Workplaces cope with the president’s dizzying start
Managers in many workplaces, watching their employees distracted by the political tensions of the 2016 campaign, probably thought they’d breathe a sigh of relief once the brutal and divisive election came to a close. People would refocus on their jobs, divisions between workers would quiet down, and the news cycle would settle into a manageable pace that didn’t fill employees’ desktop screens and mobile phones with the latest social media outrage every few minutes.
But nearly three months later, many are still holding their breath. Instead, human resources consultants say, the onslaught of headlines, tweets and executive orders that have characterized President Trump’s chaotic first
two weeks have kept politics center stage in many workplaces. As employees — supporters or detractors — digest the latest Trump tweet or the world responds to the newest controversial order from the president, the rapid-fire style of Trump’s first few days has become a constant and, some say, distracting workplace presence.
One human resources consultant compared the deluge of headlines and the constant access many workers have to social media, news alerts and confirmation-hearing videos on their screens to the distractions that sporting events such as March Madness can bring to working hours.
“People are riveted,” said Jeanne Meister, a consultant who works with human resources managers from Fortune 500 companies. “But unlike March Madness, this affects our lives. This affects our children’s lives.” She said some clients have observed “their employees are being engulfed in it. They thought it would stop with the election. But people are still obsessed and talking about it and getting upset about it.”
The turbulent days after Trump’s inauguration — which played out on screens across workers’ computers on a Friday — have included executive orders or memorandums about border walls, government hiring freezes and withdrawal from the Trans- Pacific Partnership.
Controversy after controversy has erupted from the president’s Twitter feed, from an obsession over crowd size at his inauguration to claims of massive voter fraud, made without any evidence. A temporary ban issued Jan. 27 on the entry of visitors, migrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries resulted in a weekend of protests and confusion at airports. By Monday morning, many tech workers woke up to their bosses issuing statements to reassure workers of their commitment to diversity or to outright oppose the ban.
While the level of anxiety, applause or preoccupation depends widely on the type of workplace — blue collar or professional, rightor left-leaning, made up of desk jockeys or assembly line workers — many human resources consultants say the flood of change and news is taking up much more of workers’ energy and focus than in past presidential transitions.
Michael Letizia, a human resources consultant in Stockton, Calif., said that since Trump’s inauguration, “I’ve had way more calls from my clients about what to do about cellphones in the workplace. There’s so much happening so quickly, and these alerts and tweets are coming out four, five, even six times a day.”
Letizia said a hospital client recently added a television tuned to CNN in a break room so employees can “feel they have access to what’s happening.”
After the travel ban, some companies acknowledged the unease employees were feeling. In a letter to workers last Sunday, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz wrote, “I am hearing the alarm you all are sounding that the civility and human rights we have all taken for granted for so long are under attack.” Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, wrote that some employees “have also written simply to share their fear, concern and desire to help those who need help.”
Technology workplaces, in particular, have been focused on the travel ban. Aaron Levie, CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based Box, who has spoken out against the ban, told The Washington Post in an interview that “this is an active and ongoing issue. This is a major topic of discussion in our office.”
An official with another major technology firm, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid, said that on Monday, “productivity was next to zero” after Trump’s travel order. “People are not just concerned about the future of their jobs. They’re concerned about the future of their country. It’s a very difficult environment under which you’re expected to produce creative and innovative ideas. It is a constant, constant topic.”
Some employers say their workers are paying heavy attention to the onslaught, and that it isn’t helping the mood, even if they aren’t yet seeing signs that it’s hurting productivity. Adam Ochstein, CEO of StratEx, a software company in Chicago, says most of his employees — many of which are younger and lean Democratic — have two monitors at their desktop. He often sees one of them tuned to CNN or Cabinet hearings.
“I don’t know if it’s the fact that Chicago has had a nine-day streak with no sun,” he said Wednesday, “or if we’ve got tired folks staring at Twitter and CNN. But there seems to be a mood and a sentiment that’s grayer, and heavier.”
Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist based in New York, said that the advice he usually gives leaders during times of change or crisis doesn’t apply now. He typically advises having leaders say, “Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know.” But “in the current situation, it’s hard to say that.”
In New Castle, Del., Joanne Lee, vice president of human resources at beverage distributor N.K.S. Distributors, said workers at her 130person company are split down the middle, politically.
“I think people are just sitting on the edge of their seat, hoping it doesn’t cause a big disruption,” she said. “There was a lot of chatter before the election. Now I think people just want peace.”