Empower Work with Jaime-Alexis Fowler
If you’ve ever had a job, chances are you faced issues and didn’t know who you could safely reach out to—especially if you’re a woman and/or a person of color working in an industry that is dominated by people who don’t look like you. Instead of struggling to get through it on your own, what if you could send a text and chat it out with a trained peer?
Good news! Empower Work exists for just that purpose. It’s an online platform where you can get fast, free, and confidential support by simply sending a text message. On this week’s episode, we chat with founder and executive director Jamie-Alexis Fowler.
I think so often when you’re grappling with the situation, it feels so isolating. It can feel like you’re the only person who has ever faced this, that you’re the only person who has felt this stuck. And, of course, it’s deeply, deeply personal. And that’s completely normal to feel that way—and also it’s important to recognize that this is something that millions of Americans are facing.—Jaime-Alexis Fowler, founder and executive director of Empower Work
If you need help with a work problem, considering asking Empower Work. Text 510–674–1414 anytime, or use the Empower Work web chat.
We talk about:
- Why Empower Work’s peer support matters so much when people feel isolated and alone.
- The most common issues people need help with (hint: it starts with an “m” and it ends with an “anager”).
- Why so many people struggle when they’re “the only” person in their workplace.
- The benefits of peer counseling, and how to train people to support others.
- Why Jaime-Alexis is committed to keeping Empower Work a nonprofit—rather than making it a service companies pay for.
- Empower Work
- How to start texting with a peer counselor
- Empower Work on Twitter
- Jaime-Alexis on Twitter
- How we’ve handled our own crap work moments—like being asked to commit to a new salary in a hallway, or dealing with a conference creep who’s tight with your boss
- Why we can’t talk about handling work issues without talking about toxic masculinity
- How Sara and Katel plan to take over the world with their new workshop
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
SWB Thanks to Harvest for supporting today’s show! Harvest makes time-tracking and project-planning software that’s perfect for freelancers, big agencies, and everyone in between. Know how much time you’re spending on different parts of your projects, get a better sense of you and your team’s schedule and availability, make invoicing easy, and more. Check it out at getharvest.com/strongfeelings for free, and when you sign up for a paid account, you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings.
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SWB Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
KL And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. Today we’re talking to Jaime-Alexis Fowler, who’s the creator of Empower Work—a text-based hotline that provides free, confidential support for people facing tough, non-legal work situations— and ohhhhh boy I wish that something like this had been around earlier in my career.
KL I really loved our conversation with Jamie-Alexis because I think it really complements the chat we had with Liz Fosslien, who cowrote _No Hard Feelings_—a book that we really love. Because a) it’s normal and healthy and good to have feelings and show emotions at work, and b) if you’re going through something at work that’s causing anxiety or panic, it’s absolutely okay to seek out help. There’s a dozen times I can think of when I felt like I needed help or advice on something and then just felt basically paralyzed because I didn’t really have anyone to go to.
SWB Yeah, that really struck me about this interview—I think all of us need this. Even just running this show—it’s interesting, we get emails and direct messages from people who say that they are facing some kind of challenge or other at work, and they don’t have anyone that they can talk to about it, and that even just hearing us on a podcast talking frankly about these issues has been really helpful for them and has sort of made them feel less alone, which is always really powerful for me, but also makes me a little bit sad that they don’t feel like there are other places they can go or that they don’t have somebody that they feel they can talk to directly.
KL Yeah, totally. I do love that the service that Jaime-Alexis created has almost zero barrier to entry to use.
SWB Yeah! I mean, it’s basically you need to be able to send a text message. And, otherwise, it’s free and it’s available anywhere. I keep thinking about all of the times I could have used a service like this. Like you said earlier, how many times at work have you felt just totally stuck and you didn’t have anybody to talk to?
KL So, I mentioned on an earlier show about how when I got promoted at one of my last jobs, that I was offered the salary and the promotion terms by my manager in the hallway, basically between a meeting and an all hands. So, not only was that totally unprofessional, it was so disorienting because I was basically being asked to agree to everything right then and there. So, of course, looking back, I wish I had been confident enough to say, “wait, this isn’t how I want to consider any of this, I need a little bit of time.” And I would totally have gone to something like Empower Work because I couldn’t talk to the same manager who was making this whole thing awkward, [laughs] and I couldn’t talk to coworkers because no one knew at the time I was being promoted yet. So, I would have asked questions like, “is it reasonable for me to ask for time? How much time should I ask for? Should I use this time to negotiate? What other questions should I ask my manager?” I just would have asked so many other questions.
SWB I think a lot about how lucky I feel to be part of small, professional networks where some of these questions come up. I can think of a couple of slack groups that I am in—you’re in some of them—where people often share screwed up stuff that’s happening to them at work or just doubts and questions they have. Like, “how do I have this difficult conversation with my boss or with a peer?” or “I think I am burned out, what do I do?” or “I’m coming back from maternity leave and I’m scared that it’ll feel like everybody passed me by and I won’t have the same place I used to have in my company.” And so, I feel like we often need feedback and we need to be able to bounce ideas around with other people, we need new perspectives, we need just someone there while we evaluate our options or help us see options we didn’t see. And I think that that has been a really unmet need for a lot of people that I know and people who are in these communities with me. We’re all kind of making up ways to meet that need as we go. And so, it’s exciting to see Jaime-Alexis build out a real service anyone can use to help fill that need at a broader scale.
KL Yes, especially because a lot of this stuff has really long-term impacts on your career. Something Jaime-Alexis talks about in the interview is how often sexual harassment leads to women leaving their jobs and generally just career stagnation. When I was dealing with that sexual harassment issue—we touched on that on the show earlier last year—I had to prepare to quit, basically. That was one of the only two options I had and it really sucked. Even though it got resolved and I stayed for a while, I felt its impact way long after and eventually I resigned, not solely because of that, but it was definitely a factor.
SWB Did you have anybody to talk to when it was happening?
KL No. And I felt so alone; it was so isolating to feel that way. It would have been so helpful to have someone to go to—a third party, someone who didn’t need to know the people involved, but could kind of help me sort out how to navigate it and what to do next. And inevitably, I turned to coworkers because they were there and they were my friends, but doing that wound up stressing our relationships and it just never really quite felt secure.
SWB Yeah. It really sucks when what you need is support and you have to worry about it turning into just quote unquote “office gossip.”
KL Yeah, totally. It’s so hard to avoid; there’s always some bit that feeds the rumor mill and just then contributes to a terrible work culture [laughs] and just kind of perpetuates that whole thing. Plus it’s just really hard on friendships with colleagues when something really intense or traumatic happens. And I’m thinking, going through everything like moving from an office to an open plan or weathering multiple reorgs and having your manager switch around on you. And, of course, things like sexual harassment. And when I was at my last job at National Geographic, I also worked with Jon—that’s where I met my husband—so, there would be these stretches of time when something shitty would happen at work and work would be stressful. And then I’d leave and Jon and I would go out with friends—the same people we worked with—and we’d just vent and stress about the same shit over and over again. And it just felt like it kept this really noxious air circulating in my lungs and it felt really toxic. It moved past being helpful and cathartic and it just kept anxiety kind of at a boiling level.
SWB Yeah. The last time I had a traditional job, there were so many things [laughs] looking back that were just incredibly toxic. And, like you, I had coworkers I would go out with to have happy hour drinks and we’d end up bitching about things. Or we’d go out to lunch and we’d have these conversations about how screwed up something was. But I didn’t really have a good process for handling my feelings in a very healthy way or knowing how I could resolve some of the problems. And so, for example, there was a while when I was running a team and a vendor that we worked with that a bunch of people on my team had to work with directly harassed and propositioned me at a conference! And it was so gross and it was so weird and I tried to like…play it off at the time like, “ha ha ha.”
KL Ugh, yeah.
SWB And then I just felt so sick to my stomach and I did not feel like I could talk to the owners of my company about it; that did not seem safe to me at all. So, instead, what I ended up doing [laughs]—and I think I’ve talked about this before—is that I warned my team! I warned the people who reported to me to watch out for this creep that they were supposed to work with. And [sighs] I really regret that I didn’t protect them better as a manager and I feel bad about that, but I also felt so stuck and so scared for myself and my own safety. I was 28 years old, I was in charge of a team of seven people, and I just had no support and no training to be a manager, and no one who was thinking about things like safety or who cared about things like safety—just so not on the radar. And I think about that and I think about how much I could have benefited from talking it through with somebody who was on the outside who could help me figure out what I could do that would be healthier for me and healthier for my team.
KL Yeah, totally. And like you pointed to, no management training is so common. I went through a super short course at National Geographic when I became a director, and it was…fine. [laughs] It wasn’t necessarily extremely helpful, but it was the first time, as a manager, that I felt like I had some kind of supported structure within the company. But now I know people who do quote unquote real management training. Like our friend Lara Hogan, who was a senior manager in tech and then trained as a coach. And it’s all about how to work with and support your team. This is all she does and it’s amazing. Whereas, my training was like reporting structures, performance reviews, escalation paths, and it was more about navigating the hierarchy of the company, less about building and nurturing the team. I mean, it wasn’t really developing my skills. So yes, the training I did gave me connection with some peers I was now at the same level with in a company, which was fine. But what I really wanted out of it was a better way to support my team and become a good leader.
SWB Yeah! Lara’s work is awesome. And between her and a few other friends, I have just been getting more interested in coaching. I don’t want to be an executive coach I don’t think… I don’t know, that sounds weird. [both laugh]
KL I mean! SWB But so much of the work I do—facilitating workshops or giving people mentorship on things like professional visibility or frankly honestly even this podcast—I think could be helped with more of a coaching background. So, it’s something I’ve been kind of curious about.
KL Yeah. And I know a few people who have worked with Lara now as their coach and just told me how much they’ve gotten out of it , especially as they’ve been sort of transitioning around some roles. It just sounds like it’s extremely helpful.
SWB Yeah, me too. My friend Donna recently became a coach too and she just seems so much happier and more fulfilled by that work than she was doing product strategy type work before. And I also have friends who have done the coach training, but then opted not to pursue one on one coaching as their primary profession or business. But they have told me about bringing those skills into their workplace and into their day to day, and that being really helpful and helping them to sort of shape a new kind of role in their company. But one of the things that I do notice is that all these people are women.
KL [sighs] Yeah.
SWB And Jaime-Alexis talked about how about 80% of the volunteers that they have at Empower Work are women. Which, I mean I guess for some issues, I would really rather talk to a woman. But it also reminded me of this article that came out last week in Harper’s Bazaar about toxic masculinity—“Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden.” Did you read it? KL [laughs] Mhmm. Yeah, I did.
SWB Yeah, so it talks about how few men know how to talk about their feelings, especially with each other. And the women they date end up basically being receptacles for their unprocessed emotional garbage. [both laugh] And so, it has such a huge implication for heterosexual relationships, which is what the article really focuses on. The way that men being unable to talk with one another about their feelings leads to a lot of pressure on women in the relationships. But it also made me think about just how few men are prepared to support others in general. They’re not volunteering for the hotline because they’re not even realizing that they should be [laughs] talking about their feelings in the first place.
KL Yeah. I know, I can’t stop thinking about the article actually, especially since Jaime-Alexis mentioned that the demographics of the counselors and texters roughly align. So, there are way more women seeking and providing support.
SWB Right. So, I feel like there are a couple of different things happening here. So one, why aren’t more men using the service? And I think part of it is that women are more routinely hitting barriers at work that men just don’t hit.
SWB So, barriers having to do with things like discrimination. But I think that’s just part of it. It’s also that men don’t use services like this because they are not open to turning to people with their challenges and with their feelings. Like if they talk about it at all, they only talk about it with their partner. And it’s not even like they sit down and have healthy, emotional discussions with their partner, [both laugh] it’s that they vomit it out at them.
KL Right, right.
SWB And then two, because it’s so normal for men to have so few skills when it comes to doing emotional labor—and so little belief that it’s worth it to even invest in those skills— of course it ends up being women who have to put in extra work to volunteer for something like this. I don’t know. I think for every guy out there who wants to be an “ally”, I want to see him a) learn to deal with his own emotional life, and then b) take what he learns and then invest that into becoming a good emotional support for other people. Until that happens, I’m sorry, you haven’t done enough work. [laughs]
KL Yeah. [laughs] So, one thing I really hope is that services like this start to normalize the idea of needing and seeking help.
SWB Yes! I mean, all of us need help. And deserve to get help! [short transition music plays]
Promo: Graywolf Press
KL So, Sara. The weather is getting nicer here in Philly and that just makes me want to read a really good book in my backyard.
SWB Yes! You know I love your backyard. [KL laughs]
KL But I think I need a few recommendations for new books. So, I am pretty pumped because thanks to our sponsor, Harvest, we’ve got editor Yana Makuwa here from Graywolf Press to share some of her favorites. You all might remember she joined us earlier this year and we’re so glad she’s back. Hey, Yana!
Yana Makuwa Hey, Katel! Hey, Sara!
SWB Hello! Well, first up for our new listeners, Yana, can you tell us a little bit about Graywolf Press?
YM Graywolf is non-profit, independent publisher, and we’re committed to be an energetic publication of diverse and underrepresented voices. We publish books in non-fiction, poetry, and fiction, and we champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers.
SWB Yes. Well, I have been a fan of Graywolf for a while. I really noticed you for the first time with Carmen Maria Machado’s work, and then I realized that there were just so many books that I was picking up that I flipped over and were Graywolf books! So, I want to know what else you have coming out. And I’m wondering, Yana, can you tell us about one of your recent picks?
YM Sure, yeah! So, recently we just put out the paperback edition of the newest poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith. She is the most recent poet laureate of the United States and she won a Pulitzer for her previous book, Life on Mars. This new collection is called Wait in the Water and it’s a really incisive, political, and heartfelt book, and we are very excited to have it out now in paperback.
SWB Yes, I love Tracy K Smith and I am so glad that she was the poet laureate. Yana, do you have a favorite poem from the book?
YM Yeah, I do! So, one of the amazing things that Tracy does in this book is she collects these historical letters and correspondence from different black people who fought for the union soldiers in the Civil War and she creates a kind of imaginative erasure (?) poetry out of them. So, one of the poems that does this is called, “I Will Tell You The Truth About This; I Will Tell You All About It.” And it’s a really long, musing poem that brings these different historical voices back to life and kind of imagines what they would sound like if they were alive today. And I think it’s one of the best poems that I’ve read in this vein.
KL Wow, okay. I love that this book is out now and we can pick it up today. And so can all of you listening! So, get your copy from Graywolf Press—just visit graywolfpress.org or buy it wherever you shop for books. Yana, thank you so much for joining us today and thanks to Harvest for supporting authors and readers everywhere.
YM Thank you so much for having me! [short transition music plays]
Interview: Jaime-Alexis Fowler
SWB Jaime-Alexis Fowler is the founder of Empower Work—an online platform where you can get fast, confidential support when you’re facing tough, non-legal work issues. We wish we’d had this about a million times in our careers—and we can’t wait to hear more. Jaime-Alexis, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Jaime-Alexis Fowler Thanks for having me; I’m so excited to be here.
SWB Well, I’m excited to hear more about Empower Work. So, first up, can you tell us a little bit about the organization? What is it? Who’s it for? How does it work?
JAF We are a tech nonprofit and we provide, as you said, immediate confidential support over SMS and web chat. And we started really in response to a need and a big gap that we saw in 2017. Around the time of the Susan Fowler Uber memo, which I think many of us are familiar with, as headlines were raging, someone in my personal network reached out—a distant contact of one of my friends—and she was grappling with a really challenging situation. And she had leveraged the heck out her LinkedIn network to try to find someone who could be a partner in thinking this through with her. And as we left the conversation, I thought what she needed was so much more immediate, so much more tied to the situation that had occurred weeks prior. And that launched a deep Google search around what existed. And the answer was not much! [laughs] So, that led to further and further questions, the result of which is what we have now, which is a national service that anyone can connect with a trained peer counselor in under two minutes.
SWB What are the kinds of challenges that you can go to this peer counselor for?
JAF It’s really anything that you’re experiencing at work that feels overwhelming. So, we put it in the bucket of work. And part of that was because in our initial research—we started with a simple survey where we interviewed over 180 individuals across industries, demographics, education, parts of the United States. And then we interviewed—I interviewed personally—over 200 folks from labor organizers to HR specialists to diversity inclusion belonging specialists to employment attorneys and, of course, people who had been facing really toxic or challenging situations. And what we saw was that there was this huge grey area where people weren’t sure—something was off at work, but it wasn’t legal, it didn’t really fall into reporting, it wasn’t mental health-related per se, and it felt really deeply personal. And what people recognized was it has to do with my workplace…and where do I turn for this work issue? So, we’ve bucketed it as “we cover any workplace issue.” And that can be a surprise performance improvement plan, that can be a series of microagressions or ongoing behaviors that you’re experiencing from colleagues or managers and you’re unsure what to do in response or relation to that information. It really varies for each individual. And sometimes people present more with the feeling than the issue, so we respond to both of those. If someone says, “I’m overwhelmed, I’m super stressed out, I just called in sick because I can’t face going into work,” we respond to that. We also respond to, “oh my gosh, my boss just put a meeting on my calendar in fifteen minutes and I’m worried I’m going to get fired.”
SWB Can you talk more about what the most common types of issues tend to be? Are there specific themes that come up over and over again?
JAF The overwhelming issue that we see people reach out about is a manager issue. We see across industries about 30% of folks reach out and initiate a conversation because of something tied to their manager. When you broaden that to include team or coworker, it increases to about 36%. And what we see is that that’s often because of power dynamics, because of treatment or behavior. It can be tied to factors such as gender or race, sexual orientation. There are a number of peripherally related things, but the number one reason people reach out is often because they’re not sure what to do in relation to a quote unquote “manager issue.” Like I’m having a manager issue and I’m not sure what to do or I’m feeling really stuck.
SWB How do you—and the peer counselors that you work with—figure out how to provide support? What does their process look like for figuring out how to help people through some of those challenges?
JAF Our approach is really based in best practices from coaching combined with crisis counseling. And all of that sits on a layer of understanding workplace norms, workplace rights. So, we provide a lot of training around HR and legal. Although we don’t provide legal advice, we want to provide information. So, if someone says, “this feels off to me,” we want to be able to say, “I think your gut is telling you something and here is a resource to learn more about that” or “yes, it can feel really unfair, but what you’re experiencing, unfortunately, in most cases that doesn’t fall outside the bounds of something unlawful.” And what we see is the person is the expert in their experience. We’re having a conversation over SMS with limited information of what’s [laughs] being provided. Our goal in how we train our peer counselors is really to create the space to grapple with the emotions and the complexity of the situation and then to address it in some way. So, we talk a lot about creating space, not solving. We’re not going to necessarily answer everyone’s urgent issue, but we want to create a space for someone to think through what they’re facing, to explore what their values are in relation to that, to consider what are possible pathways that might be helpful—and that’s all centered in what the person knows about themselves, what they know about their workplace, what they know about what’s important to them. To give an example, someone might reach about a surprise performance improvement plan. There are certainly things that you can concretely do to address a performance improvement plan and we will sometimes talk through those. But most importantly, what does the person want to do in light of that? There are so many directions and paths someone could choose. Some people might decide, “I really want to be successful in addressing this performance feedback, how do I do that and here’s my game plan.” Some people might say, “this felt awful and it signals to me this is not where I want to work going forward. Now I need to figure out what my exit strategy is.” So, for each one of those, it’s different. And the counselors are there to process in partnership with the person, so that ultimately at the end of the conversation, each individual leaves with a sense of “I felt heard, I felt supported, I’ve considered things I may not have considered before, and I’ve done so with someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game.” [laughs] We’re a totally third-party resource. We’re not the partner who might have really strong perspectives about the situation because of financial pressures. We’re not your manager where [laughs] you’re probably not going to go and say to your manager, “hey, the toxic behavior I’m experiencing from you is making me want to leave my job,” right? [all laugh] Most people are not going to have that conversation with their manager! So, we offer a space that’s nonjudgmental, that’s open, that’s inclusive to make sure that everybody has that space to process in a way that works for them.
SWB So, what you’re talking about sounds really important. Having this person that you can entrust with a work dilemma when you can’t necessarily turn to anybody else or when you’re not getting an external perspective from anyone else. Why is there such a gap for folks at work? Why is this kind of support so hard to find?
JAF I think, for many people, there’s an initial jump to “oh my gosh, Empower Work should sell to companies; you should go be enterprise.” And we’re structured as a nonprofit because of a particular gap that exists. And that is that yes, there are enterprise resources that exist. Some of those may be—for instance, people talk about EAPs: Employee Assistance Programs. Or, for instance, there are new tools for reporting and coaching that now exist in workplaces. But you have to be both working at a workplace that’s able to pay for that and willing to pay for that. And what we see is that, overwhelmingly, Americans work in workplaces [laughs] that are under 100 people. And so in those cases, there may not even be an HR person, much less an interest on the company’s side to pay for a resource. And on the consumer side, most of the existing resources are priced inaccessibly for most working Americans. So, you have this big gap. When you see that gap in the middle, the additional piece around it is that most people don’t trust or use—even if they work in a place that provides one—that resource. Research suggests that about 7% of all employees who have access to an EAP have actually used it. And in our research, we found that about 80% of people felt they didn’t have access to or didn’t trust the resources that were available. So, the net result of that is that when you have folks who are facing these challenges, we saw in our research—particularly for those who are underrepresented. So let’s say, women or first in their generation to join an industry or go to college, those with disabilities with differing experiences in the workplace were not only more likely to leave their job, they were also more likely to leave their job with no next job lined up, take a pay cut, or leave an industry altogether. And there’s this cumulative ripple effect across someone’s working career. And there’s a lot of research that shows the impact of these adverse experiences and the lack of resources that are available. Heather McLaughlin is a sociologist out of Oklahoma State and she studied the economic impacts of sexual harassment on working women. And a majority of women have experienced some aspect of harassment and left their company within two years. And they see that there’s career stagnation, earnings plateau, and so forth. So, it really adds up over time.
KL Yeah. I want to dig in a little bit to the idea that this service is really important for people, especially folks with less social capital at work. So, can you talk a little bit more about what that means, and why that is, and what are some of the unique challenges that they are facing?
JAF We hear the term “the only” a lot. And we saw that in our initial research and then that’s been confirmed over the past year as we’ve supported people across 45 states. So, someone may not always share additional information, but we’ll see in the context of the conversation, “I’m the only person on my team with this experience.” Or “I’m the only person in my workplace who is part of x, y, or z community or group.” And that impacts people in a lot of ways. We see that there’s a higher level of isolation, of lack of support, and a sense that sometimes they’re not feeling as heard. There’s also an incredible emotional burden. We see that folks have often been trying to affect change and that weight becomes, in some ways, overwhelming. It’s a lot to try to take on. So, we’ll often talk through strategies around how to navigate that, thinking about what that person needs, how they can address it, and what that looks like going forward.
SWB That makes so much sense. It just makes me think, I have a friend who when she most recently on the job hunt—she wanted to change positions—she said one of her primary criteria as a black woman was that she wasn’t going to go in and be the only or the first again. She was like, “I can’t do it again. I’ve done it so much.” And it just really spoke to the level of burden that can be on people that I think is often taken for granted by people who are in a group that has dominance and power.
JAF Absolutely. And it becomes difficult to disaggregate other factors. For instance, if you’re getting a surprise performance improvement plan—to go back to that example—is it because you’re not performing in the way in which your peers are performing? Is it because you’re the only woman of color on the team and there’s bias and other factors involved? It’s difficult. And I think what we see is people who reach out and say, “I want to be amazing. I want to be amazing at my job, I want to do this really well, I want to be successful in my career.” They’re proactive, thoughtful, really creative. And also, trying to [laughs] navigate all of these complex factors. So, having a space to be able to say, “yeah, that’s really hard” and “unfortunately, it’s normal with a lot of situations,” and “let’s talk through what works best for you.”
KL I think a lot about folks in these positions and what we’ve seen often is that they feel less confident to raise their hand and ask for help in a lot of situations. Do you find that that’s true? And do you have an insight into why it is harder for them and why it might be more risky for them to ask for help?
JAF It certainly can be more risky in the workplace. I think what we see with folks reaching out is that reaching out and initiating a conversation with us is, in fact, a really powerful proactive action. And that in and of itself is an incredible hand raising and saying, “hey, I need some support.” And we see that a number of folks who reach out to us also have communities that they tap into as well and that’s incredibly important. I think of that as sort of a “yes and.” You need that community. And there are times when your private Slack group or your WhatsApp group [laughs] isn’t available for that urgent situation. Or maybe that community that you have, which is so amazing for venting, also hasn’t navigated x, y, or z situation that has just popped up. So, having that additional “and” part—you can have this community and you have this additional resource to turn to in an urgent moment we see as being really powerful. And I think it’s incredibly normal to [laughs] not do that hand-raising in your workplace. To expect that someone who is experiencing negative or adverse work environment would then turn to the work environment as a place of support is in some ways like asking someone who is being harassed to go to that harasser. And that’s not what we would expect. Having a third-party resource, whether that’s your community, your partner, your family, Empower Work—whatever that looks like—is really important.
SWB All of this sounds so powerful and so helpful, but I think one of the big things I would wonder about if I were looking to get some help with a workplace scenario is who these people are on the other side of the phone. So, the peer counselors who are providing chat support—who are they? What kind of training do they get? And how do they get into this?
JAF Well… they’re incredible. [laughs] They’re people who have raised their hand. [laughs] They’re all working professionals who have raised their hand and said, “I believe in having workplaces that work for people and I want to be part of the solution.” They come from a range of industries. We have folks from tech, professional services, education, health and human services, the financial sector, law, retail, service industry, we have a chef. People come from all different workplaces and industries overwhelmingly motivated to join because they have had a situation that didn’t work for them and they recognize the importance of having support. For them, it’s much of a pay it forward. “I want to make sure everybody has access to a research.” And what we’ve found is that volunteers overwhelmingly express that they appreciate the opportunity to pay it forward and to give back and to create this for folks. And they learn new skills to improve their professional strengths. We see that in our training, which is about 20 hours, there was a volunteer [laughs] that said recently, “I learned more in the last two and a half hours in this training session than I’ve learned in the last couple of years at work.” There’s an incredible—I think—opportunity to build new skills that make you a better manager, that make you a better colleague, that improve the opportunity to bring back change into your workplace, and we see that really powerfully with our volunteers. And we actually had a training cohort last year where everybody in the training cohort—we didn’t realize this at the time, but through one of the aspects of our training, we do an exploration of identity and the lenses that we bring based on our identities to conversations. And in the course of that conversation, we realized that everybody in that training cohort was first generation to either come to the US or to join their industry. So, we see that as well as a big factor in those who take part. So, it’s been pretty incredible. And I would say, it’s a muscle that’s really important to build—learning how to have these tough conversations is really important professionally and personally. And creating that space. There’s such a natural human inclination to want to jump in and solve and fix. And I think learning how to have conversations where you are supporting the person you’re in conversation with to the best possible outcome for them really means taking a step back and not trying to fix all the answers of what the other person is experiencing.
SWB Mhmm, absolutely. So, you mentioned a minute ago that the training people go through—did you say 20 hours?
JAF It’s 20 hours of classroom-esque style learning. It’s all done remotely, so we have volunteers all over the United States. In fact, we have several internationally as well, who work for US-based companies and want to give back. You go through this sort of classroom-based style learning and then you go into interactive practices. So, you actually pair with other volunteers and practice the skills that you’ve learned to build that muscle before you go active online.
SWB How many people do you have involved as volunteers at this point? How large is that group?
JAF It is currently approaching about 70. We ask for folks to give a two-hour commitment for about six months. So, we’ve currently trained over 100 volunteers and some of them have completed their volunteers at this point and some are still on our flex call list [laughs] where if we have an increase in volume, they’re there, but they’re no longer doing their two hours a week.
SWB I’m thinking about this need to support diverse workers and I’m curious if you make sure that folks who are responding to texts are also as diverse as the people who are needing help. How do you make sure that the people who are in the volunteer bank are prepared for all of these different people’s identities and realities?
JAF We’re very intentional and proud of the fact that our texter demographics and our volunteer demographics roughly align. We only ask through a survey at the end of a conservation—so this is only based on those who self identify—about 75% of texters identify as female, about 20% is male, about 2% is non binary. About 16% identify as LGBTQIA and 51% identify as a person of color. And we see that our volunteer demographics, as I mentioned, roughly match. Although, we need more non binary and men. So, we have about 81% of our volunteers identify as female, and about 17% as male, and about 2% as non binary. About 12% LGBTQIA and 43% as a person of color. So, that’s something we try to be very intentional in our outreach, in our partnerships, in our recruitment because we find that we want to create an inclusive community on both sides and that those conversations are really amazing. We also see that part of the training is really important. So, as I mentioned, thinking about what are the lenses that we each bring into these conversations? And so that could be you’ve had a toxic manager situation in the past and that’s informing your perspective on a conversation. We always encourage during the training and when volunteers are on the line, they’re able to tap in and out of a conversation at any time. So, if there’s a volunteer who has had a particular experience and they’d rather not support someone through a similar experience, they’re able to raise their hand and say, “hey, you know what? This conversation I’m realizing I can’t provide the best support based on this.” And conversely, some people are like, “I love the fact that I have a shared experience and that makes me a stronger volunteer.” So, we see that there’s benefit and there can also be ways in which they can hold us back. So, we’re very intentional and conscious about creating that space for volunteers to opt in or out.
KL So, you talked about Empower Work being a nonprofit. And I think sometimes we think about setting up a company and the idea of starting a nonprofit can sound really daunting. What was it like and how did that come to be the decision?
JAF So, we looked at a couple of different business structures. We looked at being for-profit, we looked at being a B Corp, we looked at being a nonprofit. And at the end of the day, we really followed sort of where was the need—that’s been a really big part of our structure from the beginning. Really listening to what do people need when they’re facing these critical, potentially career or pathway altering moments and what would be the right approach to take? So, we structured as a non-profit. And I chatted with a range of our advisors and before they were even our board members, sat down and played out these different scenarios. [laughs] And the overwhelming conclusion that we came to was that structuring as a nonprofit allows us to fulfill the mission in line with the need that we see. And, overwhelmingly, we see that folks are facing situations in which their livelihood may be on the line. Asking someone to pay upfront [laughs] when they’re walking into a meeting where they’re worried about losing their job doesn’t signal trust and it doesn’t signal availability. So, the opportunity for us to provide this service at no cost—that you can immediately connect in to an available resource minimizes that financial concern immediately and provides that support. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have opportunities for revenue, those certainly exist. For instance, we partner with companies to provide volunteering opportunities. Many of those companies will match the hours of their employees financially. Or they’ll pay for training. So, we take slivers of our training that we provide for volunteers and we offer those to partners or to companies as well. So, those become earned revenue streams that keep us sustainable over time. But a nonprofit allows us to ensure that we’re available and accessible to anybody who needs it with no barrier to entry. You don’t have to work for a particular company that has purchased us, you don’t have to have a certain amount of money to pay for a consumer resource, we’re just there and available.
KL What kind of responses have you received from companies? Are they interested in what you’re doing with this or are they sort of nervous about it? What has been the response there?
JAF It’s been actually really incredible. We’ve had a number of companies who have responded with great enthusiasm. A number of tech companies, for instance, have committed to give back 1%. And that includes products, people, and financing. So, we find that for those companies who have made that commitment, the opportunity for their team to volunteer and give back is really exciting and enticing. It’s sort of like, “oh, we have this amazing remote workforce all over the US who want to give back and we’re committed to that.” Empower Work is a great opportunity. So, we’ve had a number of companies who are really excited or individual champions. We had a volunteer who found us I think through a Google search and happened to work at Salesforce. And she loved her experience so much that she shared internally on all of the Salesforce channels. And as a result, we had this wonderful inbound of new volunteers from Salesforce. So, it’s been really exciting and wonderful to see that there’s a lot of alignment and interest in that. And then we see a lot of volunteers just find us because they’re proactively looking for ways to give back and this aligns with a lot of their interests. They want to grow professionally and they want to give back, so being part of our community meets both of those.
SWB So, you launched in 2018, and now you said you’ve scaled up in terms of numbers of volunteers who have been trained. How many people are you serving now? How many requests for help are you getting and what’s it been like to try to scale up this service?
JAF We think of Empower Work in three phases. 2017 was our research—let’s explore this question of how do we better support people in challenging work moments. 2018 was really our let’s deeply understand folks who are reaching out and the volunteer experience. And we wanted to do that in small, iterative ways—very much taking a human-centered approach. We’re a tech solution, but we’re human centered. So, we wanted to do that very intentionally. For example, last year in 2018, we would do one outreach every two weeks because we wanted to see was that outreach effective? How did it impact? How did people respond? Because we knew, based on our initial research, that trust was really important—where we showed up for people was really important. As we’ve learned from that over the past year, we’ve been expanding and broadening that. We ran actually 500 ads in buses across San Francisco that were generously donated by the SMFTA, which is the San Francisco transit. And we weren’t sure if wider visibility around this would really signal trust and what we found was it was an incredible opportunity to meet people where they are. We had people texting us saying, “I just saw you on the bus and this was a perfect time because I can’t face going into work!” Or “I actually just called in sick to work because what I’m experiencing is so challenging.” So, it was the first time that we realized we can do this wider outreach, we can signal trust, we can reach the folks that we’re most interested in reaching and being available to. From there, we’ve seen tremendous growth as we’ve increased that wider availability. Over the past year, we’ve supported people across 45 states and we’re quickly moving past 60,000 messages exchanged. And that includes supporting over, at this point, over 800 individuals. But it’s growing by the day, so every time I say the numbers, [laughs] it’s like a different number two days later! So, it’s been really exciting. And the feedback that we’ve seen has been incredible. We have heard feedback in the midst of a conversation where a texter will pause and say, “I’m almost in the point of tears. This is transformational for me.” And we ask for people for feedback after conversations, and about 90% of folks say they not only feel better after a conversation, which is really important, they also take an action that results in an outcome that they want. They ask for a raise and get it. They negotiate a severance agreement. They escalate an issue that they’re experiencing. Or sometimes it’s just like, “I started going for a walk before my meetings with my manager [laughs] and I feel more prepared to go into those conversations.” So, there are a lot of different outcomes and they’re personal depending on what the person wants.
SWB So, what does the future for Empower Work look like? How are you hoping to grow in the next year or couple of years?
JAF We know that the scope of the challenge is massive. As I mentioned, 80% of working Americans don’t have access to a resource. So, we are building everything for scale. We wanted to understand “how can we best impact and affect the outcomes in a more positive way?” Since we’ve learned over the past year, we’re now starting to build out our backend in ways that will support us being able to support not just tens of thousands, but [laughs] hundreds of thousands, and then in the next three to five years, potentially a million workers. So, to do that, we have to scale on both sides. We’re a two-sided marketplace, so have to scale our volunteer outreach and training and we have to scale our support and availabilities. So, we’re really excited to have both of those and we’ve had incredible partnerships from Affinity community groups that are part of this, we’ve had incredible partnerships with groups that are helping us increase visibility. So, for instance, we’re really excited, we have a donation of ads in elevators across 900 office buildings that will be rolling out in June. So, talk about meeting people where they are, when you’re in an elevator having just thought about a meeting that you had or you’re taking up to your office and you’re thinking about what challenge you might experience when those elevator doors open, we’re excited to see what that looks like to be in 900 office buildings nationally reaching about 25 million impressions. So, maybe we can circle back after June and I can share the results of that, [laughs] but we’re really excited!
SWB Yeah, that sounds super exciting! Is there anything that’s been particularly challenging as you’ve been getting this service off the ground?
JAF I think the biggest challenge for me personally as the founder has been really wrangling the excitement of [laughs] thousands of people who are excited. We have this great team, we have this incredible group of board members and advisors, we obviously have our amazing volunteers, but almost daily we have folks who are like “hey, I want to help, how can I get involved?” And we’ve been trying to build out the service, and so sometimes we’re not able to capture all of the excitement and hand raising that happens. [laughs] It’s a wonderful problem to have, but it’s an area I think where as our team grows, we’ll get better and better at going forward.
KL So many people feel alone with their problems—I often do. You kind of get into your own head. Based on all of your experience talking with folks, what’s the number one thing you wish more people knew about the challenges they all face at work?
JAF People aren’t alone. I think so often when you’re grappling with the situation, it feels so isolating. It can feel like you’re the only person who has ever faced this, that you’re the only person who has felt this stuck. And, of course, it’s deeply, deeply personal. And that’s completely normal to feel that way—and also it’s important to recognize that this is something that millions of Americans are facing. And that doesn’t mean that what they’re experiencing is okay, and it certainly doesn’t take away the impact, but I think it helps reinforce that we’re in this together and no one has to be alone.
KL Is there anything you think that we could all do to be a little bit more supportive of each other at work and the people we work with?
JAF We talk about this a lot! Because in our research, about 40% of people go to a colleague first. The first thing you do is go to a person that you trust in your workplace to kind of talk through something. And it’s usually someone you have a relationship with and you trust—that sort of thing. And we found that people appreciated that, but we’ve found that there’s research that shows that that can actually create a negative ripple effect. For instance, if I experience something really challenging and I go to my coworker and I say, “oh my gosh, I just experienced this really challenging thing,” then that coworker as a means of supporting that person takes on the challenge of that as well. And that can be really helpful for connection; however, it, as I mentioned, can create this negative ripple effect. So, one of the things that we found was creating that space again to sort of listen and hear the other person, to acknowledge what they’re facing, and then to ask questions that are very opening. So, a difference between an opening and a closed question would be… a closed question would be like, “have you talked to your manager about it?” You can sort of hear how the default is that you’re making an assumption that they should talk to their manager and you’re kind of implying that they already should have done that, which can feel really judgmental [laughs] and can really shut a conversation down. But the intention of the other person is, “I really want to help you solve this, so I’m going to throw out a lot of questions to help you think through it.” A different example of that would be saying, “what have you thought about so far?” And the difference between that “have you done this thing?” versus “what have you considered?” changes the pathway of that conversation. You’re opening up the conversation versus closing it down. So, I think for those of us who have a colleague come to us and we really want to make sure that we’re supporting that colleague, listening to that person, reflecting back what you’re hearing from them, and asking open-ended questions can be some of the more powerful ways of providing support. It sometimes feels counterintuitive because you want to help them so badly [laughs] and you want to solve it, but, in fact, some of the best support can come from listening, reflecting, and being open.
SWB Gosh, that’s so helpful and that’s a reminder that I always need because I do always want to help people and sometimes I don’t have the answers! [laughs] Jaime-Alexis, we are running out of time, so before we go, I want to make sure that we let all of our listeners know how they can learn about Empower Work and if they have a question, how they can get help from Empower Work.
JAF Absolutely. Well, for those who are interested in learning more, you can find all you need to know from our website, which is empowerwork.org. For opportunities if you want to partner with us and bring us to your community, there’s information there. If you’re interested in volunteering, there’s information about that. And if you’re in a situation and you feel like you need support, you can connect on the website via the web chat or by texting 510–674–1414.
SWB Awesome. Thank you so much for telling us about Empower Work today; I’m really excited that it exists and to see it grow!
JAF Thank you! I’m super excited to join you too and love this podcast so much. [short transition music plays]
Promo: The Electorate
Jenn Taylor-Skinner [music playing in the background] I’m Jenn Taylor-Skinner, the host and producer of The Electorette podcast. The Electorette explores politics, social justice, civil rights, and feminism all through the lens of women. When I decided to start The Electorette, I knew that I wanted to elevate the voices of women and bring listeners deep, smart, and thoughtful conversations from groups that had been previously marginalized. The women that I interview on The Electorette are some of the most brilliant, passionate women on the planet. They are activists, politicians, academics, and authors. They’ve been on the ground helping to fight border suppression, and they’ve helped get women elected. When you listen to The Electorette, my goal is that you will always leave knowing something that you didn’t know before. Or, at the very least, think about something differently. That is my promise to my listeners. So, please subscribe to The Electorette wherever you listen to your podcasts. Or find the latest episodes at electorette.com. [spells url] And I hope to see you there! [music fades out]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL I love this part of the show. Sara, what is our fuck yeah this week?
SWB Our fuck yeah this week is definitely a shared fuck yeah because you and me taught our first, full-day workshop together!
KL Oh my god, yes!
SWB Last week, we were at the Lead Dev conference in New York and we taught this workshop with a group of mostly engineering managers and things like that. But it wasn’t about engineering, since [laugh] we don’t do that! [both laugh] It was all about how do you write, and speak, and talk about your work, and have a public profile. And Conde Nast hosted it, so we were up in their beautiful spaces in lower Manhattan with this beautiful view of the water. But we spent all day just kind of immersed in talking to people about the things they were interested in sharing with the world, then helping them get to a place where they could share it, and I fucking loved it!
KL Oh my gosh, it was so fun. And I was nervous about doing an all day workshop because it was our first one together, but it was also the very first one I’ve ever done all day like that. And it was so fun! I mean it’s a ton of work, as you know. We had to prepare for a long time for it, but at the end of the day, I left feeling like, “I really want to do that again.” And that feeling to me is huge.
SWB Yeah… you know I love doing a workshop! [both laugh] I think I did like three workshops [laughs] last week—
KL Oh my gosh, you did!!
SWB —so I’m a little burned out on them, but—
KL Oh my gosh. But you’re great at them! Seriously, if any of you all have a chance to do a workshop with Sara, it’s really fun. [laughs]
SWB Only two of them were full days. [both laugh] It was a long week though. But! The reason that I wanted to bring it up was not just like, “awesome, we did this workshop,” but actually just to say it was really validating for me. Because we spent so much time researching and talking with people about the barriers and challenges they have sharing their work, writing books, getting up on a stage—whatever it is. And we got so much amazing feedback from people about how helpful it was and how our process really shifted their thinking, which was great! I’m so excited to be able to do that. And going back to what we were talking about earlier—helping people with challenges at work—I feel like that’s actually a lot of what we have been doing. People want to grow their careers, but they have to figure out how. Or they’re scared to speak or write because they’re worried they don’t know enough, that other people won’t see them as being experts, they don’t have the “right background”, that they’re going to be criticized for it. And I’m really excited to be able to not only bring out our expertise in publishing and speaking and stuff like that, but to also bring out our expertise in getting people unstuck from that emotional place. And to validate the feelings that they have—because those fears are real fears—and then help them find confidence and excitement anyway.
KL I love that too. It makes me think of the first thing we did that day, which was a little icebreaker that we called “hyped and freaked.” And we basically talked about what everyone was hyped about for the day and what everybody was freaked about. And it was such a great way to set the tone and it also made me feel so much better and get over my own nervousness, so it was really, really fun.
SWB I love that hyped and freaked activity so much because I feel like it just really highlighted how similar so many of our fears are. And also helped people remember that there are things to be excited about too! [KL laughs]
SWB Like on the hyped side, we talked with people about how much they wanted to help others, and teach others, and also just get clarity for themselves. Being able to speak about your work means that you have synthesized something and you can talk about it with ease or with specificity, which is hard at first. And all of that was awesome. But the freaked side was pretty great because we just heard so many of the same things. People were really worried about running out of things to say like, “uhh, what if I only know two things [both laugh] and then I talk about those two things and then I’m out?” Or being judged or personally attacked for the things they are contributing to their professional communities. Dealing with naysayers. And then also just more of the personal stuff like, “I don’t know where to start. What do I even talk about and is anything that I’ve done really worth talking about?”
SWB Those sentiments were so common. And there’s something disarming about just knowing that, “oh yeah, I’m afraid of those things, and also so are they, and so are they, and so are they. And so are these people in the front of the room—
KL And so are we!
SWB —who do this stuff for a living, and that’s great! We can still move forward anyway and find a way to do this that feels good for us, you know?
KL Yeah! I really love that so much. So, fuck yeah to that.
SWB Yeah, fuck yeah! And fuck yeah to everyone who came to the workshop because I think there are going to be some people who actually write books based off of what they did in the workshop.
KL know, me too, I hope so! [laughs]
SWB I can’t wait! [laughs] Fuck yeah.
KL Fuck yeah. Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, an awesome Philly-based band that you should check out. They are at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Jaime-Alexis Fowler for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered right to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week!
SWB Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and then plays out]