Work­places cope with the pres­i­dent’s dizzy­ing start

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR

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.”

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