At a time of shrinking DEI commitments and growing cynicism around corporate culture, Toni Thompson is paying close attention to what Etsy’s increasingly diverse and growing number of employees need to succeed.

Since she joined Etsy in 2020, the company has expanded dramatically, transforming into a ‘house of brands’ with offices in Brooklyn, Chicago, London, Dublin, and Mexico City. That includes the company’s original online marketplace connecting more than 96 million buyers and 9 million sellers around the world, as well as Depop, a resale marketplace focused on affordable second-hand fashion, and Reverb, a resale marketplace for musical instruments and audio equipment.

When she took on the role of Chief Human Resources Officer — an increasingly powerful position in today’s C-suite landscape — in December 2023, Thompson doubled down on her commitment to advance the company’s high-performing, equitable, and inclusive culture.

Under her leadership, Etsy has set new standards for employee benefits, advanced gender parity in leadership, and increased diversity among its workforce. Today, the company’s standard benefits include unlimited sick/mental health days, 26 weeks of gender-neutral parental leave, mental health benefits for employees and eligible family members, companywide no-meeting days, transgender health coverage, subsidized backup care benefits for working caregivers, adoption/surrogacy reimbursement, and fertility coverage.

Thompson’s focus on diversity and equity have helped the company set, and, in some cases, exceed its ambitious social impact goals. Last year, women and marginalized genders made up more than 30% of Etsy’s global engineering team and Thompson continues to work towards greater gender parity. She’s also kept her eye on accessibility, setting a goal in 2022 of scoring an 80 or above on Disability: IN’s Disability Equality Index. In just one year, the company proudly exceeded that goal with a score of 100.

Over the past five years Etsy has nearly doubled the percentage of Black, Latinx, and Native American employees in their U.S. Etsy marketplace team, from 8.6% in 2018 to 15.4% in 2023. Last year, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) constituted 53.3% of Reverb’s U.S. hires, up dramatically from 27.7% in 2022. At Depop, underrepresented ethnicities constituted 38.6% of hires in the U.S. and U.K., up from 24.2% in 2022.

In a time when some companies are pulling back on DEI, Thompson and her team remain focused on it. “We know that hiring people from various backgrounds and multiple perspectives, different ages, abilities, and worldviews drives innovation. That's been really well researched.”

She and her team see the proof at Etsy every day. Here, the Chief New Era of Leadership award winner shares how her team has achieved these wins.

Why Listening Is a Top Priority

“My team’s highest level contribution to Etsy is allowing the business to easily attract, retain, and engage top talent in an environment that is safe, equitable, inclusive, transparent, and motivating,” Thompson says. “This requires a real focus on the employee experience.”

For her, listening is key. “We set up a lot of listening posts for our employees, and we take them very seriously. We listen on Slack channels, via in-person office hours and in virtual settings,” she says.

But effective listening depends on being willing to hear everything and to respond effectively, authentically, and with care.

“Sometimes, it's not easy, particularly if you're in the middle of rolling out an unpopular policy,” Thompson says. “But it's important to listen through those moments, even when it can be hard to, and it matters how you respond. Being transparent about what you plan to do and how you arrived at your decision is also really important. I try to always remember the adage that ‘everyone is your student and your teacher’ — that you can learn something from anybody and everybody.”

Supporting Managers to Support Employees

Transparency is another trait Thompson associates with her success, since it enables employees to know exactly where they stand and how they can continue to grow at the company. To that end, Thompson and her team have been focused on establishing a structured performance management process. “We have a clear, equitable competency map that outlines all the skills and behaviors needed at all levels of the company,” she says. During an era when many middle managers are struggling, that transparency has been particularly helpful for Etsy’s people managers.

Her team is also focusing on the challenges of building people leadership skills for the new world of hybrid work, developing managers who are skilled in building trust and know how to forge connections in both virtual and in-person settings.

In her view, the best managers “know when they need to bring teams together virtually versus in-person or when it can be hybrid. They have a high bar for performance but also can be empathetic and genuinely care about the wellbeing of their employees,” she says.

Her goal is to “outline as transparently as we can all the norms and practices for operating in a hybrid environment that allow people to have a voice and to contribute meaningfully if they're on a screen or in a room or the combination of those two.”

Beyond training managers on how to have meaningful conversations with their employees, Thompson and her team are setting up forums for managers to listen to each other, too. “Managing people can be very lonely at times,” she notes, explaining that the forums are designed to guide managers in sharing ideas about growing talent.

Investing in Benefits Pays Off

Having created an industry-leading benefits package for Etsy’s employees is something Thompson not only takes great pride in, it’s an area of ongoing focus in terms of building structural support around it.

“The programs we've put in place have allowed us to support employees not only in the benefits we offer but also in the environment that we've created,” she explains. “It’s an environment that allows people to leverage the benefits we give them, particularly leave. I don't think it's enough to tell people to take leave; you have to build it into the processes and the structures.”

In terms of financial investment, the company provides its managers with leave coverage support, covering the hiring and recruitment of contractors as well as leave bonuses and growth opportunities for employees who fill in. Significantly, growth opportunities do not stop for those who take leave.

She notes that men and women go on leave in equal numbers and women and parents get promoted just as much as men and non-parents.

“We really pay attention to those numbers,” she says. “ It's not uncommon for people to get promoted while they're on leave.” She sees this as essential for retaining high-performing talent. “Etsy’s employees know that their career is not going to stall because they've taken advantage of the benefits that we've put out there.”

“It goes back to listening,” Thompson explains. The company performs regular benefits and engagement surveys. “Our employees feel comfortable submitting feedback to our benefits team on a routine basis, so we're lucky in that sense, and we've created a culture where they feel safe to do so. I think that helps us stay connected and relevant as the world of work evolves.”