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The State of Work

We’re toiling a lot more, for a lot less—all the while turning the office into a battleground for free speech and pushing our employers to get political

As with all else these days, the office has proven to be no respite from politics. If anything, it’s become the embodiment of it — the contemporary battleground for freedom of speech where employees feel they should be able to say whatever they believe without fear of retribution (read — being fired). Even the water cooler — once a refuge for innocuous procrastination and small talk — brings with it a host of standard topics (sports, TV and the weather) that can now easily devolve into heated debates about Colin Kaepernick, Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression and climate change. (Not even harmless banter about vacation is safe as one Bay Area company is allowing its employees to use PTO to attend protests.)

Interestingly enough, though, being able to speak your mind on the job has become maybe the last bipartisan issue in the country. By that, I mean both those on the right (e.g., wearing a MAGA hat in the office) and the left (e.g., supporting LGBT rights) are fighting to broaden the kind of in-office political speech they can engage in. And beyond that, the kind of political speech they can participate in during off-hours but in very public realms (i.e., Facebook). They’ve also influenced brands and companies to start supporting pet political causes themselves as well as to reconfigure their corporate culture around them — sometimes cynically, sometimes authentically, but very rarely silently as today’s consumer more or less demands to know what a company stands for.

A lot of this probably has as much to do with the fact that we’re no longer ever off-the-clock anymore as it does with how political everything has become. And so, our work selves are basically are real selves, the line between the two hazy enough that the need for pretense has been obliterated. It also obscures the economic reality of today’s workforce: We’re doing a lot more for a lot less, if we’re lucky enough to be doing anything at all. And that financial forecast — especially when combined with the amount of student loan debt most of us are burdened with — brings with it the kind pressure and stress that invites serious burnout in short order.

For their thoughts on the modern workplace — both its new political bent and the crushing time demands of a post-crash economy — we reached out to a number of people trailblazing new ways of business. This includes everyone from a 20-year-old entrepreneur bringing the values of Gen Z to the marketplace to the trans CEO of a major fast-food chain who is attempting to show how even the best diversity programs aren’t diverse enough to a co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America who’s aiming to bolster the working class in a system that typically chews them up.

All of them, though, share one common belief: Business as usual will no longer cut it.

Dan Schawbel is a best-selling author and millennial career and workplace expert. His influence is such that last year, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shared Schawbel’s article about the level of burnout among American workers — mainly because of how tethered they are to email and Slack and how little they go on vacation. And for the last few years, Schawbel has written Forbes annual list of workplace predictions (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018), which he makes based upon his analysis of hundreds of interviews and studies. He thinks number five — “Financial and Mental Wellness Get Prioritized” — is the most interesting item on this year’s list.

Schwabel: In order for a company to still truly support its employees, it needs to get involved in supporting their health and wellness. This is a new social responsibility, but it’s only going to help business. Half of all turnover is due to burnout, and people are burned out because they’re working harder for no additional money. It’s not getting better either. This is the first generation that’s going to make less than their parents. Older generations think young people are entitled and asking for way too much, but the reality is that back when Baby Boomers were the age of millennials, they weren’t dealing with this kind of situation.

As Schawbel writes in Forbes: “Northwestern Mutual reports that more than a quarter of millennials say financial stress affects their job performance and made them feel physically ill and depressed. Nearly half of employees have financial concerns, causing them to lose an average of six productive work days annually. As a result, there are numerous companies that are helping employees payback student loans to ease their financial burdens, including Fidelity, PwC, Aetna, Penguin Random House and Chegg. Mental health, which has long been a stigma in the workplace, is now becoming something that is more common and accepted by leaders. Now HR is taking on the role of mental health counselors, helping support employees who have all sorts of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar and ADHD.

“Symptoms like depression can result in about five missed work days and 11.5 days of reduced productivity every three months, costing the U.S. 200 million lost workdays annually, resulting in $17 billion to $44 billion in lost productivity overall. After the story about Madalyn Parker, a web developer whose manager was accepting of her taking a mental health day, went viral, many companies are starting to have real serious conversations around the topic. PwC, for example, provides 24/7 access to counseling, a mental health toolkit and a group of six mental health advocates to support the de-stigmatization of mental health in the workplace.”

More often than not, though, that corporate support doesn’t extend to someone’s politics, which, of course, are difficult to decouple from mental health. If anything, it would seem that if employers are going to take more accountability for their employees wellness, they’ll have to acknowledge that politics play a part in it, particularly for traditionally marginalized groups like women, people of color and the LGBT community. Or even more pointedly: Can a company ever truly support an African-American employee’s mental health if they’re unwilling to acknowledge that “Black Lives Matter”?

Alton Edmond, a 28-year-old lawyer from Florida, doesn’t think so. He draws his opinion from firsthand experience — i.e., he believes he was fired from his job as a public defender for wearing a tie embossed with a Black Lives Matter logo to work and for expressing his frustration with racism on Facebook.

Edmond: I went to law school in Orlando when George Zimmerman was being tried nearby for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. My classmates were marching down to the courthouse, which was just two or three blocks away from law school. Things were really bad beyond that case, too. Especially during the summer of 2016, it seemed like everyday there was another unarmed black person being killed. I wanted to figure out a way to voice my concerns, so I did a little research and found out about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Once I became a practicing attorney, I saw a Black Lives Matter tie on Amazon and began wearing it to work. I saw the tie as a simple, peaceful way to stand in solidarity against police brutality. Besides, I didn’t consider black people being met with lethal force by the police time and time again a political issue, but rather, a human rights one. I wore the tie to work for months without it ever being an issue. Then, at one point, a white co-worker stopped me and said, “All lives matter.” That inspired a conversation in which I told her that I agreed, but that this movement was particularly about the way black people are treated by the police, as black people are much more likely to be shot or met with violent force by police officers than white people.

A few weeks after that conversation, my boss called me into his office and basically told me he didn’t want me wearing the tie to work or to court. He also didn’t want me having any conversations about Black Lives Matter in the office anymore.

Fast forward a couple months to February 2017. It was the first day of Black History Month, and I posted a Facebook status comparing my experiences as a Black American to my dad’s. He went to high school in the 1970s and dealt with the early years of desegregation. I compared our discrimination, saying that years later, I still don’t feel free to support Black Lives Matter at work. That same day I was fired.

Of course, upon firing me, my boss brought up every single possible disciplinary incident there had ever been to tarnish my reputation and make me look bad for philosophically disagreeing with him. But it was clear that my firing had nothing to do with my performance in the courtroom or before judges. Even when Fox News reported about this incident, an organization that demonizes Black Lives Matter, it said I was a young attorney with a good reputation.

Fox Interview

Posted by Alton Edmond-Esq on Friday, February 3, 2017

In this Florida Today article, Edmond’s former boss (who declined our request for comment) first confirms that “the tie had no significance in his firing.” But he seems to quickly contradict himself thereafter: “Whatever he wants to do in his own time, that’s his business,” he also contends. “It’s not right for an attorney to be wearing that in the courthouse.” And: “People can talk about politics, of course. But there’s a big difference about talking politics and wearing politics on your tie.”

Edmond: Legally, I was well within my rights. In fact, there’s Florida case law that says, as it relates to any sort of speech in a courtroom, that the judge determines what the decorum should be. Again, the judges I worked with never had a problem with me or my tie. There also were plenty of women in our office who wore pink hats in favor of Hillary Clinton. It was okay for them to support a political candidate with their clothes, but I couldn’t wear my Black Lives Matter tie.

It reminds me of the outage over Colin Kaepernick deciding to take a knee during the National Anthem. There’s this outrage over athletes coming together to support a cause, but in October, almost every NFL player unites in wearing pink on the field for breast cancer awareness. I’m not saying players shouldn’t do this — they should; I raise it to say people maintain that they want to keep politics out of sports or business, but what they mean is they want to keep out political opinions that make them uncomfortable. The majority doesn’t deem supporting breast cancer awareness political speech because it doesn’t feel threatened by the idea.

Not to mention, most of the people I represented were minorities and people of color. So for someone to be in charge of an office responsible for protecting the rights of these people to fire me for asserting that black lives matter is troublesome. I never asserted that black people are superior or deserve any better than anyone else; I only said they matter. When people have such strong feelings against Black Lives Matter, I believe there’s something deeper going on with that person. When they act like it’s such an inflammatory thing to say, it’s hard to believe they really do think black lives matter.

I ask Edmond about James Damore, the former Google engineer who circulated a letter called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” to other employees, condemning diversity initiatives and his female colleagues’ ability to perform in “high-stress” jobs. He, too, was dismissed for sharing his political beliefs on the job — though his politics obviously differ greatly from Edmond’s. Yet, this is where today’s debate around freedom of speech — especially freedom of speech at the office — finds itself. It’s a battle filled with strange bedfellows who are essentially fighting for the same thing: To express their political views on the job.

Edmond: I support freedom of speech even when I don’t agree with the content of the speech. I don’t think I have the right to suppress a neo-Nazi point-of-view just like I don’t believe others have a right to suppress my point-of-view or attire. For example, not long ago, Richard Spencer was set to visit my alma mater, the University of Florida. There was a petition against it, but Spencer had sued other universities who disinvited him from speaking. So the school decided to let him come speak, even though he was spouting neo-Nazi hate speech. While I never once agreed with anything he spoke about, I never thought he shouldn’t be allowed on campus.

It ended up being a beautiful moment because while the event was privately ticketed to mostly white students approved by Spencer’s organization, there were an overwhelming number of white students who entered the rally and basically shut it down by drowning out Spencer’s team. That’s how it should work: Spencer had the right to show up, and the students had the right to let him know how they felt about him.

As explained by lawyer Eugene Volokh in his paper “Private Employees’ Speech and Political Activity: Statutory Protection Against Employer Retaliation,” statutes related to free speech at work vary widely from state-to-state and in terms of who exactly they protect. For example, in Illinois, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin, “employers are banned from restricting employees’ off-duty use of lawful products, a category that is broad enough to cover blogging software, Twitter, political signs and other products used to speak.”

Overall, Volokh says the legality of firing someone because of their politics mostly comes down to whether or not an employee’s speech or political activity “undermines employer interests,” as he told MEL in an interview earlier this year.

Which brings us to corporate values and the idea that more and more people are choosing to work at companies that closely align to their own belief systems — whether that’s just in terms of the corporate culture or the political beliefs of ownership and/or the C-suite.

To that end, Serah Blain is a senior strategist at Spectrum Experience, a “humanist” PR agency in Arizona rooted in the ideals of innovation, equality, sustainability, reason and compassion. As they advertise on their website, “We proudly work with organizations that share our core values. We will not work with clients who are unwilling to oppose white supremacy, or to publicly state that Black lives matter.” Not that such stances won’t alienate some segment of consumers. Starbucks and AT&T are two examples of companies that people have protested for their support — both implicit and explicit — of Black Lives Matter. Nonetheless, Blain believes it’s the expectation of the modern consumer that companies take a stance on hotly contested political issues.

Blain: There’s an active white supremacy movement in this country that’s an urgent problem for us. And so, we wanted to shift from trying to slowly persuade our clients to take stances we like to see them take to actively not helping those who don’t have something to say on these issues.

Our thinking changed under the current presidency. It’s been interesting how President Trump has used his social media presence for so many high-stakes political conversations. As a result, there’s this pressure for everyone — political leaders, companies and brands — to respond to these conversations publicly. Even companies that you wouldn’t normally see involved in political conversation are getting a lot of pressure to do so. Companies also feel so accessible to consumers these days. With Twitter especially, people feel like they can tweet at a major corporation and have a conversation with them at all times.

More and more then, we’re learning what the brands we buy from really believe in. For example, El Pollo Loco, the chain restaurant previously known only for its citrus-marinated, fire-grilled chicken and for employing Brad Pitt as a chicken before he was famous, is now considered an LGBTQ pioneer. But rather than share its ideological position within a social media post or piece of advertising, Pollo West Corp, the managing entity of a collection of El Pollo Loco fast-food restaurants in Southern California, launched TransCanWork, the nation’s first transgender jobs program.”

The initiative was spearheaded by Pollo West Corp CEO Michaela Mendelsohn. A transgender woman from the Bronx, Mendelsohn transitioned while acting as CEO of her own company (though on sabbatical) in 2007, a rare position among trans Americans. Case in point: The unemployment rate in the trans community is three times higher than the national average, and 90 percent of trans employees report experiencing gender-based harassment at work. (It’s harassment that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seemingly now making legal.)

Mendelsohn: I’ve been in business for myself since I was 21 on a fairly good-sized scale. But before my transition, my gender issues were a barrier for me. Once I transitioned, I got to thinking about how I wanted to contribute to my business and others. Before that, I spent 55 years in a man’s body trying to fulfill that role. I was an overachieving, macho athlete and successful business person. There was so much happening inside of me, but I clung to my persona and performed it well. When I transitioned, I hid away for a while. But then I showed up to the Christmas party and re-introduced myself to 500 employees and their families. It was a moment of great empowerment but also trepidation.

Ever since, though, I’ve been much closer to my employees. I find it easier to walk into one of my stores without feeling a barrier between us. I’m still the boss, but our relationship is much different now that I’m living such an honest, authentic life. I believe the more “you,” you are, the better you will be for your employees.

Then, about six years ago, one of my store managers hired a transgender employee. This was the first transgender employee my company was aware of employing, and so, I went to meet her. That’s when I heard her horrible stories about not being allowed to express her identity without fear of harassment, punishment or termination and experiencing assault when forced to use the wrong bathroom.

That opened my eyes to how fortunate I was to have transitioned as the boss of my own company. I knew I needed to do more, so I began actively hiring more trans people. I went to the LGBT Center in L.A. and got referrals for trans people interested in working at our stores, and over a period of about four years, we hired more than 40 transgender employees. About 25 percent of those people eventually made it to management positions, which is very high. So we decided to share our story with other companies and talk about the business case for hiring more trans people.

What concerns me now is the amount of companies that talk about their commitment to diversity but that fail to actually reach diverse pools of people. When companies hire us to come talk to them, we ask them what they’re actually doing at the grassroots level to recruit trans people. The answer is almost always nothing. A big part of this is the lack of training managers get when it comes to transgender and gender non-conforming people. Large institutions, like a bank chain with a thousand locations, may even receive awards for their policies regarding diversity, but without receiving specific HR training in the same way they receive trainings about other groups of people, managers at those locations may still be afraid to hire trans people. For the most part, the bias is unintentional, but that’s why it’s so important for people to demystify the hiring and managing of transgender employees and set examples for their colleagues.

Whereas Pollo West Corp exemplifies a brand translating its social values into focused action, it’s common for companies to cynically integrate politics into their brand to demonstrate their awareness of the trend more so than to actually share a particular social perspective. Think Pepsi:

Manu “Swish” Goswami is a 20-year-old entrepreneur that Forbes named “one of ten Gen Z experts to follow.” For his generation at least, Goswami thinks this is among the most counterproductive things a company can do.

Goswami: A lot of the time, businesses go about creating political ideologies that are self-destructive in the way they interrupt their customer base. At the same time, it’s cool to not only think of brands as engines of consumerism but as engines of politics. I love businesses who do that from a place of authenticity that informs the structure and practices of the business internally, too. But a lot of times, companies shoot themselves in the foot when they try to advertise for a cause without establishing that same culture within their organization. Like, don’t make statements publicly advocating for feminism if there are wage gaps in your organization.

You have to consider longevity as well. Companies shouldn’t get political just because it’s popular right now. That likely means pandering to people today whose opinion you may disagree with when the next election cycle comes around, and inconsistency is one of the worst things a company could be known for. I do think it’s good that some executives, like Steve Cook at Apple, announced they weren’t Trump supporters. But the debate about this is interesting. To a certain extent, if you’re an executive at a company and you’re speaking on behalf of your company, you have a much higher responsibility to ensure what you’re saying is mirroring and reflecting what your organization as a whole believes in.

Goswami attributes his own passion for social entrepreneurship — creating “impact-focused businesses” that enter the market addressing a problem with a solution that won’t make money the first few years — to his parents. His dad is the corporate one, a director of an oil and gas company, while his mom teaches English to immigrants and refugees.

Goswami: I never went to business school. I got accepted to the University of Toronto for their commerce program, but a week later, I changed my program because I didn’t want to learn business in classes. Instead, I spent a couple of years studying ethics and the law, basically conflict resolution and modern philosophy. These courses were non-participation, so I could travel and do speaking events without having to worry about showing up to class. After that, I moved to New York and put a hold on my studies. When I do go back to school, I’ll study something creative, like acting or writing.

I miss the social aspect of college, but most of the learning I’ve done comes from my own research on YouTube, or by starting organizations around certain issues and seeing how far I could get before I’d fall flat on my face. Plus, schools do a terrible job at teaching networking. Most students who do pick up networking skills in college do so through their summer jobs and internships. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been very intentional in the way I position myself; in doing so, I’ve created a lot of my own luck. Trevor Booker, who’s a basketball player on the Philadelphia 76ers, reached out to me on Instagram. He noticed a comment I made on a profile we both follow and was then able to read my Instagram bio and click on my website. He ended up hiring me to work-part time at his venture capital firm JB Fitzgerald Venture Capital.

I’m also the co-founder of Dunk, a basketball media company. We have 10 million followers internally. Beyond that, I’m self-starting a separate organization called Ballin that will come out in March. It’ll be more for sports tech companies. We’re developing a tool called Super Fan that can help celebrities, influencers and athletes reach out to their top fans through an app. We’re also building out a bigger platform that will try to get the full basketball community on it so that people who are living in marginalized communities and can’t afford to go to a game or play at a high-quality gym can do so.

In my opinion, when people are making a lot of moves, others are always naturally attracted to them. That’s what I think I’ve been able to do. I don’t pander to anybody either. If I don’t like something within a professional situation, I’ll always bring it up. At the same time, I recognize my weaknesses as much as I acknowledge my strengths. That’s how I prevent them from defeating me. Young people don’t know everything, and so, my best advice for young entrepreneurs is to listen. You can’t start businesses at a high level without working with older folks, whether they’re venture capitalists or people in seats above you looking to partner.

Goswami’s pursuits, however, are decidedly capitalisic — no matter their inherent altruistism or social values. That’s one area where he doesn’t appear to be in lockstep with his youthful brethren as the Democratic Socialists of America (or DSA) have seen a 300 percent rise in membership since the presidential election. This gain is particularly high among millennials who have reportedly “fallen in love with socialism.” (Whatever the label, Americans under 30 think less favorably about capitalism than older age groups and currently occupy the most space in the U.S. workforce.)

Yesenia Padilla became an active member of DSA last year, galvanized by the Bernie Sanders’ campaign and Trump’s victory. She is now co-chair of the San Diego chapter, which is unique in its high number of both former and active military.

Padilla: I attribute the rising popularity of DSA to a confluence of things. But mainly, it’s harder to get jobs. The jobs that we were promised if we went to university aren’t there. A new report on the economics of the Obama years recently found that during the recession, many people didn’t get hired out of school, which makes sense. But when the economy bounced back, 2008 grads still didn’t get hired — grads from 2012 did. No one will hire them because they don’t have any experience, and there are other people fresh out the gates who are cheaper and eagerer.

On the coasts, the freelance economy is so prevalent — be in it tech, media or otherwise. It’s going to be interesting to see the ways that the young people who do that kind of work respond to it. Because we’re starting to see some of these industries unionize. For me, that’s galvanizing. For capitalism to function properly, workers have to be alienated and complicit in keeping themselves functioning in this way, which can easily happen with freelancers. I’m hopeful there will be even more open conversations about how to improve today’s labor conditions and create a new groundwork for the future.

Sadly, though, 2018 is looking pretty rough. In particular, there’s the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case. It could change the U.S. to a right-to-work country. What right-to-work means is that you don’t have to participate in whatever union is going on at your job, so it’s your right-to-work in a space regardless of whether or not you want to join a union.

Initially, that sounds pretty cool, right? You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. The problem is that it’s hard to get concessions from employers without people power and the strength of the union. In fact, some unions thrive because there’s no right-to-work. So if we lose right-to-work, we might lose a lot of the power unions bring to the table.

I think the places where we’re going to see the most positive change for working-class people are going to be at the state and municipal level. In California, for example, we were able to pass a couple of ordinances that really benefited undocumented workers. One of them even prevents employers from calling ICE on their employees, which is huge because that’s a major scare tactic.

In terms of increasing the minimum wage to living wages, Padilla understands why some working-class men are against the living wage, but also thinks it’s “bullshit.”

Padila: That fear is understandable because that’s a rhetoric placed on us as workers — to not recognize our own power. It’s also bullshit. A lot of these large companies are making massive profit margins. Same for medium-sized companies. To pay a living wage to the workers who are helping make all of this profit won’t affect a company that intensely.

A lot of people will then say, “What about small businesses?” But if we’re thinking that way, we have to start looking at the actual economic model. And if the economic model is putting such stress on these small businesses that they will have to shut their doors as soon as a living wage is enacted — if the economic model is such that the majority of people can’t afford to buy a house or can barely afford rent — maybe we need to change the economic model. Because it’s clearly not serving us.