The Importance of Addressing Social Issues in the Workplace

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David Rice
06/03/2020

Protest

The world as we knew it at the turn of the year is gone. The nation, in the midst of a pandemic, has now been plunged into a full scale conflict that brings matters of race and inequality to forefront of our minds.

What we are seeing is a unique moment in the history of the United States, and in fact, the world. And it is a moment that companies of all sizes and in all industries have to face and cope with just like its employees do. The fact is, following the death of George Floyd and other police brutality cases involving African Americans, the people who make up our organizations are going about their work with other things on their mind.

In the middle of a pandemic, when remote work is more common, people are seeing the lines between work and home blur. The result, is a situation that impacts the mental health of employees and can creates tension in the workplace.

For this reason, a number of companies have already attempted to get ahead of the curve and make public statements. From Netflix to Amazon, Walt Disney to Nike, some of the world’s leading brands have made statements that they support action for the black community and some have committed to new or increased diversity efforts within their own organizations.

Corporate citizenry and social responsibility is changing in the wake of this latest incident. Some, including Discover Financial Services, General Motors, The Hershey Company, Intel and Microsoft have called for expedient investigations and prosecutions in this case and others. This points to an important development that corporations are embracing this issue as something outside of politics.

But what about in the office or in discussion between team members? Culture is something we talk about a lot, but in moments like these, how an organization handles it can actually be a big factor in employee satisfaction and actually define what the organization’s culture is.

The Need to Engage

One thing is clear in times like these. Acting like things are business as usual is not acceptable. How an organization views events like these shape its identity. How they react to it can leave employees feeling a range of emotions from inspired to deflated or even frustrated with the company.

“It’s not a good idea to pretend that it’s happening somewhere else,” former CHRO of Procter & Gamble said during a recent webinar with HR Exchange. “You can be sure that there are people within your organization for whom these are very trying situations and that they have a lot of fears and anxieties associated with them.”

In the wake of Facebook employees staging a walkout over Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to remove misleading or harmful posts from politicians, it’s becoming clear that modern workers are not willing to stand by and allow companies to live up to social responsibility.  But for a company to engage employees, to make them feel comfortable and to better understand the views of its people, sometimes the best thing they can do is facilitate and get out of the way.

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“One thing I always found is that when there are extremely challenging subjects, those require forums where people can talk,” Biegger said. “I think that creating safe spaces where people can come together within the organization are really effective. There can be broader communication from leadership as well, but the most powerful things that I saw was when the managers created space for people to talk about what was on their mind, what kind of things made them fearful and what kind of things at work would they like to see be done differently.”

In a time where isolation is such a big factor in the human social experience, forums of this type can help people identify with one another and learn from each other’s perspective. That is a powerful thing when social media debate feels as toxic as ever.

“These are times that people need the opportunity to express themselves, to share what their thinking about and they need to hear what other people are thinking as well,” Biegger said. “Sometimes when we did this type of thing, it created some good ideas, but really people were just thankful for the opportunity to do something like that. I think that’s something I would encourage anyone to do in their own organizations and if there are some things that come out of those that are specific to your company that might help address issues or fears that people have, then that’s a great opportunity to bring that out and hopefully deal with it.”

Creating a Safe Space

Creating the space for conversations and venting to occur is vital. A number of social media posts have gone viral recently, as employees ask for a little consideration and patience from their colleagues given the stress of the day.

A study from the Academy of Management revealed that the way in which your organization responds to national diversity-related events that make mass media headlines either help employees feel psychologically safe or can contribute to feelings of threats toward their racial identity and cultivate a lack of trust in the organization as a whole.

Leaders have to remain hyper focused and grounded in the task at hand as much as the conversation. Becoming defensive when employee viewpoints contradict their own or over generalizing when speaking about groups of people will send leaders down the wrong path in their engagement attempts.  

In the end, safe spaces are a nice idea, but it can be tough to convince people that they are genuine and useful if they are not executed with care and patience. So how do you go about weaving this sort of thing into your culture so that employees not only trust the idea, but respect the forum?

“Obviously it’s difficult to book a conference room and provide lunch right now, so you might have to get creative in how you do this virtually,” Biegger said. “One of the things that we would do is ask managers to open that conversation up in one-to-one discussions with their employees so that it wasn’t incumbent on the employee to start that dialogue. Instead, they’re invited to have that conversation. I think enabling that is part of those broader leadership conversations and enabling leadership to go out and lead some of that effort.”

Some initial awkwardness or discomfort is to be expected. These are, after all, sensitive matters that evoke strong feelings. But the challenges are worth overcoming, according to Biegger.

“They can be hard sessions to facilitate and manage, but I think they’re very important,” Biegger said. “Depending on your situation, maybe small group sessions are the way to go, but the simplest, fastest way to do this is to encourage your managers to ask people how they’re feeling right now and what they’re dealing with so you invite them to that conversation.”

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