Is COVID Dividing Your Workforce?


October 21, 2020  |  John Wiese


During one of the most heated election years to date, amid a civil rights movement akin to the 1992 Rodney King riots, bi-partisanship is at an all-time high. Employees are already skirting around political disagreements and avoiding topics that are triggering or sensitive for those around them. Not to mention, we are in the middle of a pandemic the likes of which the modern world has never seen; and reactions range from complete panic to utter indifference. So, in a world where binaries are ordinary, is COVID adding another layer to the already complicated system of in-groups and out-groups?

Emtrain’s workplace culture diagnostic tool recently revealed that 38% percent of employees cite “us vs. them” as the greatest source of conflict in their organization. In other words, in-group/out-group dynamics spring up everywhere at an organization, and they can deepen divides both between teams and within them. These two groups can take several different forms. Sometimes they are more obvious, like the decision-makers and big-picture folks at the top versus the people a bit lower on the ladder, executing those ideas. Or maybe it’s the sales teams pushing Product to keep up with demand from their clients. But other times, it can be more nuanced, like a group of younger employees with more liberal mindsets about certain social issues pushing their older, historically conservative employees to change their value sets.

What the COVID-19 Out-Group Looks Like

Outgroups can form by age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and organizational seniority. Still, in-group/out-group dynamics negatively impact the workplace experience for people in out-groups. Oftentimes, out-group employees experience less empathy, are judged more harshly by their co-workers, and feel less safe to speak up than their peers. Now, as employers begin bringing their employees back into the office, we may start to see new types of in-groups and out-groups forming.

There might be employees who are more hesitant to go back to the office because they might be at higher risk of contracting serious COVID-19 complications. Meanwhile, you might have employees on the other side of the spectrum, who do not worry about potential contracting the virus. Deeper than that, a divide may form between employees who follow company safety policies with total scrutiny and those who are laxer about guidelines. Check out this microlesson, managing COVID-10 in the workplace, to learn more.

Even if your company is not back in the office yet, you may start seeing a divide amidst employees working from home. Employees who live alone may become exasperated with their coworkers balancing childcare and work from home. Inversely, parents working from home may be frustrated at their coworkers without the extra task of homeschooling expecting them to have their same levels of output. “I wanted to go to George with this project, but I never seem to have his undivided attention, so can you take it?” While this may seem like a reasonable course of action, it may affect who gets ahead when promotion cycles come around. Problems that arise from in-group/out-group dynamics go beyond water cooler gossip; they can hinder workflows, stipend productivity, and even increase employee turnover.

Our research shows that employees are more likely to stick up for others in their in-group, and those employees who consider themselves to be in an out-group have lower perceptions of empathy and respect, and less trust in their managers. In terms of COVID-19 and returning to workspaces, this lack of trust may appear as a perception that an employer is unconcerned for its employee’s health and wellbeing. Similarly, more cautious employees may feel that their more brazen coworkers are frustrated with their apprehension about returning to work. This can lead to some pretty awkward conversations and unhealthy power dynamics. Picture this: two employees are in a break-room chatting about their weekends, one went to an outdoor barbecue with a number of people, and the other visited their favorite restaurant that recently allowed indoor dining again. A third coworker who belongs to a high-risk group overhears this conversation, and complains to another coworker about some people’s “reckless behavior.” Ultimately, this leads to drama, distrust, and even animosity spreading throughout your workforce.

What Should HR Leaders Do?

Employers certainly can’t control what their employees do on their off-hours, and they may also need to bring certain teams back into the office. But what employers can do is ensure that employees feel safe and looked after. First things first, create a space where employees can express their concerns about returning to work. You may need to get people back in the office, but if certain people aren’t comfortable with that, or belong to a high risk group, allow them to stay home. The last thing you want on top of complicated social dynamics is an endangerment lawsuit. Beyond that, equip employees with the tools to have difficult conversations with their coworkers when they feel unsafe, or when someone slips up with their COVID-19 protocols.

The Workplace Color Spectrum® is a behavior rating tool. It’s a language tool to help you and your employees describe a range of behaviors in non-offensive, non-adversarial terms. Initially designed to talk about harassment at work, it’s easily adaptable for COVID-19 safety purposes. For example, when someone makes an off-hand comment about being extra careful because an employee has COPD, a bystander could say “that’s a little bit orange.”

Why is it orange?:

  1. its company protocol to keep each other safe is
  2. making an unnecessary comment about a health condition that, in this instance, is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Equip your employees with the conversational tools needed to navigate awkward conversations, disagreements, or offensive comments. We must be conscious of the words and actions that make our coworkers uncomfortable, and that includes talking about COVID-19, expressing frustrations about company policy, and “othering” coworkers who are in different risk categories than yourself. Emtrain’s tip sheet, How to Recover from a Misstep, provides a few simple tactics to recover from an offhand comment at work. Send it out to your teams now to prepare them on how to de-escalate sticky situations that arise from COVID-19 conversations.

Whether it’s disagreements around COVID-19, or frustrations towards working from home, we are all in this together and we need to work together to keep each other safe. In the meantime, Emtrain is here to help. Contact us if you have any questions about our course offerings around COVID-19, or for any tips about managing your remote workforces.


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