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Embracing Tough Times and Tough Conversations in the Workplace

If you took a walk through the Phone2Action office before the pandemic, you would see almost two dozen colorful flags suspended on the walls and ceiling. The flags represent the countries our employees call home, and they hang as a wonderful reminder that differences are a vital part of Phone2Action.

Respecting differences is important at a non-partisan organization that powers campaigns for change. As the Vice President of Human Resources, I’m proud to work for a company that hires people of different gender, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation. I’m prouder still of a culture that encourages open discussion and welcomes opposing viewpoints.

Yet there’s no question that 2020 has been difficult for all. We are only halfway through and the lessons keep coming, with no playbook for what we have encountered at work and in our personal lives. We are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19, sheltering in place and taking on additional roles such as caregivers and educators. Now, we see police brutality, race weaponized and murders in our Black communities—the actual dehumanizing of individuals.

All of this has a profound impact on the workplace. Dialogue once seen as taboo has moved to the forefront of the national conversation, and that conversation carries over into work. Professionally, we were taught to avoid controversial discussions about race, religion, politics and any other “disruptive” subjects on the job. Now, it may be those very conversations that help us heal.

We need to consider that this may not just be a historical moment, but a historical shift in how Americans communicate. In a piece she wrote last year about protests around the globe, Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of Phone2Action, describes what she calls the New Citizen, an activist who is independent, self-directed and relies heavily on technology to take action. New Citizens are part of the workforce, and may be both passionate and vocal—and including them in the conversation is important.

The Workplace Forum

It has been my responsibility and privilege to help guide our company through these conversations in the workplace. Looking for advice,  I reached out to my networks and spent hours online reading articles, but nothing fully addressed how to handle the trauma people across the nation are feeling.

So I thought I would contribute what I can, understanding that the tough conversations that need to take place at work may well spill over into advocacy programs. For many companies, employees are the audience for their advocacy efforts. They encourage employees to stay educated on issues and to get out and vote. For associations and nonprofits, members play this role. They are important partners and their support on policy is crucial. It may be important to communicate as honestly with these constituencies as you do with employees. 

So, let’s talk about how to do that. At Phone2Action, the company has taken a public stand against the senseless deaths and other injustices that impact our society. Internally, we have always encouraged open communication. As a company, we host forums for our employees to share their thoughts and feelings about current events. It can be uncomfortable for some, and we have worked hard to welcome all points of view, including those that are different or less popular. By providing a no-judgement zone, we have built a culture based on respect and appreciation for a diversity of opinions and different perspectives. We take pride in our company values. The motto “we take care of each other” has led us through more than one difficult and uncomfortable conversation.

This kind of forum is important. Our employees are trying to grapple with the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others. Some are doing so while they are isolated from family and friends. For employees, this can translate into a daily conversation in the workplace as the lines between the workday and personal time blur. 

Suggestions for Success

While there is no playbook for how to address these challenges, there are some ideas that can help:

  • Be there. Sometimes providing an ear to listen makes a big difference. In other cases, the welcoming gesture simply shows you are available.
  • Avoid forcing people to share their feelings if they’re not able or willing. You may hold a staff meeting, but vocal participation should not be mandatory.
  • Avoid over-empathizing. You can care without saying you understand—because you may not—but that does not absolve you of the obligation to make an effort.
  • Allow people to process. Good days will happen. On other days, practice patience.
  • Educate yourself and don’t rely on sound bites.
  • Remember that taboos can vary, depending on the culture of the workplace. Be open to conversations that may not yet be on your radar. 

I would be remiss not to mention the Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which can provide some great resources. But the sole answer to employees cannot be, “go seek help.” As business leaders, we have a responsibility to listen to our employees’ voices. Providing a  forum to be heard and to share anxieties, fears and thoughts creates an honest dialog on how we can move forward. Sometimes, it even results in action. And that’s important.

At Phone2Action, our entire mission is about giving people a voice and a chance to take action. We power campaigns that enable millions of people to communicate with the government that represents them. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, we launched the #HearUsOut initiative, which allowed anyone in America to communicate their concerns to public officials.  

If the protests have taught us anything, it is that people have a deep need to act on their beliefs and to be heard. New Citizens are everywhere—they are us, ready and mobilized to demand change and use their voices. At Phone2Action we are walking the talk. What are you doing to ensure your organization is listening? It’s time to start the conversation.

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