TACK­LING POL­I­TICS IN THE OF­FICE

The U.S. is deeply po­lar­ized and emo­tions are run­ning high. But it’s pos­si­ble to en­cour­age dis­cus­sion while de­ter­ring dis­cord

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

Kayak and is now CEO PAUL ENGLISH CO-FOUNDED and co-founder of travel app Lola, in Bos­ton. Most of its 60 em­ploy­ees, like English, are Democrats. Dur­ing elec­tion sea­son, one gave English a base­ball cap that ex­pressed four-let­ter dis­dain for then-can­di­date Don­ald Trump. English didn’t wear the hat but left it on his desk. Then a man­ager told him that the anti-Trump tone in the of­fice was mak­ing one em­ployee un­com­fort­able. That Trump sup­porter feared her po­lit­i­cal views would ham­per her ca­reer. English im­me­di­ately stashed the of­fend­ing head­gear and dis­cussed the is­sue with man­agers. “I won­dered if a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment was de­vel­op­ing,” he says. Cop­ing with dif­fer­ing views has never been easy, but in to­day’s sharply di­vided na­tion, it’s es­pe­cially tough. You may not get em­ploy­ees from op­po­site po­lit­i­cal poles to agree, but you need them to work to­gether or the com­pany suf­fers. Here’s our plat­form to unite the work force. —MINDA ZETLIN

1.

KEEP LIS­TEN­ING

Ban­ning po­lit­i­cal talk is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and prob­a­bly fu­tile. But don’t ig­nore those con­ver­sa­tions— you need to know what peo­ple are say­ing. “If in the middle of our morn­ing hud­dle, one of those dis­cus­sions comes up, I do my best to lis­ten and ask the right ques­tions,” says Ryan Nay­lor, founder of Vi­vaHR, a 12-per­son re­cruit­ment soft­ware firm in Phoenix. “We like to ask about how that af­fects their jobs. We let peo­ple know we care about their feel­ings”—as­sum­ing they know how to ex­press them. “It’s all so­cial me­dia and text based,” he says. “Some­times, the of­fice is the first place they’ve vo­cal­ized their opin­ions.” The mo­ment em­ploy­ees start “opin­ion­at­ing ag­gres­sively and at­tack­ing,” he shuts down the con­ver­sa­tion and moves on to an­other sub­ject.

2.

MODEL THE BE­HAV­IOR YOU WANT FROM EM­PLOY­EES Em­ploy­ees at Washington, D.C.–based Phone2Ac­tion, cre­ator of soft­ware for con­tact­ing law­mak­ers, got into a heated de­bate about abor­tion over a com­pa­ny­wide fo­rum. Founder Xi­mena Hart­sock de­cided to of­fer some in­sight and en­cour­age peo­ple to stop and lis­ten to one an­other. She did it by post­ing a heart­felt, per­sonal ac­count of her own strug­gle to con­ceive. Not only did that soften hos­tile feel­ings, but sev­eral em­ploy­ees re­vealed that they or fam­ily mem­bers had had mis­car­riages as well. “The is­sues are all very nu­anced, and there are al­ways per­sonal sto­ries be­hind them,” she says. “When those con­ver­sa­tions don’t hap­pen, that gets lost.”

3.

AD­DRESS PROB­LEMS ON A CASE-BY-CASE BA­SIS

At Trav­elPass Group, a travel tech­nol­ogy startup with 100 em­ploy­ees in Lehi, Utah, one staffer got too loud with his views. Tone it down, he was told—stop mak­ing co­work­ers edgy. “There are ways to ex­press your­self with­out un­der­min­ing

an­other per­son’s be­liefs,” says co-founder and CEO Ryan McCoy. It was an ef­fec­tive in­ter­ven­tion, McCoy says. “We had an open di­a­logue, and the re­sult was that he apol­o­gized and we haven’t had that dis­cus­sion since.”

4.

PUT CUL­TURE FIRST

Cre­at­ing a cul­ture of re­spect and open­ness is the best way to keep po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences in check. This is why Hart­sock felt she needed to in­ter­vene in her com­pany’s abor­tion de­bate. “If peo­ple don’t feel con­nected to one an­other and that they are a com­mu­nity, no mat­ter how well you’re mak­ing money, it will even­tu­ally col­lapse,” she says. “Be­cause cul­ture is what keeps your com­pany to­gether.”

Genevieve Thiers, who co-founded the babysit­ting mar­ket­place Sit­ter­city, in­vites peo­ple at her new (and po­lit­i­cal) ven­ture NewFounders to “Dumb De­bates” in which op­po­nents ar­gue two sides of an is­sue while do­ing things like play­ing Twister or eat­ing hot sauce. Once, when vis­it­ing the ad agency Brand­less, she and a friend de­cided to shake things up. He grabbed her Hil­lary Clin­ton doll, she donned his “Make Amer­ica Great Again” base­ball cap, and the two marched through the com­pany of­fices arm in arm to throw peo­ple off. “The point is, we need to talk,” she says.

EDUARDO LUZZATTI

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