How Are We Doing? SERA’s JUST Label Lets Us Know

by | November 20, 2019 3 Ideas, News + Announcements

In a little bit of sleuthing on our website, you’ll find that “SERA is committed to a greater level of employee engagement and entrepreneurial involvement than is customarily found in an architectural firm.” If you’re the kind of person who says, “OK, that sounds interesting, but can you give me an example?” then this blog is for you.

Many moons ago, murmuring of a social-justice transparency label known as JUST began rumbling in meetings of SERA’s Sustainable Action Committee. To the participants of the group, it was clear that the core principles of the JUST label – diversity, equity, stewardship, employee health and benefits, and purchasing – speak to the strength of who we are and what we do at SERA.

Why would we do this?

Digging into these topics could be a little scary, right?

While our employee ownership structure (ESOP) is a fundamental part of the our DNA, we’ve recognized that it only goes so far. Many felt JUST could be a way to connect the individual passions of SERA staff in a cohesive firm-wide strategy. It would help us prioritize our values and organize, discuss, and track our progress on topics that matter most to us. Plus, JUST has a broader evaluation of topics beyond our ESOP, and it could help us structure conversations around a wider range of social justice issues.

Beyond the alignment with our values, we recognized that pursuing the JUST label would give us a standard by which to evaluate ourselves and reflect on our practices. As a firm that’s grown considerably in the last five years – including an expansion into Oakland – the timing was right to engage leadership, where the idea was met with unanimous approval.

“The process is more important than the score” became our mantra.

So, what did we learn through this process?

We’re doing a lot of great things, and we still have work to do. Historically, we’ve focused on equity and employee benefits, which is clear from our JUST scorecard.

As a 100% employee-owned company where everyone has a stake, equity is an important part of who we are. In the past few years our HR team has worked diligently to clarify pay scales and performance expectations to ensure employees are being paid fairly. In examining equity in pay across genders, we discovered all pay scales are within 6% of equal pay, and most are within 2.5%. It was also interesting to see that in some pay scales, men are paid more, and in others it is women. SERA’s dedication to clarifying our compensation framework has resulted in SERA employees being paid more equitably across genders than most other organizations.

Our firm has also committed, year after year, to providing a robust benefits package that ranks in the top tier of the industry. In addition to paying 100% of premiums for employee healthcare, SERA offers robust training programs for employee growth, and firm profits are shared across the firm through our ESOP.

JUST also revealed the areas where we still have work to do.

SERA has long been aware of the importance of diversity in our firm, and the transparency of JUST backs the work that’s currently underway. We’ve begun reaching out to universities beyond our usual circles to draw from a wider pool of applicants in an effort to diversify staff. For many years our employees have volunteered for Architects in Schools and the ACE mentorship program, inspiring and supporting the next generation of designers – many of whom come from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. And we continue to offer a paid summer internship program, which has historically attracted young female design students.

All of these strategies have helped us expand beyond usual recruitment efforts to ensure we’re casting a wide net when searching for new talent.

The JUST process also brought to light that our charitable giving and volunteer efforts are widespread, but without a formal policy and strategic effort. Our giving also tends to ebb and flow with individual passions and firm finances. This is another area we’re focusing on for future clarification and implementation.

Where do we go from here?

SERA has been expanding rapidly in the last several years. As we continue to grow, the JUST label provides a framework for formalizing efforts that we know are important to the culture of the firm. It has helped us prioritize areas for improvement and ensure policies are carried across state lines to our growing Oakland office. Outside of our walls, it helps us tell the story of what it feels like to work at SERA, and has set the stage for shaping that story in the years to come.

We have learned that self-reflection is imperative to growth, and that JUST presents a distinct opportunity in this regard. We would certainly encourage other companies on the cusp of pursuing JUST to go for it.

If we can offer one piece of advice it would be to repeat the mantra, “The process is more important than the score.”


Thanks to Rebecca Grace, Beth Lavelle, Becky Epstein, Suzanne Blair and Walter Currin for collaborating on this piece.


  1. Natasha Koiv says |

    Being a part of the discussions on behalf of SERA’s senior leadership, the process was insightful and reaffirmed for me what makes SERA such a special place. Our collective hearts are in the right place and every person is willing to step up to make a difference.

  2. As Associate Director for the JUST Program at the International Living Future Institute, I appreciated the thoughtful deliberation within the firm about how the process could shape the organizational culture, place a brighter spotlight on the issue of diversity in architecture and deepen employee engagement. I applaud this commitment to transparency.

    • Rebecca Grace says |

      Thanks Francis! It was a pleasure working with you through the process. We appreciated your willingness to meet with us on multiple occasions, clarifying our questions for both JUST 1.0 and 2.0. We are thrilled to officially be on board with the program!

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