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Inverting the Hierarchy: When Employers Feel Unsafe

Imagine you’re at the helm of a ship, guiding it through stormy seas, but what if the storm is brewing inside the ship itself? This is the untold story of the captains of industry—employers like us—and the hidden battles we face for a safe harbor in our own companies.

There are a million articles out there about what to do if you don’t feel safe in the workplace, but it’s for employees. Contact HR. Report it to the Labor Board, etc, etc.

A less discussed, but equally important issue, is the employer’s sense of safety: how do we address situations where an employee’s actions unsettle the very people who aim to ensure a secure workplace?

Let’s understand power dynamics, first.

People often think the boss is the source of negativity at work. There’s an archetype of “boss” that disregards everything from careful communication style to emotional intelligence to mutual respect.

  • These “bosses” typically don’t enjoy that term and prefer supervisor or employer.
  • Good employers work hard to make the job better for everyone.
  • It’s important to recognize that employees may not yet have the perspective that comes with managing others, which includes the extensive effort to foster a positive work environment.

Compound that with things like Instagram and TikTok giving a place for community grievance against bosses and that default, no matter who the individual’s “boss” may be or what the dynamic in the workplace is, especially when working with career-entry level workers, means that the employer may feel like they are seen by their employees, but at the same time . . . the dynamic is still such that the employee, if unconsciously, sees the employer as “the man” and untouchable emotionally.

Why do I know this? Gosh, it’s happened a lot since I became an employer and a female “boss.”

              "Being an employer changes you, doesn't it?" 
                                                    -- fellow female entrepreneur

What can feeling unsafe as employer look like, then?

Employers are people too. They care about what others think of them, and they care that those around them are someone they can trust with vulnerabilities they may possess. Here are some issues that can arise with the above power dynamic:

  • Physical boundaries are important: are they employing signals that suggest they would welcome a physical confrontation verbally or with body language such as invading personal space or threats?
  • Empowered employees may use bullying tactics to get things they want such as repeatedly pointing out flaws without empathy or without asking if the information is welcome.
  • Employees may use their social media to post views that personally hurt the employer, closely tied to their work environment, culture, class, religion, or ethnicity. In an age where social media blurs the lines between personal and professional, it’s crucial for both employers and employees to navigate these platforms with care, ensuring respect for each other’s boundaries. (You can avoid this by not following them on social media and making it a personal policy to not look up employees’ social media if you don’t follow them.)
  • Comments may be made, assuming that the supervisor is in agreement or understand the humor, when in fact, the employer does not.

The issue is that employees who feel safe with their employer, but who have not seen the work that goes into the employer making the employee feel safe, may not understand that behavior standards the employer sets as company culture apply to them.

The standards of behavior that define our company culture are universal, applying equally to employers and employees. An open dialogue about these standards can help bridge any gaps in understanding.

Each employee brings a unique perspective, informed by their own experiences and interactions with past supervisors. Recognizing this diversity of viewpoints is key to understanding each other better. Remember: you see yourself – before supervision role and after. You’re still you. They see you as a Supervisor, with all the baggage from past supervisors and from what the dominant culture has told us.

So what do you do if they do something that makes YOU feel unsafe?

Consider what you train your staff to do. It is essential for leadership to engage actively in workplace harassment training, not just to comply with protocols but to lead by example in creating a safe space for all.

  • Reflect on your own perceptions—consider whether there are personal biases or past experiences influencing your feelings, and remain open to the possibility that the employee may be unaware of these factors.
  • Decide what the best case outcome is – and what the next steps to bring that about are.
    • Identify triggers that might occur during the conversation and set boundaries with yourself about where you will and will not allow the conversation to go.
    • Accept that this outcome may not be possible.
  • When addressing conflicts, it’s important to choose an appropriate time for both parties to discuss concerns calmly and constructively, focusing on resolution and understanding.
  • Focus on I statements, avoiding “you” as it can come across as accusatory.

Accept that your employee may not have the skills or space to receive your feelings and react in a way that makes you feel safe.

This is the hardest part of employment. In the tapestry of our workplace, every thread matters. When we, as leaders, weave care and responsibility into our interactions, it’s a shared hope that this will be reciprocated, creating a fabric of mutual support and understanding.

Fostering a workplace culture is a collaborative journey, where each person contributes to its evolution. It’s about finding harmony in diversity and growth, not just fitting into a pre-defined mold.

If trust is broken, be honest. Talking it out can fix things or help you move on respectfully.

Stand firm, fellow leaders. If the ground beneath you shakes, remember you hold the compass. It’s time we navigate these storms together. Share this if you’re ready to steer towards a future where every leader can sail in safe waters.