Heading Off Employee Disruption in Light of COVID-19 and Social Unrest

Paul Falcone By Paul Falcone July 6, 2020
coworkers talking

​The COVID-19 pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent social unrest have triggered fears, resentments and anxieties in many U.S. workplaces. Wearing a mask, meant to be a health care guideline to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, has become a social indicator of allegiance to a particular political party in pockets of the country. And in just a few months, we will witness a historic election battle for the presidency.

Where does this leave the leaders of your organization as they attempt to manage staff conflict that may, at times, appear to be unreasonable and unwavering? How do you, as an operational leader responsible for a team of employees, find ways to cut through the noise, to harmonize the team and heal the division, and to refocus your staff on the work at hand and on their responsibilities to perform rather than vex their peers who have different beliefs or philosophies?

Getting Ahead of the Problem—Verbally

"Brokering employee disputes and communication breakdowns isn't easy, but it's critical in terms of regaining control and creating the proper record going forward," said Brian Koegle, employment attorney at Poole Shaffery & Koegle LLP in Valencia, Calif. According to Koegle, "Employees possess differing levels of self-awareness and business maturity, but you've got to keep things simple to get things back on track, communicating and documenting your efforts along the way. Your best bet will be to coach your team through the turmoil openly, honestly and transparently."

What might that look like on a practical basis?

First, be transparent with the team about what you're experiencing, and help everyone take a broad and objective look at the situation by getting ahead of the problem this way:

All, we're in unprecedented times, and we all know that. None of us in our lifetimes has experienced this level of noise, drama, challenge to the status quo, unearthed resentments and other issues that are forcing us to rethink who we are, what we believe in and how we got here as Americans.
This coaching session right now goes beyond the workplace because so much that's bothering us as a team exists outside of these walls. But my goal in this meeting is to create a safe place for our team and for our organization, a place where we can let our guard down, have each other's backs and acknowledge these challenges rather than pretend they don't exist. We've all got to assume responsibility for making the situation better here at work, and we can't let external influences or resentments bleed into the office. In short, we've got to calm the room, so to speak. We're required to respect one another, and when times are complex and confusing like this, we have to address what we should all expect from our employer to work free of anxiety or stress, no matter what our beliefs.
I want you to be able to do your best work every day. Company policy dictates wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. There's no room here for under-your-breath comments about how you feel about these requirements—they've been established for us all to follow to keep us healthy and safe. Ditto for comments regarding the social unrest that you're seeing and hearing about on television and social media. How you choose to express your feelings is up to you as a citizen, but those activities are restricted to your nonwork hours. I don't expect and won't tolerate eye-rolling, quips or complaints about what, in your personal opinion, should or should not occur. We're here to work, and we'll earn an honest day's pay for an honest day's work by keeping our political opinions to ourselves. Am I clear, and do I have your collective commitment to this as a team going forward?

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Getting Ahead of the Problem—In Writing

Once you have that verbal commitment, it doesn't hurt to write a letter of clarification that each team member can sign. "Putting employee commitments in writing reminds your entire team that the business is serious about providing a safe working environment and that there could be serious consequences for violating the terms of the written agreement," Koegle said. "You'll be well ahead of the game by not simply relying on a head nod and a smile to ensure their understanding and agreement, and you'll be better positioned to formally discipline any member of the staff who violates the commitments outlined in the memorandum of understanding."

Here's what the written memorandum might look like:

I, [NAME], agree to respect all co-workers and create a friendly and inclusive work environment where my team members can do their best work every day. I commit to restricting and keeping confidential any of my personal feelings about the challenges ahead. I recognize the level of anxiety, resentment and anger that may exist in our local community or in our nation as a whole, but I pledge to insulate our organization from the negative effects of the political environment and the social unrest that may happen outside our doors. By signing this document, I agree to the terms of professionalism and appropriate workplace behavior contained in our code of conduct and other policies. I commit to becoming part of the solution by creating and sustaining a work environment that fosters openness and inclusion at all times.

Some employees will be quick to assume responsibility, forgive and move on, welcoming this type of coaching and written commitment to respect and professionalism. Others may be more skeptical, vowing privately to change their behaviors only if others do so first. Either way, the signoff can happen on individual sheets of paper or on one sheet of paper where the entire team signs at the bottom of the page. As the group leader or department head, you can store those acknowledgment forms in your office and refer to them if someone violates the terms of the agreement.

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If Someone Refuses to Sign

Anger and resentment can run deep. People heal and forgive differently—some move on quickly with the shake of a hand, and others can carry a grudge to their graves. You can't know what's going on inside someone's head or heart, and you're under no obligation to practice "psychic management" where you can look into others' souls. Your goal in this written exercise is to simply discuss the challenges openly, reset employees' expectations and create a record—both verbal and written—that you're taking this seriously and establishing future consequences. "In these cases, if someone refuses to sign, it's not a terminable offense or even a disciplinary event," Koegle says. "But you really have to meet one-on-one with the individual at that point to learn what's going on, hear their side of the story openly and empathetically, and, if necessary, lay down the law."

That conversation might sound like this:

Sally, I hear what you're saying. I respect how you feel. But beyond that, you're not entitled to share your personal social views if you know it's going to offend your peers. That's not fair, and I'm holding everyone equally to the same expectations. You're saying you won't sign the form because your feelings are too strong on the matter. I'm not asking you to change your convictions—I'm simply asking that you commit in writing to not sharing your frustrations about wearing a mask, social distancing or social protests that you're seeing on the news at night here in the workplace. Your feelings are valid for you but shouldn't be shared with others here at work, especially if you know it could offend them. Likewise, you shouldn't have to hear others' opinions at work that disagree with yours and upset you. With that understanding and interpretation in mind, will you sign the commitment letter? [No, I can't sign it.]
Okay, fair enough. However, I'm recording the time and date of this conversation and making a note on your unsigned letter of clarification that I'm holding you to the terms of the agreement. If you violate these terms—regardless of not having signed the document—you could be facing disciplinary action. In that case, I'd simply staple this letter of clarification to the formal disciplinary warning that you'll receive, noting that we discussed this in detail as a group and then one-on-one in my office today. There's not much more I think we need to discuss at this point, but if you ever change your mind about the fairness of what this document asks for and what it represents, you're more than welcome to return to my office any time and sign it.  

Addressing political and social matters may feel like something outside your wheelhouse, either because you don't like doing so personally or because you feel like you may be treading on your employees' privacy rights. You're not. You have every right to establish rules and guidelines regarding professionalism and respectful conduct in the workplace. You are likewise totally within your rights to reset expectations in light of new challenges that have the potential to damage your team's morale and communications. The events at hand today are unique to say the least, and, if left unchecked in the workplace, could result in accusations of discrimination, harassment and bullying. Your organization shouldn't have to pay the price for unbridled political expression in the office. Acknowledge the situation, respect all opinions and values, but make clear what is appropriate and what should be shared in the workplace. That's your right as a leader as well as your responsibility to your organization and to your employees.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees; and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. This article is adapted from 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees (Amacom/HarperCollins Leadership, 2nd ed., 2019).

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