Michael Thomas, Principal in the Los Angeles, California office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and Michelle Phillips, a Principal in the White Plains office of Jackson Lewis P.C, join the program to discuss how to promote psychological safety in a socially distant work environment. Discover how to improve the lived experience in the workplace, how to create an inclusive and equitable work environment, and why enforcing safety protocols isn’t enough to create a culture of belonging.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Michelle Phillips: It’s interesting this last year, because we haven’t all experienced this last year in the same way. Whether you’re talking about George Floyd being murdered and other hate crimes, in terms of the Asian American Pacific Islander experience or everything that’s happening now in the world, there’s a lot of tumultuousness happening in the world. And so it’s very easy to think in terms of the safety plan. So the masks that people wear, and the distances that people are supposed to stay apart from each other, and what do you do when there’s a COVID exposure? All of that is incredibly important, but this issue of psychological safety is equally as important, but it doesn’t get the same airtime as, what does the CDC say now about travel? What does the CDC say now about vaccination and returning to work?
Speaker 2: Everyone has a diversity story. Even those you don’t expect. Welcome to the Will To Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now, here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Doug Foresta: Hello, and welcome to the Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. And today’s episode, Jennifer is joined by two guests, Michael Thomas, who is a principal in the Los Angeles, California office of Jackson Lewis P.C., as well as Michelle Phillips, who’s a principal in the White Plains office of Jackson Lewis P.C. As our guests often do on the Will To Change, Michael and Michelle share their own diversity story. And then the departure point for the episode is really about safety in this, I don’t know if you say post pandemic or mid pandemic, I’m not sure where we are in the pandemic, hopefully, closer to post pandemic world. And Jennifer poses the question to Michael and Michelle about this idea of safety and how there’s a lot of focus now as we return to work on physical safety. But what about the element of psychological safety?
Doug Foresta: And so Jennifer poses the question to Michael and Michelle about how do we create psychological safety? What are all the layers that go into that as Jennifer and Michael and Michelle discuss there is this saying that we often say to each other now stay safe and we mean that probably in many ways, but what does it mean to truly create a safe workplace that is not only physically safe in terms of health safety and all the other ways that the physical safety at work, but also psychological safety. And how can leaders create an organization, a culture and organization of psychological safety. So Michael and Michelle shared their thoughts on that and more. I think you’ll get a lot out of this. It’s a really rich conversation. And now onto the episode.
Jennifer Brown: Michelle and Michael, welcome to the Will To Change.
Michelle Phillips: Well, glad to be here.
Jennifer Brown: I’m happy to have you both here. This is going to be interesting because we don’t often have dual guests on the Will To Change. This was very special and is very special, and I am thrilled to have both of your perspectives. You work for the same firm, Jackson Lewis, but in different offices. So Michelle you’re in the White Plains, New York office and Michael you’re in the LA office. You are principals at the firm. And just for those of us who don’t know who Jackson Lewis is, it is a management side employment law firm.
Jennifer Brown: So the firm advises employers with best practices. And ideally, before we make those mistakes as employers, represent them if they do. But I think what’s fascinating about both of you and the work you do is you also have a role that enables you to do a lot of training. And training, the touchstone of that work, of course, is prevention, which is what we all want. And we all know on the Will To Change and in general, that every workplace needs a lot of changing, a lot of improvement.
Jennifer Brown: We often say the workplace wasn’t built by and for so many of us, and I think a lot of the pain points we have, and I’ll be interested in your thoughts as we start to speak. A lot of our pain points are because of that. Because we have not been seen and heard or at the table let alone been invited to participate in the design of a workplace that works for us. And I think that’s what sort of, to me, is what’s shifting right now. And it’s so exciting as we ponder the deck of cards of the past year that has been thrown up in the air. And we think about what do we want to build that works for more of us? What do we want to build that’s more equitable for all of us.
Jennifer Brown: I think of you Michelle, who I’ve known for many, many years in LGBTQ advocacy spaces and Michael, we’re new to each other, but the fact that you’re wrestling every single day, trying to make the workplace a more productive and psychologically safe place for us, for all of us is really significant. So I just want to thank you for what you do. It’s very, very critical. You enable me to do what I do, I think to think through then with organizations. So how do we put this into practice? How do we have the right strategies, et cetera. But what you do is invaluable. So without further ado, I want to invite each of you to share whatever you’d like to share relating to your own diversity stories, your point of view on all of this, why you care, why you do the work you do, why you believe in it so much? Michelle, let me just start with you.
Michelle Phillips: Yeah, thanks Jen. I feel like so lucky every day that I get to do this work, that it’s a critical, it’s both a critical part of who I am and a critical part of what I do. And the fact that, if you would have asked to interview me 20 years ago, now I’ve been practicing for 33 years, so if you asked me 20 years ago to be on this podcast and to be vulnerable in this way, I would have declined quickly. What’s amazing at my firm and the work that Michael and I both get to do is that I get to be an out lesbian. I don’t even like to use that word by the way, but I’ll say it. I get to be recognized in my workplace as a practice group leader in the space.
Michelle Phillips: And from someone who was so far in the closet, I didn’t even see the way out to be where I am today, I just feel very lucky and fortunate. I think back to, you have to go where it’s warm. So not every law firm I was in was open to that. I mean, I remember my first job, one of the partners there thinking he was doing a nice thing, said, “Michelle, what’s with all the bulky sweaters you’re wearing.” It was my first job out of law school. And I felt I wanted to hide my body. I didn’t want to be looked at for the way I came across. So I would cover that by wearing these bulky sweaters. Now, for me, it was helpful that he said that, but I think if he said something like that today, I think that would not be a good thing to do.
Michelle Phillips: Because really what you want to be able to do is bring your authentic self to the workplace. You want to have people be okay, who cares what you look like, or sizes and body issues that we have. I’m just so pleased to be doing this and to be working with people like Michael, and I’ll stop there. But just to be in a space where, and also just the training that we do. I sort of feel like I’m an agent from the inside out. So I have the opportunity to work with employers and actually change the workplace. Before it gets to a lawsuit or before it gets to a fine or a violation or a PR crisis, and that’s probably the thing I’m the most proud of at my work at Jackson Lewis.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you for sharing that, Michelle. Oh, that’s powerful stuff about hiding our physicality and the biases and worse that can occur because of our physical presence. And I think interestingly, maybe you all can build on this when we talk about safety, but interestingly, the virtual workplace probably feels safer for some of us, perhaps many of us because of what you just talked about. I’m putting a little pin in that. But Michael, what would you share about yourself?
Michael Thomas: Yeah, no, just kind of pause and get to really take in what Michelle said because that’s really meaningful. And we talked about sharing stories in the workplace, people’s experiences, and that’s how we don’t empathy and change and grow. So thank you, Michelle, for sharing. So yeah, so I largely came to this work just from my experiences of being an African-American male who grew up in an African American household, but ever since I went off for college, I’ve been working in probably white base, whether it’s in a, probably white college law school or even in different law firms. What I ultimately realized, and I’ll kind of recall or go back to my first week in college, I went to a probably white university in Pennsylvania, and I can recall very distinctively walking into my first classroom.
Michael Thomas: I had a thought in my head because there were not a lot of black people on campus, and my thought was that this environment, or this classroom is racist, there’s no black people here. And often when you have a thought or belief, there’s a tendency to look for things that affirm that belief. And so I walk into a classroom and somebody makes eye contact with me. And my initial reaction is they’re looking at me because I’m black. And that initial response sets off this entire kind of neurological response, meaning your brain goes into fight or flight mode. Your body starts releasing hormones and cortisol, but you can’t fight or flight. You just sit in the classroom and you freeze. So physically I’m just in a classroom experiencing discomfort, but mentally I’m not fully present because I don’t feel like my environment is safe enough to actually really engage in that environment because of my race.
Michael Thomas: And so that experience of the environment does not look like me. And I don’t feel safe showing up or fully engaged in the environment is something that I experienced really throughout my entire career. And in part, one of the things that I realized is that there are tools that I can do with myself to help myself really, to further engage in that given environment, whether it’s an academic environment or in the workplace, so that I can fully show up. And that’s aspect of understanding that I’ve made an observation of my environment, that it feels unsafe, but nothing has actually really occurred except for my observation of my environment as being unsafe, which kind of causes me to shut down. So there’s aspects of things I can do to help myself engage based on my understanding from my own internal environment as a black male.
Michael Thomas: But there’s also things that the employer can do or an academic setting those outside of you can do, such as having more black people on campus, like having more black people in a classroom environment. So you do create that aspect of safety. So for me at a very early age, whether I was fully aware of it or not, there’s always been these two competing dynamics and this diversity and equity and inclusion space. There’s a work that I can do internally to show up that is understanding my own perfect racial dynamics, my own personal trauma and what that means. But then there’s also a lot that the employer can do. And the external environment around me that actually is supportive of me based on my specific needs.
Michael Thomas: In that parse, it can just be having more diversity or more people in the environment that looked like you then make you feel more psychologically safe. So for me, I’ve kind of connected to this work religious through my own personal journey and just my own personal life experiences.
Jennifer Brown: You’re both getting tapped for your advice from employers about a radically changed landscape for performance, for yes, for psychological safety, for virtual inclusion as I might call it. So many managers and leaders, we’re all in this new territory that we’re figuring out together. And I would argue maybe not very well but there’s so much potential in it to, I think, innovate, to create perhaps more belonging or in a different way. But I would love to hear both of you talk about how do you describe psychological safety and the importance of it to your clients when you’re speaking to them. What do we need to be thinking about, how do we need to define it? When we say safety, I think traditionally a lot of people thought about health safety physical safety, and now we’re talking about psychological safety.
Jennifer Brown: So there’s also like layers to that word too, that you’re probably educating about and really making sure you’re underscoring the importance of it, because it really, it’s playing an outsized role in our ability to perform in a distance to work environment, or even in the hybrid work environments we may be moving towards, so tell me about psychological safety, how are you defining it? What guidance are you giving around it? And what are you being net with in terms of responses on the other end?
Michael Thomas: One of the ways that we define psychological safety to employers is that, it’s really a workplace where employees believe that they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions or concerns, but even make mistakes without fear of any kind of reprisal or adverse repercussions. And that they feel like they’re comfortable asking questions, admitting if they make mistakes and really expressing whatever thoughts or feelings they might have. The importance of having a work environment where employees feel like they can do that, is that employers are going to be a lot more engaged and will be really connected with the workplace. And that sense of connection, we talk about this concept of belonging. That’s really what that connection is. It’s this concept of belonging, meaning that if I feel I can fully show up with my authentic self, I’m going to feel a connection with you.
Michael Thomas: And that touches on Maslow’s concepts of affinity within his hierarchy of needs which is that desire to be a part of something, a desire to be a part of an organization. And the more I feel connected to you, to an organization the better employee I’m actually going to be, the more engaged I’m going to be in the workplace. If I’m struggling with something I’m going to feel comfortable asking for help to work on my own personal development. Jennifer, we talked about equity. Equity comes from the employer, but also from the employee. And the more psychologically safe an environment is, the more that employee is going to feel comfortable saying, this is what my needs are to develop as an employee here. And sharing that information with your employer allows your employer to create that equitable environment, to let you know but the employee has to give the employer information about how much soil they might need, how much sun, how much water, things like that.
Michael Thomas: So that’s in part how we describe psychological safety to employers and also express the benefit of psychological safety to employers as well. I think one of the challenges that employers have is that it’s not this, necessarily this concrete, tangible thing that you can measure. So some ways to create a psychological safe environment in part is identifying what are barriers to psychological safety. So a simple example could be a barrier is that your organization is very hierarchical and everyone has these hierarchical titles and employees don’t feel safe or comfortable speaking up if someone has a higher title. Now, you can implement structures, then make titles feel less important.
Michael Thomas: So for example, instead of having meetings where managers all we set the agenda, let the employee set the agenda for a couple of meetings, but again, once you empower employees, let them know that their perspectives matter, it works on a psychological safety. But part of the challenge of is, is that psychological safety is not this measurable metric that you can directly say, we change these different behaviors in the workplace. And this is directly the return on investment. There’s benefits that come from psychological safety that you can measure such as our retention rates are better. There’s greater productivity. Those are things that you actually can measure. But on the whole, that’s the main challenge that we encounter with psychological safety, is employers have a difficult way of how do you actually measure it? Kind of think about it in a concrete way.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. And what gets measured gets done. And so it’s sometimes a nonstarter. It’s like tell me the concrete version of that and then I’ll go after it. But this is an intangible and yet it is so critical for engagement and performance and trust and yes, innovation and creativity. All of these things have to be present, I think, to make us comfortable enough and to trust each other enough, that we are willing to give what I talk a lot about, which is discretionary effort. That extra idea. That extra bit of energy that we all have to give. The thing is we have to feel comfortable and heard and seen to, I think, trust our workplace enough to bring that. And also be invested enough to do that. I think we respond to being grown in that pot with the right soil and getting the right nutrients, we can flourish in that.
Jennifer Brown: And that’s when I think we can unleash the good stuff. But it’s interesting though, I can imagine when you speak about this to some employers. Michelle, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I mean, if you could see them physically, I mean, I see them on Zoom, but is there the skepticism or the dismissal of some of this as really as critical as the three of us know that it is. I guess do you articulate the business case for this in the same way Michael does, do you have some tricks up your sleeve? To say, look, this is a make or break concept. And by the way, it’s looking very different in the virtual world or the hybrid world too, how do I do this virtually?
Michelle Phillips: Yeah, no, those are really important points. I mean, it’s interesting this last year, because we haven’t all experienced this last year in the same way. People have had, whether you’re talking about George Floyd being murdered and other hate crimes in terms of the Asian American Pacific Islander experience or everything that’s happening now in the world, there’s a lot of tumultuousness happening in the world. And so it’s very easy to think in terms of the safety plan. So the masks that people wear and the distances that people are supposed to stay apart from each other. What do you do when there’s a COVID exposure? And all of that is incredibly important, but this issue of psychological safety is equally as important, but it doesn’t get the same air time as what does the CDC say now about travel? What does the CDC say now about vaccination and returning to work?
Michelle Phillips: There’s a lot of behaviors that go on that may not constitute harassment or discrimination legally under the law, but if you’re feeling othered, if you’re feeling subject to micro-inequities and microaggressions, you’re not going to feel safe. You’re not going to feel comfortable. You’re not going to feel that you belong. And the costs of psychological safety when it’s not there are very significant and do lead to legal problems. So I approach it from two ways, both I think of the law kind of as a minimum guidepost. You shouldn’t, for example, make a sexual comment to someone, but you also shouldn’t, mis-gender someone. Yes, you can make a mistake about a pronoun usage, but if you’re continually making that mistake, then you’re actually looking to not make the person comfortable.
Michelle Phillips: You’re looking to, it’s interesting, I was doing this training and some were saying, “Well, we want to talk about hostile work environment.” And actually what they meant was not the legal definition of a hostile work environment. What they meant literally was a hostile, aggressive, unprofessional, disrespectful work environment in which they didn’t feel psychologically safe, but they only knew the legal language to use, to identify why they didn’t feel safe in their environment. I do a lot of these one-on-one sensitivity trainings with usually high executives or people who are insignificant positions and they’re either tone deaf or they don’t read the room well, they don’t realize how they come across. They don’t realize that they shouldn’t disparage someone in front of other people or not talk about monopolizing the floor.
Michelle Phillips: And Michael was talking about, let the staff set the agenda. Some of these sort of like megalomaniacs or even not megalomaniacs, just maybe even well-intentioned people who aren’t looking at it from other people’s perspective. And so I spend a lot of work in these one-on-one trainings, trying to slow things down, trying to have them think before they speak or do or send a text. And it doesn’t take a lot of thought to send a text or an email, but how that’s received, the impact that that has on someone can be devastating. And it could be one email, let alone we talk about a thousand cuts when you experience micro-inequities and microaggressions. And how that really adds up to not feeling valued, not feeling that you matter, not feeling that knowledge, you don’t have a seat at the table, but that maybe you think someone’s looking to get rid of you.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Oh yeah. The death by a thousand cuts, yeah, Michelle, we do mention that a lot and it accumulates and the out of sight out of mind danger and risk I think of the virtual environment has me extremely worried about all kinds of talent, who I think weren’t at the table to begin with and now, I wonder whether it’s exacerbated our go-to people, so to speak. People that, or access in return to work access, maybe people who can come to work, people who are able to be proximate to leaders. I mean, thinking about how the whole concept, I think of privilege is shifting it’s the same. And yet I think it’s shifting too, around access to workplace, access to people with power and influence.
Jennifer Brown: And those who are working virtually as that sorting itself out, I think there’s something we have to be extremely careful about from an equity perspective, because equity is about access and it’s about access to who has the power and influence. And it’s also exacerbated probably around COVID related issues and definitions of what’s safe and who feels safe in the workplace and how we define safety. Not just psychological, but also physical safety too. So this is going to be a huge shuffling I think, and there are some serious risks I worry about, about those equity issues in a return to work scenario. Even just in terms of our definitions of safety, whose definition of safety takes the day.
Jennifer Brown: I mean, I don’t know, I know you’re in the middle and you’re in the thick of all this, but you’re on the front lines of these discussions and I’m sure influencing the way these decisions are being made and thought about. And I know both of you are trying to keep the focus on equity, like a laser as we design whatever’s next. But yes, elaborate on whatever you’d like to share about the impact of what we redesign, what we are redesigning and the implications are for all of us, and touching on safety as an equity issue, because I think that’s really fascinating.
Michelle Phillips: Well, just in terms of when you talk about anxiety that people have about returning to work. So again, we can take all the precautions, but because people have had different lived experiences over the course of the last year, people are not rushing to return. And I think that a lot of employers are starting to try, and I was just on a call before this call, where an employer is trying to determine when are they going to require people to come back to work? And are they going to require everyone to come back to work? Is it going to be voluntary? Are they going to require people to be vaccinated, fully vaccinated before they return to work?
Michelle Phillips: One of the things that we’re recommending is take a pulse of the people that you’re serving and that you’re working with, don’t make assumptions around, like some people have, when you talk about equity, there’s a view of you have to be in the office, you have to have FaceTime. You have to be interacting with people, whether it’s access based on privilege or just this presumption around that more gets done when you’re at work. Well, that’s actually not really born out to be true. I mean, maybe some people are more efficient in the workplace than other people, but it’s not like business has stopped just because everyone’s in a remote environment.
Michelle Phillips: And so I think that employers need to be careful about ensuring that when people return and if you’re going to have people, for example, if you’re going to have people return in shifts, how is that going to impact access to power. Let’s say, I work with my little pod and I say, I want my pod to be intact. What about people who are outside my pod, who want to become part of my pod? There’s not going to be an opportunity. So there could be a self-selection process, which will be based on what, who I feel comfortable with. We talk about affinity bias, who I grew up with, who I went to school with who, who speaks the same language as me, who’s from the same ethnic background design, orientation, gender identity. And so if you don’t watch it, you could be reinforcing stereotypes and unconscious behavior and bias as we return to the workplace.
Jennifer Brown: Michelle, you bring up something, and Michael, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I just want to put a pin in. When we are stressed, when we are in unfamiliar territory, we tend to go back to those biases, Michelle. Because it’s what we know and it’s what’s familiar and perhaps more comfortable or predictable in an unpredictable situation too. So that really worries me too, that sort of when put under the gun, that becomes our default. We go back to this, I would say that primal part of ourselves that wants to protect.
Jennifer Brown: And that is I think the exact opposite that we have to push into to say, actually we’ve got to be vigilant about not just building what went before, but even beyond that I would say, is even in, or particularly in times of discomfort and stress that are unfamiliar, how can we build something more equitable? And that feels like the tension we’re holding right now, because there’s so much that could be shaped differently coming out of this, we have this unique opportunity. But if we default because we’re scared, because we’re risk averse, because our legal is breathing down our neck or whatever, and they don’t have support like from the two of you I worry we’re going to build something that’s actually less equitable than what we started this whole adventure with. Michael.
Michael Thomas: Yeah. I mean, so the past couple of questions could be an hour long podcast. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s incredibly important. And I think big picture, we’re moving in the direction where we really need, I think it’s called a radical reorganization of consciousness regarding how we interact with each other. And that’s being able to move beyond the discomfort of conflict or these potentially uncomfortable conversations, moving beyond that discomfort that either conflict or those types of conversations tend to bring up and really either embracing that uncertainty or embracing the truth and these varying stories that we’re going to hear from people’s experiences during this given time. That will hopefully drive us to interact with each other in a different way, in a way that’s more meaningful and a bit more empathetic.
Michael Thomas: Because there’s several things that both you, Jennifer and Michelle have brought up. And I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is what people have experienced over the course of the past year or so is trauma, and it’s trauma that’s experienced in different ways. A prime example is this week. There’s a lot of people that are paying attention to the Chauvin trial. That is hugely traumatic. For a lot of black individuals, this is America on trial as to how me as an African-American who at seven o’clock, I might want to go for a run tonight, but I have to pay attention to whether it’s dark or not, because I’m concerned about how I want to be treated by the police.
Michael Thomas: So what we’ve gone through is a huge period of trauma. And what is trauma? Trauma is an experience or an event that is so severe that you lose your ability to cope or respond to your given environment. And so employers have to keep that in mind as they return folks back to the workplace. And so what does that really mean? Because trauma is this idea that you’ve lost control of your environment, there are some things that employers can do that reduces that traumatic experience, meaning if you return to work and do have some policies or practices that are familiar to employees, processes that employees understand or are comfortable with. It gives them some predictability as to what the workplace is going to look like. That can make them feel a little bit more comfortable or a little bit more familiar that, okay, I understand this routine and I get this a little bit.
Michael Thomas: This is kind of what we were doing before, but at the same time the employer to Michelle’s point does need to, instead of making assumptions as to what employees experiences were, needs to pause and listen to employees experiences during this period of time to figure out what employees needs really are, again, to tap into this concept of equity to build that soil for those employees. So it’s both creating an environment that’s somewhat familiar, predictable, and comfortable, but at the same time listening, because you know employees are going to want change and need change to do things a little bit differently, but you can’t make assumptions as to what those changes really are going to be.
Michael Thomas: And also how you communicate as an employer becomes incredibly important as people return to work. You got to communicate with both transparency, vulnerability, and authentically. People want to know that what they’ve been through during this period of time, in some ways you can relate as well. That in some ways during this time, you also were changed. And when you communicate from that level of transparency and vulnerability as a leader from your experiences, and also with transparency and vulnerability regarding what the future of that employee job is. People want some level of certainty or understanding around that, or even the future of that business.
Michael Thomas: When you communicate with transparency and vulnerability around that, again, that builds trust, it reduces that stress and anxiety that’s a part of trauma, and makes employees feel a bit more comfortable and safe coming back to the workplace. And then authenticity and that communication becomes incredibly important, too. It might not be the CEO, that’s the best communicator to the workforce. You might even have to divide who communicates with employees.
Michael Thomas: So if you’re an organization and you have ERG groups, and the ERG groups are really active and you trust and work with ERG groups really well, leverage the ERG groups to be that effective communicator to engage your workforce and build up what their understandings are so when you bring them back, those unique understandings and needs are actually met by your employer. But yeah, there’s a lot to think about here. There’s a lot that involves trauma, stress, anxiety, how do we implement practices in the workplace to reduce stress and anxiety, so we do have more meaningful engagement and less opportunity to act on biases. But we’re entering into this phase in the workplace or really in our society that we’re going to have to figure out ways to interact differently. Because we all have been through a series of experiences and we can’t just say, we’re going back to being normal.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, that’s right. What does normal mean? Was normal good? Normal was toxic for a lot of us.
Michael Thomas: A lot of people.
Jennifer Brown: Michelle, whatever you’d add, that was a lot. I’m digesting it. It’s really important everything you said, Michael, especially that last point about the messenger, being very intentional, that this is not always in everybody’s sweet spot, having that empathy. And I work with executives actually on helping chart that journey, because that is how leaders need to change, is relating all these things and feeling them in a way that is, not just read as authentic by others, but is truly authentic. Does spring from what’s changed for you? How did this feel, this experience and yes, privilege shields and shielded a lot of us from the worst of the past year, but then, okay, so what I’d like to hear executives talk about is that.
Jennifer Brown: That appreciation for what shields certain among us and what doesn’t, what leaves others among us vulnerable. To me, just to hear somebody’s name that is an incredibly powerful way for a person of many privileges and protections to speak about this and still open that door. So that’s a piece I’ve been kind of leaning into trying to help people be better messengers on this. When they think that they can never kind of give the right communication about it. But I love your idea of democratizing the communication about this. We have so much lived experience in our workplaces. Let’s garner all of that and marshal it and harness it, and let it speak. Let these voices speak. I mean, I think that would be an incredible engagement strategy. Michelle.
Michelle Phillips: Yeah. I mean, I think everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be seen. We’ve developed these catchall phrases, like we say, stay safe, be well, which really just became this new bandaid thing that you say. It didn’t actually really mean stay safe. It just became the convenient thing that people say in this instance. A lot of times when someone says, “Hello, how are you?” They don’t actually want to hear how you are. And if you think about it in Swahili culture, they say, I see you. People want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to know that they matter. They want to know that they make a difference. They want to know that they can be their authentic whole or best self in the workplace. So the question becomes, how do we promote an environment that encourages that.
Michelle Phillips: A lot of companies have an open door policy, but no one would walk through the door. So if I’m working with an employer on their harassment policy and they’ll typically put, well, you can go to your supervisors, you can go to HR, or you could go to XYZ executive, are those really the right people to be dealing with these issues? Are they going to be the people who are going to create a safe place where people can raise their concerns? As a organization, we always want to know people’s concerns, but we just want to deal with them internally and take action to ensure that there’s a safe, that there’s a respectful, that there’s a professional work environment.
Michelle Phillips: But if the very reporting avenues that you have in the policies are people who are tone deaf or people who are really don’t want to take the time, don’t really want to listen, we’re never actually going to be able to move the needle in the workplace. And some of that has to do with, even you could have a mentoring program, but it’s this kind of slaps together a program, like the mentoring program for example says, “Well, you should meet with your mentor once a month.” Well, it’s not about how, yes, it’s important to me, but what are you talking about? What are you saying?
Michelle Phillips: How are you helping that individual navigate the workplace? What I call the informal rules of the road. It’s not something that exists in an employee manual. It’s not something that you’re going to find on your intranet. It’s going to be through things that people will tell you that will help you make your mark and progress within the company or the institution that you work within. As a leader, how do we lead by example? How do we set the tone in the workplace?
Michelle Phillips: Because everything you say and everything you do sends a message, everything you don’t say, everything you don’t do also sends in my opinion, an equal message. In fact, I think what you don’t say and you don’t do is more telling than what you say and do. So whether it’s you hear an inappropriate joke or you hear someone, like when it became popular, if you will, to say Black Lives Matter, and then people are saying, well, all lives matter. Well, like to make that statement, it’s not about the statement. It’s what are you expressing behind that statement? Was dealing on another call where someone was like, well, why does someone have to come out in the workplace? Why do I need to know what they are? Why do I care what their gender identity is, their sexual orientation or their race, or their ethnicity?
Michelle Phillips: Well, that’s too personal, but that’s not right because the amount of time that we’re spending in the workplace, whether it’s at home, remote or in the office or traveling, we need to be able to be who we are. We need to be able to be comfortable. The distraction, I know Jen, you and I have talked a lot about covering and passing, and the mental distraction, how that actually can lead to a psychologically unsafe situation. If you’re constantly second guessing, if you’re constantly trying to fit into the dominant culture, the majority view. Again, these are attractions from creating a diverse and equitable work environment.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. That’s right. Michael, you sound like you have something to add.
Michael Thomas: Yeah, no. I mean, just so much, Michelle touched on so many amazing points that I think one really is there’s aspect of safety that is physical, and that’s reclaiming your body. And it’s specifically as an African-American this aspect of being able to bring my authentic self to the workplace is one step in reclaiming the black body. And so what I mean by that is, African Americans just like many other different groups receive so many messages about our black skin and how the black body can subject you to harms by other people. And so just physically being within your own body can feel unsafe when you’re regularly in a predominantly white environments because you know [inaudible 00:43:23] lived experiences or what we see on TV about other experiences, our physical body itself can invite harm.
Michael Thomas: And it’s really to the point where we often feel like our acceptance or that sense of belonging within prominent white space is really conditional. And it’s condition upon us engaging or behaving in a way that’s accepted by white culture. So we pass, we hide, we don’t share our perspective. And it’s safer to not be seen than to be seen and run the risk of some form of white retaliation in the workplace. So again, this concept of creating that environment where it’s psychologically safe for me to show up engaged also is just physically liberating. And that I actually really can pause and just connect with my body and assess what my needs are, and be able to communicate that to the employer that makes the workplace better.
Jennifer Brown: What a beautiful point. And I could talk to you both all day. It’s so like big picture, but also so specific. And Michael, what you just said, I mean, there are a lot of people that have shared with me that working virtually really works for them. I do think it’s because we’re sadly, we’re not in each other there’s physical space and all the triggers and biases that can occur to us in when we are co-located with each other. And there’s so many biases based on physical appearance, as we all know. And so some of my friends will say, I am misgendered so much less often in this virtual work environment. And I welcome that. I can feel more fully comfortable or people with a disability that have accommodations at home, of course, that work for them and enable them to work.
Jennifer Brown: Imagine removing the commute, removing the need to retrofit your workplace so that you can perform. So it’s fascinating to think about the lessening of some covering behaviors that has occurred as we have gone fully virtual and what that’s meant for some of us being able to feel more safe as we’ve been talking about safety. So I think this is fascinating implications for all of us. Both of you, I wanted to give you a minute each to kind of give us a parting thought if you’d like, and also for our listeners Jackson Lewis does this incredible work. If you want to get in touch with Michael or Michelle, I know they would welcome a reach out. But they’re brilliant at what they do.
Jennifer Brown: They are building a better workplace for all of us to thrive. I know that. And using the tools at our disposal, which is policies and protections and the law, but it goes so much beyond that. It goes to these intangibles, we’ve spent this past hour really talking about, which I think they are going to matter more than ever. And they must be top of mind, even if we don’t fully understand them, that does not mean that we can let them not be understood. They are incredibly important the things that we’ve talked about today. So anyway, I’ll give you all the last word. Michael, let’s start with you, and then we’ll end with Michelle.
Michael Thomas: Thank you, Jennifer and Michelle for spending this time with me. I think it’s an incredibly important conversation that we need to continue to have. More importantly, I think we need to continue to embrace this concept of uncertainty, discomfort, having these difficult conversations and actually bringing about real change within the workplace and not repeating what we’ve done in the past, just because it feels comfortable.
Jennifer Brown: Great. Thank you so much, Michael. And Michelle.
Michelle Phillips: Yeah. And Michael, I’m so glad that you were able to join this call and I’m so glad that you are a partner with me in this work. I know I smile when I hear you talk, because it’s just very meaningful. I guess I’ll just end by saying that there’s a shift that I see going on in the world and there’s a real opportunity now to not just check the box. I think for a while there was a lot of DEI work going on that was just about, let’s just do some training, let’s create some awareness, but what I’m seeing with a lot of employers is they actually do want to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment. And they’re very number driven on this.
Michelle Phillips: I work very closely with employers on what can they do? How do they build the pipeline? How do they create a mentoring program that’s going to survive over time? How can they leverage through their employee resource groups to get viable candidates, to bring more people into the table and more people to the conversation? Both Michael and I advise employers on this work and we would love to be involved in your journey. And then just Jennifer, thank you so much for inviting us on this call. We really, really appreciate it.
Jennifer Brown: Absolutely. And I agree. I think we’ve got a lot to be hopeful about. It’s going to take work, but we’ve got to get to the table so we can give the input that’s going to shape what’s next. I think we have a really unique opportunity to do that right now. So thank you both for joining me. I just deeply appreciate both of you and your voices in the world. So thanks for joining me on the Will To Change.
Michelle Phillips: Thank you again.
Michael Thomas: Thank you.
Michelle Phillips: Bye-bye.
Jennifer Brown: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com. You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work. And discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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