Company case study: Clef
Inclusive cultures are intentional. However, the process for developing them may not be straightforward. In fact, many founders committed to inclusivity have had to learn as they go. One such founder is B, CEO of Clef, a company which provides two factor authentication software. Early on, B realized that he wanted to build an inclusive culture, fighting what he calls “the default of exclusion” in the tech industry. Today, Clef is widely considered to be a leader in tech inclusion and more than a few companies have used their open source policies as a template for their own.
When Clef started hiring people, they realized they needed help. They asked a lawyer to help develop the documents and procedures that they needed. The lawyer gave them a generic employee handbook, which they found not to be very useful. The handbook did not reflect the values that they wanted to create or the unique realities of working in a tech startup.
B, Clef’s co-founder and CEO, did some research but couldn’t find any examples of policies that he thought reflected the company’s values or the inclusive culture he wanted to build. So the company hired diversity consultant Ashe Dryden and a local HR lawyer to help them create the policies they were looking for. The team put in hundreds of hours, and eventually wrote 50 guidelines from scratch. Hoping to make it easier on other startups, at the end of the process they also decided to make their policies open-source.
Clef’s foundational culture work was not limited to policy creation. They also realized that in order to create the culture that they wanted, they needed to clearly define their values. The leadership at Clef formulated their core values early on and intentionally crafted them to be opinionated. They reference these values repeatedly throughout the interview process and they are featured prominently on the website. Being explicit about their values has been good for forming the basis of company culture.
Process for Policy Adoption or Change
- New policies are drafted and shared in company-wide Google folder
- Where necessary, the employees try out the policy for three months (such as with their working from home policy), and the results of the trial are evaluated
- The CEO writes a draft of the new or revised policy
- The company invites employees to a meeting to discuss the proposed policy
- After incorporating feedback, the policy is finalized and entered into the handbook
A year on, Clef’s policies have been forked over 300 times. They are widely recognized as a template for inclusive policy development. Other startups, like Josephine, the food delivery service, are using them as a starting point for their own policies. B says his team still has a way to go, but throughout their journey thus far, they have learned some valuable lessons.
- Investor concern — Investors were concerned that Clef’s leadership spent too much time culture-building. However, because Clef maintained control of the board, they were able to more strongly influence their priorities.
- Logistics — Originally drafts were written and edited on Google Docs. But documents quickly became unwieldy after several rounds of comments and edits. So they moved the materials over to GitHub, which is good for publishing comments but heavily biased towards a technical audience. Now, they are open to other collaborative platforms on which they can share and modify policies.
- Limits of transparency — The leadership at Clef recognized that transparency was an important component to fostering an inclusive atmosphere. However, there were times when their radically transparent approach generated pushback. For example, when the team had to decide whether or not to make their salaries public, there was some uncertainty. People were worried about their privacy and the possibility that third parties, for example recruiters, could take advantage of the information. They also received pushback when they published their working hours. The company wrote that they expected employees to work no more than 45 to 50 hours a week, which while longer than the traditional week, is shorter than those commonly worked at startups. They were surprised at the pushback they received, particularly from international readers who claimed their expectations were unreasonable.
- Anticipating the needs of people not yet in the company — At times, the leadership had a difficult time anticipating the needs and priorities of the diverse array of employees that they wanted to attract but who were not currently with the company. This was the case with their new parent leave and trans policies.
- Scale — Clef’s approach was good for a small, early-stage company. It might be less effective for a larger company or an organization that already has an entrenched culture.
- Balancing branding benefits with commoditization concerns — Branding and core values and culture are intertwined. They feed into each other nicely. However, the team at Clef feels that inclusion is a moral imperative and they worry about tying it too closely to financial outcomes.
- Start small — The culture creation process works best with a small company. The earlier the better.
- Dedicate time and energy — Creating culture requires time and energy. It needs to be sustained, and the effort required to build culture must be balanced against other priorities. Currently, the CEO sets aside every Friday morning before lunch as time to do research on policy suggestions. Company-wide, Clef has invested hundreds of hours into the refining their policies, and the work continues.
- Learn from feedback — Transparency and the pushback that results from it can be helpful. It raises the baseline of what’s acceptable and through immediate feedback and collaboration has the potential to raise the bar quickly. Comments about working hours were an excellent example: By being open to feedback from outside the traditional confines of the San Francisco startup community, Clef gained valuable insights.
- Culture is not built by consensus — At Clef, when it comes to culture, everyone has input but ultimately the CEO makes the final call.
Advice for other startups
- Get help — Engage a few experts, like diversity consultants, non-profit leaders, HR personnel, and educators. You can’t know everything. The more opinions the better.
- Get the leadership involved — Leadership buy-in is what determines whether the company makes progress.
- Write it down — Writing your ideas down is a great first step. Writing things down helps transform the abstract into the concrete. As long as things go unsaid, you can be tempted to avoid addressing them.
- The more that can be shared the better — Disclosure helps develop best practices and create buy-in.
Eventually, Clef would like to explore hiring someone to work on the handbook full time. They would also like to look at ways to improve their system, from policy development to adoption. Right now, the bulk of that responsibility falls on the CEO. But as their company grows, eventually they will have to put more processes in place, and B will probably not have the bandwidth to manage everything. Finally, they would like to expand the areas of policy coverage, beyond the basics to something more fleshed out. When thinking about the relationship of policy to culture, B asserts that policy gives the company a backbone. Ultimately, policy is something to fall back on. It serves as a resource. When there is a question, employees know where to go.
B emphasizes the immediacy and vital importance of this work: “Now is the time to create the company you want to exist in the world.”
Note: Clef is a client of ReadySet, where Y-Vonne Hutchinson is Founder and Executive Director.