Jan 13, 2021

Axios @Work

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1 big thing: The age of wartime CEOs

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In the last year, Americans have worked through a deadly pandemic, social isolation, racial injustice protests, a presidential election and, now, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Why it matters: Laboring through this string of crises is exacerbating employee burnout and pushing CEOs to turn into wartime leaders.

I asked HR experts and CEOs about the best ways to lead through crisis. Here's what they said:

1. The most important move for CEOs is to acknowledge chaos — such as the events in D.C. — instead of ignoring it.

  • "Being silent is the biggest mistake," says Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify, an HR consulting firm. "All your employees are thinking about it. And the idea of continuing to have meetings and expecting employees to be productive while this profound moment is taking place is shortsighted."

Burnout is already high as many people have now spent nearly a year in isolation.

  • Without a break room to hang out in or a watercooler to gather around, companywide communications during national events are even more essential. Hearing leaders or managers empathize with feelings of loneliness or stress can improve employees' mental health, experts say.
  • Those who say nothing appear tone-deaf, says Deidre Paknad, CEO and co-founder of the software company Workboard.

CEOs have to choose their words carefully, too, says Schmidt. Some companies shied away from addressing the difference between how police treated last week's white mob and how they treated Black Lives Matter protestors last summer. "And their employees of color noticed."

2. It's also important to remain optimistic, Paknad says. CEOs can point to signs of hope, such as the vaccine rollout, or help employees refocus by speaking about the company's greater mission or purpose.

  • "Acknowledge the fray and the fraction and the friction and the destruction, but don’t dwell on it."

3. A good culture is now a company's strongest asset.

"Employee wellbeing has crawled out of the corner of the benefits department, and it has crashed onto the CEO's desk," Josh Bersin, an HR industry analyst and author, tells Axios.

  • As the pandemic has dragged on, American workers have ranked "a sense of belonging at work" higher and higher on their list of workplace priorities. It's becoming as important to employees as getting promoted.
  • And America's compounding crises are just going to make fostering belonging and wellbeing even more key to recruiting and retaining talent.

"Most businesspeople are trained that customers are No. 1, shareholders are No. 2, and employees are No. 3," says Bersin. "But what we’re now realizing, thanks to the pandemic, is that if the employees are not happy, we don’t have a company."

The bottom line: As the nation wades through public health and political crises, CEOs have the opportunity to fill a leadership vacuum.

  • But those who avoid confronting the events head-on risk shedding talent.

Go deeper: How CEOs became the fourth branch of government

2. The new workplace perils

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Over the last year, jobs that we never considered dangerous have turned into hazardous occupations.

Why it matters: Millions of Americans are finding themselves on the front lines of crises that they didn't see coming — and they're often not trained, or paid enough, to be there.

First, it was the pandemic that put grocery workers, servers and bartenders in harm's way as they continued working in person while a deadly virus ravaged our cities and towns.

Now, in a frayed political climate, more occupations have turned into front-line jobs.

  • "Pilots and flight attendants are trained to keep passengers safe in the air and, since 9/11, to be on the lookout for potential terrorists. But in these extraordinary times, their duties have expanded to include mask enforcement and now, apparently, quelling civil unrest," Axios' Joann Muller writes.
  • Journalists who cover wars have long undergone safety trainings, but last week, congressional and White House reporters found themselves in the middle of an insurrection. The accounts by my colleagues Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba of what it was like inside the room as a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol is worthy of your time.

The bottom line: The pandemic, along with the recent political unrest, has upended workplace safety — but laws and worker protections have not yet caught up to our reality.

3. Marty Walsh's to-do list

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Biden has named Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his nominee for labor secretary. If confirmed, Walsh will be tasked with leading the country's workers through one of the toughest eras in recent memory.

The big picture: Americans are confronting workplace safety during a pandemic, wrestling with the instability of gig work, experiencing widespread unemployment and more.

"Normally, I would say, 'Who cares who is labor secretary?'" says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University. "This time there does seem to be more substance."

Here are some of the biggest issues Walsh will have to tackle from day one:

  • Revitalize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "OSHA has been severely neglected under the Trump Department of Labor," with the number of inspectors falling every year except 2020, Logan says. Look for Walsh to build this agency back up, as it plays a huge role in curbing the spread of the virus within workplaces.
  • Address the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Walsh's Department of Labor will be tasked with examining how and why the pandemic recession has disproportionately hurt communities of color.
  • Issue guidance on the classification of gig workers. Walsh will have to wade into the national debate over whether gig workers are employees or independent contractors.
4. The pharmacy job boom

A pharmacist prepares to administer the Pfizer vaccine. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The enormous task of distributing the vaccine across America is leading to a spike in pharmacy job openings.

By the numbers: Pharmacy job postings were up 9.7% in December compared with December 2019 levels, according to data from the jobs site Indeed.

  • Other sectors that are doing relatively well are construction and e-commerce, as people continue to stay home.

The big picture: These booming industries are small bright spots in a job market that is otherwise in big trouble. The U.S. lost 140,000 jobs in December — stopping the labor market recovery in its tracks.

  • The industry that's hurting the most is hospitality and tourism, which shed 500,000 jobs last month.
5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The jobs report silver linings that are a mirage (Axios)

  • The labor market recovery came to a screeching halt in December, and even the few data points that look promising for some of the most vulnerable working Americans are actually deeply troubling upon further inspection.

The pandemic spawned over 1,000 workplace lawsuits (USA Today)

  • Workers filed more than 1,000 lawsuits against employers in 2020 as the pandemic upended the workplace. "Employees sued over disputes over workplace safety, how they’re paid while working from home, and family and medical leave," per USA Today. Expect an even bigger wave of workplace-related lawsuits this year, experts say.

Remote work eases coming out for transgender employees (Wall Street Journal)

  • One pandemic silver lining: Some transgender Americans told the Wall Street Journal that working from home made coming out to their colleagues easier. “I could make a statement that was vulnerable and uncomfortable in the safety of my office here at home, and then I could step away from the computer for a little bit and calm down," River Bailey told the Journal.

How to be more productive while working from home (CNN Business)

  • Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, says to pick a spot and work from there all the time to help yourself get into the mental mode of doing your job.
6. 1 sneaky thing: The white lies we tell at job interviews

Job interviews are often filled with little lies, told by both the interviewee and the interviewer.

Why it matters: Some of these lies seem harmless, but others are far more serious.

  • The Wall Street Journal's Rachel Feintzeig has a fascinating interactive on all the different types of fibs we tell during interviews.

Here's a smattering:

  1. The ingratiation lie: An example of this is spotting a photo from a national park on your interviewer's desk and saying you've been there to establish a connection with that person — even if you haven't.
  2. Inflating skills: People often exaggerate their language or even programming skills on their resumes.
  3. Lying about why you left your last job: Candidates rarely want to linger on why they left a previous job, and they choose to gloss over it, maybe by telling a white lie that they "just wanted a new challenge."
  4. Lying about company culture: It's also common for interviewers to mislead candidates on things like how many hours they'll have to work. Interviewers might also describe the company as a "family" to make the culture seem superb.

The bottom line: Lies might get you through the interview process unscathed, but you'll likely end up in a job that just isn't a good match, Feintzeig notes.

Thanks for reading!