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2021: A Progress Report

My last contribution to this blog happened to be the first post of 2021. I titled it “Welcome, 2021. Let’s Talk …” and offered up some lighthearted suggestions for how the new year could improve on 2020’s nightmarish experience. One “suggestion” I gave to our new year was the following:

Source: atk work / shutterstock

Third, no elections this year … oh, wait. That’s pretty much taken care of. Check! There’s a point in the 2021 column and one less potential source of friction in the office.

I concluded, “We’re willing to give you a chance, 2021. Will you hold up your end of the bargain?” Well, my post went live on January 6, 2021. That same day, a mob of thousands rioted at and stormed the Capitol building. Untold numbers overwhelmed the Capitol Police and other security and forced their way into the building. Congress’s Electoral College vote certification ceased until order was restored later that night. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer and a protestor who was shot after attempting to climb through a broken door on the House side of the Capitol. 

Photos captured security officers with weapons drawn at the barricaded entrance to the House floor—the same door through which the president enters the chamber before the State of the Union address. Other photos captured protestors rifling the empty Senate chamber, including a shirtless man wearing a horned fur hat, carrying an American flag fixed to the business end of a spear, and bellowing from the Senate president’s dais, where Vice President Mike Pence had been seated minutes before.

Not good, 2021. Not good at all.

Substantial coverage has focused on the beliefs that appeared to motivate at least many of those in the crowd who overran the Capitol. Whether you call them conspiracy theories, movements, or something more colorful, press accounts have detailed oddly named phenomena like QAnon, Pizzagate, Frazzledrip, and several others as influences for some participants; in fact, “Q” t-shirts and paraphernalia made frequent appearances on camera during the riot. At the very least, the people involved in these things have some unconventional beliefs. I don’t believe it is too strong to say that a great number of their factual conclusions are objectively false.

Let’s stop here for a second. I want to be very clear that I am not, under any circumstances, looking to litigate the motives of people involved in what happened at the Capitol on January 6. I’m bone tired of the political back-and-forth that preceded and has followed that day. Everyone reading this post has his or her opinions about that day and his or her own political convictions about what’s best for the United States (I know I certainly do), but I’m not here to discuss whether Trump or Biden is better, whether voting procedures need to change or how, or even what needs to happen to the people arrested for their actions on January 6.

Instead, I want to discuss how things go sideways in your workplace when people invest in conclusions that resist contrary explanations grounded in reality. If you have an employee who follows QAnon, you don’t necessarily have a problem on your hands. On the flip side, if you have a group of employees who believe that the company is going to be conducting layoffs despite all assurances, facts, and information to the contrary, then you have a big problem on your hands. This persistent disinformation may lead people to leave for no good reason. It may lead to lower morale and lower productivity. It is never going to lead anywhere good.

How should an employer fight back or, better still, prevent this in the first place? 

  • First, I suggest that you open the door and your ears. Any employer can have a well-drafted open-door policy or complaint-resolution process. The trick is actually making it work and giving it credibility among your employees. You need not always give employees what they want, but your employees need to know that they are going to come to you and get a fair hearing. 
  • Second, you need to open your mouth and share appropriate information about your organization with your employees. If you catch wind of rumors circulating that simply aren’t true, you need to nip them in the bud. Nipping them in the bud, however, does not have to mean squelching the discussion. If your employees are drawing conclusions based on incorrect information, share what you can and what is prudent. Simply forbidding the discussion without more, though, will make it look like you have something to hide and imbue the rumors with a patina of truth.
  • Third, make sure your managers know how to speak with people. Sounds simple, but, going back to politics for a moment, I think our biggest problem is not that we’re shouting at each other but rather that we’re shouting past each other. Any productive adult conversation requires one person to speak and the other person to listen; next, the roles reverse, and the listener speaks while the speaker listens. I realize I sound condescending right now, but even a few minutes of political discourse on television will convince you that we are all due for some elementary school refreshers.
  • Fourth, consult your labor counsel to take a fresh look at your no-solicitation, no-distribution policy. You don’t want your approach to employee communications running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, and interpretations as to these policies can be fluid. Likewise, stay in communication with your counsel before taking action on social media communications among your employees. 

Good luck and good health to all. And 2021, we’re keeping our eyes on you.