Employees are bringing current events and their personal lives into the workplace more than ever before. Complicated situations arise from this integration of our personal and professional lives, and this makes for new leadership challenges and an interesting but difficult role for HR professionals to play. One might argue that this development is distracting and must be discouraged, but I believe that such an approach does not work in the long run. Stopping the conversations feels unnatural and it would mean we are not recognizing the human being within the employee. I believe we have to find a way to manage the situations and conversations instead.
At MongoDB, we have chosen to equip our employees and managers to have these conversations in an intellectually honest way while also recognizing and embracing the power of differences, in line with our values. So how do you do that?
The more I reflect, the more I have come to realize that there is in fact no playbook. There is often no right or wrong answer to the questions that people bring up. A certain response may be right in one context but wrong in another. However, not having a playbook or rulebook does not mean creating a "free for all" with no guardrails. In my organization, we wanted some level of consistency, equity and fairness. So our approach boils down to balance—balancing the need to ensure some kind of order while also recognizing that one size cannot fit all as employees are unique human beings. Hard and fast rules, or 100-page policy documents, don't work in these cases—and they wouldn't work in ours. We found instead that judgment, candor and interpersonal skills do work.
This skill set can be embedded via multiple pathways—by providing frameworks to structure thinking, creating space for these difficult conversations, operating with transparency and candor as a business and building a strong HR team to coach and advise leaders.
The Role of the Manager
A good first framework to adopt is to understand the role of a people manager in today's workplace and in teaching managers how to play that role. Yes, training programs can help with building managers' capabilities, but managers first have to recognize and understand the role they play. They are no longer just guiding the person's work—it's much more than that.
Managers must be capable of having difficult conversations with team members to get the best out of their teams and build a positive culture. It requires managers to understand their people as human beings —what motivates them, what scares them, what are they most passionate about. A great way to do this is to ask the question "why?" When managers feel ill-equipped to handle a situation, the first question they ask is, "How do I deal with this?" Instead, we've been encouraging people to spend time to understand the why. Why is this issue important to that individual?
A good example is the "return to office" conversation that the pandemic has kicked off. Very often we see managers wanting employees to come into the office five days a week and the employee does not. Telling employees that they have to do something is a surefire way to lose them. Whether we like it or not, optionality matters. We encourage managers to ask employees the question why, and we find that it catalyzes a deeper discussion on what matters to the employee. Almost every time, they come to an agreement that works for both parties.
Understanding the "why" makes it easier to arrive at the "how."
Operationalizing Our Values
Another important framework we are using at MongoDB to handle difficult conversations or to decide how we want to respond as a company to social issues that matter to our employees is our Values. We have a set of six values that are core to our culture—they define how we behave when we are at our best, and the culture we have built and want to sustain while recognizing that we are human and as such, not perfect. We have put in great effort to define the spirit and intention behind these values, articulating both what they are and what they are not.
But how do those values apply in the face of difficult discussions? In the wake of the recent decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, like many employers, we found ourselves deciding whether we wanted to say or do something specific, and if so, what. As we thought about it, we went back to our Values to guide our thinking as an executive team—we knew that we want to Make it Matter and that we have to be Intellectually Honest. This meant we needed to say something and do something. So we did. Our CEO sent an email to employees to tell them, "MongoDB is adding a travel benefit to our healthcare plans to provide healthcare services where access is specifically limited because of a state's legislative action. This could include abortion, gender affirmation services, and/or mental health support associated with these services."
We also realized that all of our employees may not like or support our decision—this is where transparency and candor come in. So we simply called it out in our communication—we asked everyone to Embrace the Power of Differences (another one of our core values). No leader or organization is ever going to be able to get everything perfectly right when it comes to complicated topics like this and not everyone is always going to agree with the direction the company is taking. It's OK to admit it and give employees the permission to dissent if needed, but with respect and kindness.
Creating Space for Conversations
Creating safe spaces for conversations about social issues that employees care about is also very important to the balance. Employees want to be heard and it's important that they feel heard.
We often run listening sessions on topics with relevant employee cohorts to give them a space to share their thoughts and for us to take action. We never go into these sessions assuming that we will be able to address every single concern. But we use it as an opportunity to educate ourselves on the issues our employees are facing, and to educate the employees on the decisions required when running a company and business with transparency and candor. It allows for dialogue and understanding, and keeps the communication channel open.
At MongoDB, we believe that good leaders embrace adversity. They view challenges as opportunities for learning, growing and strengthening relationships. We expect our leaders to engender trust and lead with humility. Good leaders value and build diverse and inclusive teams, and encourage different points of view, even when it disconfirms their beliefs. They admit their mistakes and weaknesses and welcome constructive feedback. Leaders never stop learning and growing.
Much like the inherent spirit of what we are discussing here, this is not a perfect approach. We are not always going to get it right. This is why HR has a role to play here and why the role of HR is becoming increasingly important. The value we bring as HR professionals is that we understand human behavior—our role is to separate the signal from the noise, to coach managers through difficult conversations, to provide employees a safe space to go to and to think about the business in the context of people and culture.
There is no time more exciting or challenging to be a CHRO than the present as we're witnessing the evolution of the modern workforce and employer relationship. While there might not be a particular playbook for every situation you face, if you assume positive intent and anchor each conversation in respect, remember to find out the underlying reason "why" and be transparent with your employees, you will be able to establish a baseline of consistency, equity and fairness in your organization.
Harsha Jalihal is the Chief People Officer of MongoDB.