Workers are tired. The pandemic has dragged on for two and a half years, persistent inflation nips at consumers' spending power, international relations are concerning at best, and the nation's politics are leaving many Americans feeling frustrated and angry. Worst of all, many employees can't seem to leave this at the door when they arrive in the office or on the shop floor. They're frazzled and angst-ridden, and those emotions show up in the workplace as microaggressions, objectionable behavior and even outright confrontation.
"To make believe these fundamental, visceral topics can be contained without making their way into breakroom conversations or boardroom deliberations would be naïve at best," said Ken Lloyd, vice president of employee planning and development at Careismatic Brands in Chatsworth, Calif.
"Organizations must approach these challenges in an emotionally intelligent way, weighing the pros and cons of making formal announcements as opposed to stepping back from the fray and sweeping these social issues under the rug. Yet many of today's most profound and compelling issues are exacerbated in the workplace because of a lack of bona fide communication," Lloyd said. "There can be real benefits associated with a safe forum for employees to express their thoughts and feelings, provided that there are ground rules that include treating each other with respect, trust and fairness, and abiding by the guidance provided by the individual who is leading the session."
Religion and political discussions historically do not belong in the workplace. Companies rarely make formal statements surrounding such topics for practical reasons of not alienating potential consumers, customers, clients or other stakeholders. But fundamental principles and core values are being challenged and upended at a record pace, and whether you believe such changes are positive or negative, the pace and substance of change is forcing CEOs and corporations to rethink their traditionally private postures. Workers, especially those who are Millennials and members of Generation Z, want their employers to take a stand on social issues, including abortion rights and reproductive health, gay and transgender rights, and gun control, to name a few.
"These aren't typical workplace, legal, social or governmental debates. These are visceral identity challenges to assumptions and core values that many believed were guaranteed, at least in terms of their lifetime experiences," said Rita Van Vranken, CHRO at Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans in Studio City, Calif. "Aggressive responses are becoming more commonplace and carrying over into the workplace, and the traditional rules of etiquette and professionalism are suffering nationwide."
Do you feel it's safe to invite members of your team to voluntarily attend a meeting on reproductive rights and the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade? How about to discuss challenges to gay marriage and gay rights? Is it healthy to invite employees to attend a "safe zone" meeting where they can express their frustration and vent their feelings about human rights, international relations or politics?
"Tread carefully," Lloyd advised, "since once this Pandora is out of the box, there's no going back. At the same time, this type of meeting can open the lines of communication for employees at all levels to share their thoughts about a wide range of issues, concerns and dissatisfiers, whether emanating from society at large or from their jobs."
In terms of structure, "it's typically better to have a smaller group, since this provides increased opportunities for individual communication while reducing the likelihood of disruptive behaviors that can develop in a larger group, especially when dealing with sensitive topics," Lloyd said.
If you opt to go down this road, it's wise to add definitive rules and guardrails, such as:
"Everyone, I invited you to this meeting on a voluntary basis to discuss—in a very professional and respectful manner—how you're feeling. So much is changing before our eyes ... truths, laws and rules we've held as assumptions our entire lives. I sense an underlying tone of anger and aggression, not just in our department or company but in society as a whole. I want to make it safe for you to express your concerns, but we have to do so carefully. As such, before we begin talking about how you're feeling and what you're experiencing, I'll ask you to follow some simple rules:
First, there can be no attacking, and there's no need for defending. We're here to support one another and make sure we can lower the level of tension that sometimes arises within our team. Second, this can't be about personal opinions—only about how we're feeling about the pace of change and how it affects us. In other words, if you're shocked by politics, angry at inflation, exhausted from COVID or simply frustrated about the amount of work or stress you're experiencing, I'd welcome you share it here in a safe setting. But this isn't a forum for debating your personal opinions. Third, I get to blow the whistle and act as referee if anything gets too hot or contentious. Is that fair?" [Wait for audience to respond "Yes."]
The more advance buy-in you have from the team before the meeting begins, the greater the chances that hot feelings won't escalate into conflict, which is exactly what you're trying to avoid. But your staff members will likely appreciate the fact that you recognize the frustration they're feeling and that you're willing to take some risk and make it safe for them to express themselves.
"You can solicit employee feedback using more-frequent, short pulse surveys for a temperature check to gauge how staff are feeling and what support they need. But be sure to partner with HR and keep your superiors informed to ensure that your key stakeholders are on board before addressing staff with this approach," Van Vranken said.
You can close the meeting as follows:
"Folks, I hear you. And I think we've done a good job hearing one another. I'm sorry for what we're all going through. And I'm realistic enough to realize that one sit-down meeting as a team isn't going to resolve these ongoing issues and the frustrations that we're all experiencing, no matter what side of the divide we fall on. But it does give us a chance to level set, to reset expectations regarding civil and professional behavior toward one another, and to understand that there's a lot more that we have in common than sets us apart.
I actually have a homework assignment for you to consider. I'm not going to check back with you on this, but it's likely the case that none of us has ever experienced this level of profound shock to our core beliefs. First, consider what you believe our company's formal corporate response should be and share that with me if you truly believe it will help. Of course, there are no guarantees that it will happen, but I'll share our findings with the senior leadership team. Second, make your voices heard: Reach out to the president at WhiteHouse.gov, and reach out to your senator and congressional representative on their websites to express your concern. One voice can't change the world, but large numbers of unified voices may certainly impact decisions and voting records.
Third, let's all agree to take it down a notch when dealing with one another. As the saying goes, each to his own without judgment. What you want for yourself, give to another. And when in doubt, err on the side of compassion. There's an awful lot of confusion out there, and this is unfortunately something our nation and our world have to go through right now. But we're in control of minimizing the effects on our co-workers, and a little bit of goodwill can go a long way nowadays. With that, I'll end the meeting and remind you all that you're safe and respected here and that you're equally responsible for making everyone else feel safe and respected as well."
Making it safe for employees to talk about their frustrations with matters not related to work may have seemed unnecessary or even downright foolish in the past as a management practice or initiative. But we are missing the moment if we ignore the issue and fail to address the belligerent behaviors that have become way too common in many workplaces. Gain advance approval of your intended staff meeting, set your ground rules clearly and reset your expectations. Your employees will likely appreciate the gesture and appreciate your bold leadership.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach and author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). Other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.