Expectations for workplace behavior. Obvious harassment and discrimination have been prohibited by our workplaces for decades. However, casually insulting, unintentionally demeaning and bullying behaviors that have been ignored, or deemed ordinary, are being identified and called out as unacceptable. Employees are asking organizations to take action to address them, and take proactive measures — formally and informally — to foster inclusivity at all levels of the organization.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Tracey Levy and Gayle Wasserman of Impact Workplace Training.
Tracey I. Levy and Gayle F. Wasserman are Co-Founders of Impact Workplace Training, LLC, through which they develop and deliver training for managers, HR professionals and individual employees on harassment prevention and other appropriate workplace conduct, employment law compliance and HR best practices. Tracey and Gayle have conducted hundreds of training sessions, and their training builds on more than 25 years of experience in employment law and employee relations, including both large law firm practice and working in-house. Tracey and Gayle also work with Cornell University ILR School’s Scheinman Institute in Manhattan, where for the past several years they have trained HR professionals and managers on conducting workplace investigations, as well as on employment law compliance, harassment prevention and effective employee relations.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
Tracey: My goal in becoming a lawyer has always been to help people. I was exposed to the field of employment law while still in school, working as a law clerk in the Litigation Bureau at the NYS Attorney General’s Office. It was at the AG’s office that I received some sage advice that has shaped my entire career. When I expressed concern that the employment defense work I was doing at the time was serving on the wrong side of the issues, Judith Ratner, one of the senior attorneys that I worked for, advised that you can effectuate more change from being on the inside (representing employers) than by litigating from the outside. Time and again in my career, I have had the privilege of working with employers that want to do right by their employees, but do not necessarily know how to do so, and I have been by their side to advise and guide them.
Gayle: When I was in college, I was a waitress at a local restaurant — thrown in my first day to memorize the menu, juggle the needs of my tables, carry a tray on my shoulder piled high with heavy plates of burgers and pasta, and navigate the personalities of my coworkers from the dishwasher to the manager. And my compensation — my tips — were directly tied to the experience my customers had regardless of my challenges.
I quickly learned the nuts and bolts of the job, but it took years to master the rhythm of each night. Someone needs a fork, table 4 spilled water, the bartender is yelling that drinks are waiting at the bar — all at once! I learned how to prioritize competing tasks, manage my time to the second, and make the best of circumstances I couldn’t control. I also needed to manage customer’s expectations, own my mistakes in the moment, and stay kind — even when customers didn’t deserve it and weren’t right. I smiled a lot and chatted with tables that seemed open and interested, and learned to watch for cues and avoid small talk with those who didn’t. I learned that sometimes I worked hard and got rewarded for it and sometimes I didn’t — for a reason I didn’t know or didn’t understand. But either way, I had to come back the next day and prove myself all over again.
At the time, I thought waitressing was a great way to earn money; I had no idea that it would prepare me to check my ego and bring my hustle to every of work, put organization and planning at the forefront of my mind, and be empathetic as a trainer and lawyer when helping businesses manage the myriad interpersonal dynamics that take place every day at work. And it definitely made me a generous tipper!
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
Gayle: Broadly speaking, the workplace today is not markedly different than it was 15 years ago, and in general terms we do not think it will be markedly different 10–15 years from now. However, we are seeing a focus on equity and increasing diversity and inclusion efforts — not just related to race and gender, but related to all facets of identity and orientation — that we think will be enduring. And we are seeing a real push for organizations to be better global citizens.
Tracey: We do think expectations will change in terms of what we consider acceptable workplace behaviors, and tolerance for bullying behavior is waning, as younger Millennials and Generation Z are pushing for higher standards of workplace civility and respectful behavior. More states are starting to mandate workplace training focused on harassment and respect — and I think we will continue to see more and more of that, as states and localities are recognizing the value of introducing these concepts preemptively to employees and setting expectations for workplace behavior. On the flip side, we are seeing a pushback on that in some parts of the country, perhaps most strikingly demonstrated by Florida’s new law restricting what employers can say with regard to implicit bias and systemic racism, but it’s a pendulum — for each step forward, there often is a push back, and ever so slightly, over time, the pendulum advances us toward a more respectful and inclusive work environment.
Beyond workplace behaviors, we think the shift toward more hybrid work arrangements is here to stay. That has huge implications for all of us in terms of how we define our workdays, how we interact with coworkers and clients, and how we manage our lives. Organizations will continue to leverage technology to facilitate more personal interactions, and our workplaces will evolve to better accommodate the hybrid of those in the office and those working remotely.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Tracey: Rule number 1: Just because you have done things a certain way in the past does not mean that is the best approach going forward.
Gayle: We often have to rethink our practices and strategies to build new skills, and those new skills are often not optional. When we are conducting respectful workplace training and giving examples of offensive behaviors, employees will sometimes tell us that they have been using the same kind of language for 30 years and no one had a problem with it before. But times have changed and so can our behaviors. Do not be afraid to shift from the status quo.
Gayle: Rule number 2: Listen to your employees. In a post-pandemic world, where employees have reconsidered their work/life balance and their life choices and priorities, and in a workplace hiring Gen Z employees, organizations have to demonstrate a commitment to the creation of a “better” workplace — whether they are defining “better” as more flexible, more interesting, more committed to societal challenges, or more focused on employee growth or the creation of stronger core values and culture.
Tracey: In finance and in law, for example, the business heads at some of the most prestigious institutions are mandating complete or nearly-complete returns to the office. They seem to have made the calculation that working for them is so desirable, employees will compromise on remote work and other work-life balance issues. There is hubris in that assumption, but it is not unfounded; those organizations have historically provided a trade-off of great training/experience/prestige/compensation against immensely demanding work expectations. We are just not so sure that the best and brightest from this newest generation entering the workforce are quite as inclined to make that compromise. This time around, other organizations are not necessarily following those industry leaders; they have been listening to employees’ desire for more flexibility, and they are offering a different package that may make them an employer of choice.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Gayle: Younger generations often join the workforce with different values and expectations regarding what their workplace will look and feel like. Gen Zers are no exception. This generation expects more from their employers, and as a result, I think there will be noticeable generational gaps that will drive organizational change.
For example, previous generations of employees were often driven by money– if they were paid well, they stayed in their job and if they weren’t, they looked elsewhere. Today’s employees have a much more complex analysis for job satisfaction — they want a socially and environmentally conscious workplace, where diversity and inclusion efforts are authentic and important, and employees want their own values and ideals represented by their employer. That means things like gender-neutral bathrooms, lactation rooms, equal pay for equal work, paid time off, mental health benefits and support for social justice movements.
Gen Z wants a sense of community — where they can be their authentic selves and showcase their individuality, where they can communicate regularly and honestly with leadership, and where they are treated with respect. In some organizations, there is a gap between these expectations, and the workplace of yesterday — which is focused solely on the bottom line. Organizations will lose their best talent if they don’t continuously listen to their employees to learn what issues are most important, and demonstrate their commitment to those issues in a genuine way.
Additionally, I think Gen Zers have an expectation of hands-on management that previous generations of employees did without. In many organizations, a manager gives an employee an assignment and the manager doesn’t want to hear from that employee until it is done. But these employees are digital natives and grew up watching how-to videos on YouTube and TikTok, and are used to step-by-step instructions that can be replayed. They were raised to ask questions and expect answers — often quickly, via text. Perhaps these employee expectations are too lofty and time-consuming for organizations which expect their employees to just ‘figure it out.’
To manage this gap, organizations will need to educate employees on reasonable expectations for their workplace and will have to guide managers as to how to manage. Many organizations are introducing Slack and other instant messaging platforms for instant communication, and some are encouraging managers to make themselves more accessible and spend more time ‘managing.’
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Tracey: I think we have already touched on this in terms of the greater acceptance of hybrid and remote work arrangements going forward. But there is more to that picture. Time and again, we hear employees arguing that their work did not suffer (or may even have excelled) during the past two years of the pandemic, and they assert that if there has been no loss in their productivity or performance, then there is no valid reason for denying their request to continue working from home.
Certainly, to the naysayers among business leaders who, prior to 2020, refused to entertain the possibility of remote or hybrid work, except perhaps in the most limited of circumstances, the global experiment we have endured has disproved some of their worst fears. But for those who see this experiment as proof positive that most jobs can be done remotely, I think there are additional, countervailing considerations.
Individual productivity and performance are not the be all and end all of workplace expectations and culture. Orientation and integration of new hires, not to mention mentoring opportunities, are key to the long-term success of an organization. There is not much dispute that those collaborative experiences suffered terribly in the pandemic. Organizations with strong cultures got along successfully for quite a while on the good will and strength of the relationships their employees had forged prior to the government shutdowns in 2020, but that good will is frayed or in tatters at this point. Hence what we are calling the Great Resignation.
Looking toward the future, therefore, I think there will be more receptivity to hybrid and remote work arrangements. I also think, however, that employees should assume they will be expected to interface with colleagues in-person with some degree of frequency that may vary based on workflow, hiring trends, and other business needs. Those meetings may be in an office setting, or they could be tied to scheduled conferences or off-site gatherings.
Gayle: We are seeing a great need for training and re-learning of best practices for creativity and successful interaction in these hybrid environments. Managers need to find new ways to achieve collaboration with those working remotely and those who are in the office.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
Tracey: A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work were the top reasons why employees in the U.S. quit their jobs last year. Most of those who had not retired found other gainful employment, and reported their new jobs were an improvement over the job they left. To us, that data is an easy recipe of the changes we need to see on a societal level going forward.
First, wages need to increase. That has certainly been happening, but unless inflation rates moderate substantially in the near future, any gains in worker pay at the lowest wage levels will be more than offset by the rising cost of living, which will bring us back to square one. I defer to economists on how to resolve that conundrum, but it requires change on a societal level. As a side note to that, if a substantial portion of an employee’s wages go to childcare, at some point many individuals — most typically working mothers — eventually conclude that the trade-off is too dear and they step out of the workforce entirely. There are long-term economic repercussions to that for those individuals and for our society as a whole, and that is driving the initiatives we are seeing in some states and in Congress to better fund care for our children.
Second, as a society we may need to reflect on whether our educational institutions and training programs are providing individuals with the skills they need to succeed in their chosen occupations. Certainly we know employees who face a lack of opportunity for advancement based on organizational constraints — there are only so many positions at the top, and particularly for those in supporting roles within an organization, business needs simply may not allow for further advancement. Those individuals need to go somewhere else if they want to advance, and we do not think society has any role to play in that. Then there are other employees, though, who face a lack of opportunity for advancement because of shortfalls in their skills or training, perhaps compounded by an organization’s failure to provide clear feedback and guidance early in the employee’s career as to the deficiencies that may hold the employee back. This is where we cite the education and training that our society currently offers, and query whether there is more we could be doing in this area.
Third, we need to move off a myopic focus on check-the-compliance-box sexual harassment prevention training to more robust, meaningful workplace training programs that provide clear examples of appropriate and inappropriate workplace behaviors, and center around creating a culture of respect. Employees need guidance on how effectively to communicate when they have been made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected at work, and employees also need guidance on how to receive that type of feedback and modify their behavior. Managers need to understand not just the legal standards, but the practicalities of how their communication style and behaviors may be perceived by the people reporting to them. As a society, we need to stop chasing the headline of the latest sexual harassment prevention mandate, and get behind a cultural change that treats people respectfully in general and across all protected characteristics.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Gayle: Most of those who were part of this “Great Resignation” have moved on to other opportunities that they see as an improvement. People are not quitting on working; they are aspiring for and actively pursuing better workplace situations for themselves. In the long run, that will enhance employee morale, and drive innovation and productivity.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Gayle: We know of organizations that have been leveraging their employee assistance programs, or seeking such programs if they do not already have them. They are pushing employees to use their time off, or even offering an occasional extra paid day, so they can get a break and hopefully rejuvenate.
The Department of Labor and the Society for Human Resource Management recently released a joint mental health at work toolkit, which emphasizes the role everyone can play in promoting workplace wellbeing, both through formal processes, workplace culture, and peer support. Consistent with that, through workplace trainings and individual coaching sessions with executives and managers, we encourage organizational empathy and support. We advise those we train to counsel employees to ask for help if they need it, and that they should be receptive and responsive to those requests. There is recognition that the last two years have been really challenging for everyone, and organizations that offer compassion will reap the rewards of healthier and more loyal employees.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
Tracey: Many employees used the experience of the pandemic to take stock of their lives, evaluate whether they were happy with the choices they had made, reprioritize and explore other possibilities. Leaders don’t need to depend on the headlines; they have likely seen and experienced it within their own families and social circles. Pivoting back to the concept of respectful workplaces — it was a key driver for employees changing jobs in the past year, we see it as a key concern being raised by the newest generations in the workforce, and it cannot be reflected in an organization where it is not demonstrated from the top down. Leaders need to ensure this concept is part of their organization’s mission and values, they need to be role models for it, and they need to ensure everyone in the organization has been trained. We don’t just mean a formal training session, but also informal “toolbox tips,” as we heard one HR professional phrase it, that may incorporate simple reminders or examples in weekly staff meetings or similar settings.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Growing acceptance of remote and hybrid work arrangements. We’ve been talking about it throughout much of this interview — the pandemic has driven a mindshift in where and how work can be done, and organizations are currently wrestling with whether and how they want to bring employees back into their workplaces.
- Pay transparency. California started this initiative, but Colorado pushed it forward one level by mandating that employers include salary ranges in their job postings, and Washington State and New York City have been the most recent jurisdictions to adopt that approach.
- Empowering ‘upstanders.’ The City of Chicago just adopted a new sexual harassment training requirement that includes one hour of training on bystander intervention. The only way that we are really going to see widespread culture change in our workplaces with regard to respectful workplace behavior is if everyone in the workplace assumes responsibility to speak up or lend support when they see, hear or learn of inappropriate workplace behaviors.
- Expectations for workplace behavior. Obvious harassment and discrimination have been prohibited by our workplaces for decades. However, casually insulting, unintentionally demeaning and bullying behaviors that have been ignored, or deemed ordinary, are being identified and called out as unacceptable. Employees are asking organizations to take action to address them, and take proactive measures — formally and informally — to foster inclusivity at all levels of the organization.
- Paid and unpaid leave mandates, especially through state and local laws. About a third of states and localities currently are covered by mandatory paid sick leave. Some of those same states, as well as others, have varying additional mandates of leave for a range of specific purposes, from medical-related leave to victims of domestic violence, to school activities, to military service or civic duties. There is no consistency across jurisdictions, but each new category of leave that starts in one jurisdiction tends to get picked up as a new law in other jurisdictions over subsequent years.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
Tracey: I have four boys, and have read a fair number of bedtime stories in my time. Dr. Seuss was always a favorite, and I personally loved the life and career advice so beautifully framed in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! My favorite line, that I turn to again and again, is “Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.” Juggling career and family, client needs and business opportunities, it’s all an endless balancing act. Knowing that I’m hardly in it alone — I take comfort in that and continue to forge ahead.
Gayle: Taylor Swift recently gave the keynote speaker address at the graduation of my law school alma mater, NYU, and she gave advice that I immediately pasted onto my computer screensaver. She said, “I’m a big advocate for not hiding your enthusiasm for things. It seems to me that there is a false stigma of eagerness in our culture of unbothered ambivalence. This outlook perpetuates the idea that it’s not cool to ‘want it.’ … Never be ashamed of trying.”
I love my job and am passionate about making workplaces better places. Some people roll their eyes at my passion and think it’s not worth it to push for change, especially when it’s hard and goes against the tide. But I love talking to people about the concept of ‘respect’ and what it means, as I think feeling respected and valued is critical to happiness and satisfaction in both work and in life. I love the lightbulb moment — I’ve seen it many times — when we give someone an example that resonates with them and all of a sudden they understand the impact their behavior might be having on someone else. So workplace dynamics may not be cool to everyone, but the topic is very cool to me, and I’m not afraid to show it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
Gayle: I am a huge fan of Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist at Wharton who examines the necessity of re-thinking and questioning our own opinions so that we can constantly grow and flex. I would love to speak to him about how to convince people in workplaces to let go of preconceived notions so that they can contribute best to their workplace — both from a substantive and cultural perspective. That is the goal of our workplace trainings, and I think he would have great insight to share.
Tracey: I admire Sallie Krawchek. I have done enough work within the financial services industry to appreciate what it took for her to reach the levels she did at Citigroup and Bank of America. I think it is fabulous that she then applied her knowledge and experience in an even more entrepreneurial fashion by founding Ellevest, with a mission of reaching and supporting women in their financial investment decisions.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
We are posting regularly on our @ImpactWorkplaceTraining LinkedIn page and our website www.impactworkplacetraining.com. Tracey also maintains a blog and circulates a quarterly newsletter through her law firm, both relating to employment law developments.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.