Even before the start of the COVID-19 crisis, our CEO has demonstrated questionable leadership, but it has taken center stage during our new mandatory biweekly Zoom calls with all 300+ employees. These calls are meant to be an open forum for staff questions, but they end up being a chaotic platform for her to fixate on the virus death toll and typically leave staff with a lot more anxiety than clarity about the company’s planning.
On our most recent call, someone asked how the staff would be accommodated in our office once we reopen. Understandably, there is no plan in place yet since our state is still in the early stages of reopening. Instead of offering to follow up with a more thoughtful answer later, our CEO went on a long rant about the latest coronavirus-related headlines and eventually proposed that staff’s age, weight, and potentially even race could be considered determinants for employees’ physically returning to the office. She particularly went into great detail about how much weight people are likely gaining at home. You can imagine how triggering people found these statements during a time when we are all facing other stressors.
We have always known our CEO to have narcissistic tendencies, but this last meeting has left many of us feeling horrified and disillusioned, particularly because no one in a leadership position saw anything wrong with her comments. My team is wonderful and we all take great pride in the work that we do, but days later, we are still reeling and not sure how we can help fix the system from within. Is there anything you would suggest we do individually and collectively?
If you don’t want to do that, you can still act as a group and benefit from a lot of the same protections that unions get. The National Labor Relations Act protects not just unionized workers but any nonmanagement workers acting as a group to speak out about working conditions (and wages, too, for that matter). If there’s more than one of you, your employer cannot legally penalize you for advocating for different working conditions, and that includes collectively pushing for specific conditions around if/how you reopen.
So what does it look like to act as a group? In this case, I’d write down your group’s concerns and what you’re jointly asking for. That might include things like specific milestones that must be met before reopening, specific safety precautions that are in place and enforced once you do, continued telework for anyone high-risk or who lives with someone high-risk, and a commitment from the company to follow public-health guidelines rather than your CEO’s own (illegal!) impulses.
There is power in numbers, and you want as many people signing on as possible. For people who are worried about being rabble-rousers or appearing adversarial in an already scary time, assure them you’re going to frame it collaboratively — the tone is “we have concerns, and here’s what we think is safe and right,” not “MEET OUR DEMANDS OR WE WILL DESTROY YOU.” At least for the time being, this is an attempt at communication and collaborative problem-solving. (You can always escalate later if you need to.)
Then I’d approach HR with your written concerns, not your CEO. At a 300-person company, hopefully you have professional HR (not someone who got thrown into it and is doing something like benefits administration on top of their other duties — a common setup at smaller companies), and they should be aware of the federal protections for this kind of organizing and should be able to communicate them to the CEO and others.
Other things you can do:
∙ Suggest that your co-workers talk individually with their managers about how alarming and distracting the CEO’s Zoom meetings are, especially the most recent one, and how alarming the plans she alluded to are.
∙ Suggest that your co-workers approach HR individually with that same message, making sure to include that assigning people to work in the office based on age, weight, or race would be illegal.
∙ Encourage people who are high-risk or live with high-risk people to start pushing now to be able to continue working from home after your office reopens. Have others lend their voice in support of that.
∙ If your state’s guidelines direct employers to encourage telework when it’s feasible, ask why your employer isn’t complying with that directive.
I would also take a closer look at your company’s leadership in general since, at a minimum, this situation is shining light on some serious issues of judgment. Have things seemed generally reasonable until your CEO went off the rails? Or is this the latest in a pattern of problems? It’s not a great time to job search in most industries, but it’s always a good time to get really clear on how much you trust your company, how it does or doesn’t align with your values, and how long you’d ideally stay there.
Will Getting Arrested at a Protest Affect Me Professionally?
How likely is it that an arrest made at a protest will affect your future career?
Can you get fired? I assume it’ll show up on a background check, which I have to do in my career because I work with kids. If you were hiring someone and saw they had an arrest, would that make them a less desirable candidate? Do employees usually contact candidates to ask them to explain the context? I believe deeply in the power of civil disobedience; I just want to know what I should expect.
In theory, you can be fired for even just being at a protest, unless you’re in a state that has unusually pro-employee laws, like California (which considers protesting to be protected political activity). But most employers won’t do that unless you do something that truly reflects badly on them. Interestingly, if you get arrested, you might actually have more protection employment-wise; some states prohibit employers from taking action against you merely for an arrest.
If you’re convicted: Some states only permit current and prospective employers to consider convictions if the charge directly relates to the job, or require employers to take into account how serious the crime was. (You can look up your state’s laws here.)
But typically, employers who see an arrest or conviction on your background check will be willing to hear your explanation — and for most jobs, explaining that it was civil disobedience at a political protest will generally put concerns to rest. (Along those lines, if you’re booked on something like “resisting arrest” or “destruction of property,” sometimes your lawyer can get it changed to “disorderly conduct,” which will sound less alarming to most people.)
I’d recommend proactively offering the explanation when an interview process moves to the background-check stage, usually toward the end of the process. (For example: “I want to let you know that I have an arrest on my record for participating in anti-racism protests after the killing of George Floyd.”) That way, the employer knows what to expect to see there and will already know the context for it when they do.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.