6 Ways to Be an Understanding and Supportive Leader as You Manage a Contact Center Team During a National Cultural Movement

Author’s note: We realize racism both in and out of the workplace is an extremely difficult topic and a complex subject to approach. But, its difficulty does not give us permission to disengage. At Sharpen, we believe in equality for all people. We’re working to bring those values into an already underserved part of our community.

Sometimes, it feels like each day in 2020 is more emotionally taxing than the last. And, I say this knowing that my vantage point is unique to me. The emotional toll of the past few months is impacting the black community and other oppressed individuals disproportionately. I’ll never feel or understand the full spectrum of the unequal pain POC feel. But I do know that leading with empathy matters more today than ever before. And, as a leader with visibility in your organization, your contact center employees need your support (whether they’re vocal about it or not).

More than ever, your agents need you to speak up and show solidarity. But we know there are fears and hesitations that surround speaking out. What if I say the wrong thing? (Hi, that was me a million times over while drafting this article). What if I offend someone? Or, even, what if my message shows naivety – that I don’t know or understand enough about the topic.

That’s okay. Your team isn’t looking for a perfect response or a seven-step plan to change your hiring, training and promotion practices — today. They aren’t looking for you to convince your C-Suite to funnel a ton of cash into causes that help eradicate systemic racism and oppression (though that would be great, wouldn’t it?).

They’re looking for a leader who isn’t afraid to shy away from the hard conversations. And who acknowledges that above all else, they’re leading a team of humans. Humans who need some extra compassion and support right now.

Here are six ways to be that leader for your team.

1. Listen and be a resource.

In a tech industry survey by Indeed, nearly one-fourth of people surveyed have personally felt discriminated against at their companies. And, more research found that 40% of employees have left a company because they endured some form of harassment, bullying or stereotyping.

Whether you’ve witnessed it or not, bias, discrimination and oppression exist in the workplace. And some people have been coping with these harmful practices for centuries. Provide your agents a safe space to talk through issues they’re having and how they’ve struggled in the past. Sit and listen. Make it clear to your team that your door is open and you’re an ally.

2. Talk about it.

We tend to swerve straight toward the next exit when we see tough conversations on the horizon. But as a leader, avoidance doesn’t cut it. Start conversations in team meetings to share your stance and explain that racism won’t be tolerated. Ever.

Then, get into deeper conversations in your 1:1s and coach your supervisors to address the hard topics with their team members. Do all of your agents feel comfortable and safe in their work environment? Have they ever been subject to bullying or discrimination? Asking questions, then listening intently shows your team you care. And, it encourages them to call out instances of bias to a leader they can trust. That way you can work with the rest of your leadership team to eradicate any toxic, discriminatory behavior.

If you have agents who are particularly vocal, encourage them to share their experiences with the team so everyone can grow their awareness and understanding.

3. Use inclusive language.

Did you know there’s a host of words and terms that seem harmless, but really have derogatory roots?

While using words and phrases like ”peanut gallery” or “uppity“ may feel innocuous, they can be unintentionally damaging. Study up on key phrases and words to cut from your vocabulary (and what you can say instead). Then, train your agents to do the same in their conversations with customers and coworkers. Send resources to your agents to educate them on inclusive language. Maybe even create a microlearning lesson to send to your agents’ queues, so they can be hyper-aware of how their words might have negative contexts.

Here’s an inclusive language guide from our friends leading the way in empathy over at Emplify. Share with your team and encourage them to replace any negative terms in future conversations with peers and customers.

4. Encourage Employee Resource Groups and committees.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are organized groups of employees that work to empower communities and support workers in your organization. Oftentimes, ERGs support diversity and inclusion initiatives at the office. They’re safe spaces for employees to share, plan, act and support each other to improve your organization and connected community.

If your company already has ERGs, encourage your agents to attend meet-ups and group sessions. Work with them to build time into their schedules, so they can connect with other employees and support one another.

If your company doesn’t have pre-defined ERGs, talk with your HR team about them. See if anyone is interested in heading one up, or if they’d be willing to chair a similar committee. Encouraging this kind of collaboration and empathy when leading a team builds deeper community and lends support to those who need it. And, it unites everyone around a common, important cause.

5. Create an action plan.

How can you and your fellow leaders help employees support causes that make a difference in your community and work to eliminate systemic oppression at its roots?

Call on your ERGs or committees to come up with causes they care about. Then, talk to your peers about how to support them. Maybe your team wants to donate to a cause that supports black-owned businesses. Or, maybe your agents want to volunteer to be a mentor to kids in underserved communities. Learn what causes your team wants to invest in, then take a proposal back to your peer leaders (and your boss). Make it happen. No initiative is too small.

6. Leading with empathy and your heart.

Don’t pretend like we’re operating in a business-as-usual frame of mind. From the pandemic to long-standing systemic inequalities, people on your team are struggling.

“The number of people experiencing psychological trauma typically exceeds those with physical injury by as much as 40 to 1 during global disasters. And yet employees may be reluctant to ask for time off or other accommodations during a crisis, as work becomes busier or more unpredictable, and they try to avoid being seen as less than essential workers.”

Laura Morgan Roberts , Courtney L. McCluney , Erin L. Thomas and Michelle Kim for HBR

Make sure your agents have time to care for themselves. And, support your team members if they find themselves in an abusive conversation with a customer. Build your agents’ confidence to hang up the phone if they’re dealing with hate. Implement policies so they don’t feel their job is at risk if they do need to escape an intolerable customer. Assure your agents you’re on their team – that if a customer is blatantly racist and speaking with hate – no, the customer isn’t “always right.”

Don’t wait until absenteeism spikes to check in with your agents and see how they’re feeling. Ask specific questions to get a genuine grip on their well-being. While some agents might pipe up and say “I’m fine,” when you ask how they are, your non-specific question may make them shy away from giving real answers. Instead, give them courage and step beyond surface-level conversations. Leading with empathy means leaning into the tough topics, even when it’s uncomfortable, so you can make your team feel safe sharing how they really feel. Then, support them how they need it.

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