Leaning in to Social Unrest in the Workplace

It's happening, so let your employees talk about it.
Guest Writer

The past two years were among the most turbulent in recent memory. We faced surprising shocks in the public markets, major terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, hate crimes in Orlando and Charleston, a spike in reported shootings of unarmed black men and police officers, Brexit and a bitter U.S. presidential election.

Is turbulence the new norm? It seems likely. What is certain, however, is that we have reached a turning point in how many workplaces respond to such events.

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Traditionally, companies have not been expected to address the fear, anxiety and sadness that many of their employees experience in the face of external upheaval. Some companies believe those conversations simply have no place at work; others are concerned that someone might say the wrong thing, leading to workplace tension or even lawsuits. Many are more inclined to ignore the negative impact that a non-response exerts on employee productivity and engagement. There has been an unspoken divide between work life and personal life -- and it's rarely crossed.

This divide is driven partly by employees themselves. Fifty years ago, most Americans belonged to social and fraternal organizations -- churches, synagogues and temples; unions or industry groups; neighborhood associations. They had ample space outside of the workplace to process external events. But as the sociologist Robert Putnam argued in his pioneering study, Bowling Alone, over the past generation, rates of group membership have plunged.

Today, Americans spend more time at work and less time in formal or organized activities outside of the office. Many employees and businesses are blurring, or even erasing completely, the separation that once existed between the professional and personal spheres. We believe they are better for it.

What’s driving this transformation?

First, social media has integrated our personal and professional lives. For many of us, our work colleagues have the same access to our daily opinions, passions and life experiences as our friends and family do. According to one recent study, 51 percent of people said social media is “useful in getting to know their coworkers on a personal basis.” Even the distinction between Facebook as a network of friends and LinkedIn as a network for colleagues has disappeared. With these changes, there is no longer the expectation that our online life is cleanly separated from our work life.

Second, many employees now identify the workplace as a main source of community. With fewer people participating in organized religion, a decline in volunteerism and a decline in social gatherings such as family dinners, having friends over or club meetings, “work friends” may be filling the gap.

Third, members of Generation Y want something different from work. As Deloitte reported in its 2016 Millennial Report, their primary driver isn’t a paycheck -- it’s meaningful work aligned with their personal values. In response, many companies are becoming more purpose-driven, and employees are forming clubs and affinity groups dedicated to achieving that purpose.

In response to these trends, many businesses are intentionally softening the work-personal divide, as they drop the false assumption that creating space to talk about feelings and how employees experience the social turbulence around them is a productivity-killer. These businesses realize that employees are emotional beings, and difficult events outside of work tend to cloud thinking, drain energy and hurt productivity at work. Building the infrastructure for dialogue enables employees to process their feelings and connect with others, which in turn helps them re-energize and focus.

Related: The Pursuit of Happiness: What It (Really) Takes To Have Happy Employees At Your Entreprise

Fostering a culture where employees feel safe bringing their authentic self to work creates better business outcomes. Employees are more inclined to speak up when something is going wrong or when they have an innovative idea. They are also more likely to be collaborative, engaged and to stay with their employer. Willingness to create space for safe discussions about difficult social events is one lever to foster such a culture.

We have some experience with this. At AppNexus, where we serve as Chief People Office and General Counsel, respectively, we have evolved our internal response to external events. It started with the Orlando shootings. Many employees in our Latino and LGTBQ community were clearly hurting. Some asked if the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee would organize an event where employees of all backgrounds could talk about the shooting. It was with some trepidation that we agreed to do it. What if someone said something offensive? What if someone broke down emotionally? Was it really the company’s responsibility to address the situation? After all, none of our employees had been directly impacted.

The "what ifs" were scary, but we solicited the help of a grief counselor and held the event. The discussion and act of coming together was incredibly powerful. Employees discussed their anger, fear and heartbreak -- and also their hope that something good could come from this tragic event. While the pain was long-lasting, for many, having the open discussion was a big step in beginning to move past it.

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The event became the first of what we now call “Open Forums.” They were equally helpful for Brexit in Europe, as well as the police shootings of people of color and the U.S. presidential election. We learned that creating space for healthy discussion necessitates a few guidelines:

  • Set the tone from the top that the discussion is valued and safe. Having senior leaders share openly in the discussion can help set the tone.
  • Start by agreeing on rules, reinforcing a safe space and have participants verbally agree to follow them (e.g. listen to others, keep an open mind and maintain confidentiality).
  • Don’t feel like you need to control or manage the discussion. Let employees talk freely.
  • Don’t feel like there needs to be a next step. The conversation itself may be the only needed step.

This year is likely to be just as tumultuous, if not more so, than 2016. Pretending like the turbulence isn’t happening is counterproductive, so lean into it. Cultivating a workplace culture where employees feel safe to talk about real-world issues in a respectful way will be a key driver in supporting employee productivity and well-being in 2017.

Brandon Atkinson, former Chief People Officer of AppNexus, co-wrote this piece.

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