woman holding a microphone speaking
PHOTO: Wonderlane

The past few weeks have been a wake-up call for many business leaders. As calls for social justice have inundated our daily lives, companies are having conversations with employees around topics that have historically been seen as something separate from the business.

While businesses like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia have long been vocal about their stance on a variety of issues, for companies who don’t have a division focused on social initiatives it can be hard to know where to start.

As the CEO of a software company, I've been in the same boat as many of you trying to navigate these hard conversations in the workplace. It can definitely be a challenge to lean in to the vulnerability of open communication, but as a business leader this is your opportunity to lead. Here are a few things I’ve learned and implemented along the way that I hope will help you move in the direction of open and honest conversations in your organization.

Start the Conversation

This can be the hardest part, especially for those used to business and activism being relegated to your company’s philanthropy efforts, but this is probably the most important thing you can do as a business leader. Starting the conversation and addressing difficult topics head-on is a necessary part of the radical candor organizations need to succeed. Whether it’s an email to your employees or a discussion during your company’s all-hands meeting, find what works best for your business. 

But don’t stop there. Encouraging open dialogue once doesn’t bring about change, it needs to be a daily practice ingrained in your organization. At my firm Kazoo, one of our core values is “Yes, And” like the famous improv technique. To us, this core value means active listening, open dialogue and participation. And we put this in action from one-on-ones to executive team meetings to push ourselves to have hard conversations about work and life. If your company is looking for a place to start, we’ve seen great success with Slack channels devoted to specific topics where people can share their thoughts and resources in an open forum.

Related Article: It's Time to Change Our Thinking About Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Move From Conversations to Action

As the adage goes: words are just words until you put action behind them. Many companies struggle when putting out messages of support for different causes because they stop there. It’s time to take it to the next level and put action behind your words. Figure out what your business stands for or what you want to support and do something for that cause.

We are very passionate about Pride Month and supporting our employees who identify as LGBTQ. During the month of June, in addition to encouraging our employees to donate to local charities that support the LGBTQ community, we host a number of Pride-themed activities every week like Pride history, trivia and movie night. These actions not only show our commitment to diversity and inclusion as a company, but also allow us to educate our employees on a cause that impacts a number of our team members.

One new thing we started this year is celebrating Juneteenth (June 19), the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. With the conversation around racism and inequality top of mind for our country, we saw the opportunity to put our words into action by expanding how we recognize meaningful holidays observed by our employees, while also encouraging our team to learn more about the holiday and why it’s so important to our country.

Deciding what you want to put into action can be difficult, but a great place to start is to listen to your employees. They are the lifeblood of your company and by honoring things that matter to them, you’re creating a stronger bond between your organization and your employees that will serve your business for the future.

Related Article: SVAcademy Counters Tech's Diversity Problem With Education and Mentorship

Support Employees and Lead By Example

With a global pandemic and protests for social justice filling the last few months, many employees are feeling overwhelmed and at risk of burnout personally and professionally. As business leaders, we can always do a better job of reaching out to employees to show our support and a good way to do that is leading by example. Expressing your own feelings around a situation or sharing how the current climate is taking its toll on you personally will show them  they’re not alone in how they are feeling. Taking it a step further and encouraging them to take vacation days or reminding them of the mental health programs covered by your insurance will help them know you are putting their best interest first. As a reminder, if you want to get the most out of your people, you need to give them what they need to succeed both in work and in their personal lives.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it’s a good place to start for organizations that are unaccustomed to leaning in to hard conversations. Taking a step towards vulnerability will be difficult, but the impact it will have on you, your people and your business will be worth the challenge.