coverson, SHRM-SCP

Good for People and Business

For Coverson, supporting staff members’ lives both inside and outside the workplace is not just the right thing to do for them, it’s the right thing to do for the business. “If folks are suffering and angry, they’re not going to be able to bring their best ideas or whole selves to work,” Coverson says.

Instead of turning away from that reality, HR leaders and executives should directly engage it. That effort, Coverson says, “doesn’t have to be perfect—it just has to be authentic.”

For example, Treehouse leaders acted when Coverson realized that some employees might need more than words of support to process their feelings. They needed time off. “When folks are grieving, it’s difficult for them to come to work and pretend these things aren’t happening.” 

Coverson voiced that concern to her boss, Treehouse CEO Lisa Chin.

“Stefani told me, ‘Lisa, the Black community is not OK, and I’d like to see us create a leave category to allow people to deal with trauma,’ ” recalls Chin, who joined Treehouse in March and named Coverson the organization’s first CHRO in April. “She acknowledges both the needs of the people and the greater good of the company. She’s a master of that.”  

As a result, Treehouse employees were allowed to take off up to 40 paid hours through June, which was not counted against their regular paid time off.

Dedicated to Racial and Social Equity

A careerlong dedication to social and racial equity has prepared Coverson for this moment. She has long worked to embed equity and anti-racism into HR strategy.

In her previous position as vice president of human resources and compliance at Clark College, a public community college in Vancouver, Wash., Coverson broadened compliance training and professional development opportunities for faculty and staff, advocated increased employee development funding, and re-examined language in job announcements and descriptions to attract a more diverse applicant pool. For example, she eliminated gender-coded words and revamped job descriptions to address the organization’s commitment to equity beyond the required equal employment opportunity statements. “We were able to move the conversation away from just how we recruit folks to how they’re received and how they experience the organization,” she says.

That wasn’t an easy task, given that Clark College has a history of racial tensions and microaggressions, observes Andrea Sanchez-Turner, who works at the college and served as Coverson’s executive assistant there.

“I’m a woman of color, and Stefani helped me find my voice and confidence,” Sanchez-Turner says. The mentorship went beyond encouraging words. Coverson also trusted Sanchez-Turner to work as a business analyst on an HR software implementation project, allowing her to expand her professional skills.

Coverson knows firsthand the difficulty of being heard “as a woman of color, particularly as a Black woman,” she says. She notes the challenge of “speaking up at the risk of being labeled angry or overly sensitive or not a team player.” 

She recalls work meetings where she shared ideas and didn’t get much of a response. “Then somebody else basically paraphrases what you said 10 minutes after you said it”—and that person is noticed.

Coverson has learned to address such challenges by cultivating alliances with other colleagues who’ve had similar experiences. So when someone restates what Coverson says, “[a] colleague can say, ‘Hey, I think you’re saying what Stefani said. Stefani, is that accurate, and can you expand?’ ”

Such partnerships help organizations and their leaders hear voices they otherwise might not acknowledge. “These colleagues amplify my voice, and I amplify theirs,” Coverson says.

That inclusive approach impacts her hiring philosophy: “I look for cultural add, which is very different from cultural fit. It’s vital that organizations bring in multiple viewpoints and voices,” Coverson says, noting that research has shown a link between more-inclusive workplaces and better business performance.

Lessons from Mom

Coverson, who grew up in the Seattle area, first learned the value of partnerships from her mother, Arti Coverson, a diversity manager. Coverson watched as her mother collaborated with various employee resource groups, including those for LGBTQ and Native American employees.

“Because she was a single parent, my mother brought me along to a lot of those events,” Coverson recalls. “I think that’s when I first learned to ask whose voices were not represented at the table and how to bring them forward.”

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Washington State University, Coverson worked for the Washington State Human Rights Commission, where she investigated discrimination complaints. “I started to wonder what would happen if I moved from a place of enforcement to working to change systems,” she says.

Coverson decided she could do that by following in her mother’s footsteps. About 20 years ago, Coverson transitioned to HR. She learned early on that she would have to maintain a delicate balancing act: addressing the needs of both a company and its people. She calls it “being gentle on people while being firm on the issues”—something she picked up from her first HR boss at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

Yet Coverson also learned from her mother the risks of pursuing systemic change. In her job, Arti traveled to about a dozen states to provide training in diversity, equity and inclusion. During some of those trips, “folks told her she’d better get back to Seattle before sunset. There were people threatening to do her harm,” Coverson recalls. “It wasn’t easy work, but she was passionate about it and believed not only is it the right thing to do, but there’s a business case for doing it.”

That idea neatly sums up Coverson’s HR philosophy to this day: There’s a business case for doing the right thing.  

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.