Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.
I keep reading about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that are cropping up in colleges. Seems to me, with all the things that go on where I work, companies should consider adopting them, too. What do you think? — Frank P., Chicago
For the unenlightened, Frank is talking about the trend on college campuses to offer written warnings when courses cover controversial, offensive and/or sensitive subjects (e.g., rape, domestic violence, harassment, bullying, race, religion, etc.). Think of safe spaces as the physical manifestation of such trigger warnings — rooms and other spots on campus where students can separate or isolate themselves from situations and people they find distasteful or disturbing. (This is the apolitical explanation; Google “trigger warnings and safe spaces,” and you’ll find an endless amount of opinions on what this means for freedom of speech and expression — from the left, right and center.)
At the office, however, you don’t need safe spaces or trigger warnings because there are federal, state and local laws preventing harassment or a hostile work environment. And there are company policies that keep the most patently offensive language and behavior from entering the workplace in the first place. Some companies even go so far as to prohibit politicking or religious displays as a way of ensuring other employees won’t be offended in the slightest.
It’s well within their rights: Unless you work for a government entity, you have no constitutional rights in the workplace — i.e., the Supreme Court has always said that private employers can pretty much do what they want as long as they don’t violate federal laws. Bye, bye Bill of Rights! That’s why your boss can search your locker, tell you what to wear and forbid certain posters and pictures from ever hanging from your cubicle.
But the most important difference between the office and a college campus is that the workplace is filled with adults who share a common purpose to be productive and get paid. You’re not there to debate whether Donald Trump is a misogynist or Hilary Duff’s Halloween costume is racist. In other words, at the office, you control your own trigger warnings and the safe spaces are the HR department or your manager’s office.
I live in a state where a measure to legalize weed is on the ballot this November. I’d like to understand how this affects work. For example, would it be okay for the company holiday party to serve weed side-by-side with alcohol? — Vivian P., Los Alamos, California
There are nine states with marijuana on the ballot next week — five for recreational use and four for medical use. If they pass, that’ll make 29 states where weed is legal for either recreational or medical use. That said, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, and the government has no plans to change this in the near future. Let me repeat: It’s still illegal to partake of weed in any form, for any reason, under federal law. So it’s unlikely that weed and alcohol will be served side-by-side at a company function anytime soon.
If that were ever to change, I’m positive it will come with the same kind of guidelines companies employ when they serve alcohol at work functions, all of which are intended to minimize their liability. For instance:
- No alcohol served to minors.
- Limiting the number of drinks served to specific individuals by using drink tickets.
- Monitoring alcohol consumption by using bartenders or servers.
- Providing car services or discounted hotel rooms so employees aren’t driving home under the influence.
Companies worry about liability because lawsuits are costly PR nightmares. So it’s hard to imagine a company event where edibles would be served alongside gin and tonics. At least at a company event outside of the pot industry. Inside the industry, several companies have been very public about weed use on the premises during working hours. In that case, there’s no need to wait for special events.
HR at my company keeps talking about needing “soft skills” for promotions into management. What are they, and how do I get them? — Randall B., Portland
I like to say that soft skills are the new catchphrase for things such as communications, sociability, adaptability and emotional intelligence. They’re the counterpoint to hard skills you traditionally study (e.g., science, math, languages) or knowledge that’s certified (e.g., legal, medical, engineering).
Companies are placing more emphasis on soft skills because they’re more difficult to develop and nurture. Hard skills are typically quantifiable: I can test your language proficiency, coding skills or math prowess. Soft skills are more “I know it when I see it” observations. For example, are you compassionate? Do you inspire others? Can you empathize with colleagues?
Soft skills have become more important over time because of strategic business interests such as…
- Globalization: Operating in a global business enterprise requires cultural awareness and sensitivity, greater listening skills, humility and an open mind.
- Collaboration: More and more business activities are done in teams. In these environments, businesses are looking for people who can persuade, negotiate, communicate and positively influence others.
- Leadership: Type-A personalities are no longer the preferred leaders. Instead of domineering and autocratic leadership traits, organizations are looking for individuals with demonstrated abilities to inspire, mentor, motivate and engage others.
But don’t take my word for it. Surveys indicate that everyone from CFOs to CIOs recognize that soft skills are now a prerequisite for business success. They’re also highly teachable. Your HR department probably offers courses that can help you learn the soft skills necessary to progress in your organization. Practice them enough, and they can rival all of the hard skills that used to be the things that got you promoted.
Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.