Avoiding or bungling conversations about sensitive work-related issues can fester within organizations, dampening productivity and increasing turnover. Serial communications tech entrepreneurs Toby Hervey and Sarah Sheehan are co-founders of Bravely, a tech-enabled service linking employees (front-line and managers) to seasoned counselors. Those professionals coach employees on making challenging conversations less so. Bravely’s platform also helps employers take the pulse of their workforce. Employee Benefit News recently spoke to Hervey about the marriage of technology and telephone-based counseling. Edited highlights of that conversation follow.
Employee Benefit News: Do you believe there is widespread recognition that many employees feel unequipped to discuss sensitive work-related issues, and that this has negative consequences?
Toby Hervey: Absolutely. The data is clear. Every executive we talk to understands this and also has a personal story about a valued employee who let some problem fester over time, didn’t deal with it, then left the company. It can damage the overall health of that workplace.
EBN: How are companies already typically trying to address this problem?
Hervey: Lots of companies are focused on managers as a driver of employee experience, and they want to train them and support them with new learning and development opportunities. The idea that every manager is a coach is great in theory, but really challenging in practice.
EBN: How so?
Hervey: Most managers are promoted into that role because they are great individual contributors to the organization. But learning the people side of those skills is a whole new ball game — it’s challenging and can take years to develop. A lot of training programs for managers are limited either due to budget constraints or from a priority perspective. In this environment, retaining the knowledge and skills from that training can be difficult. You might learn something in a classroom setting one day, but not need to put it into practice for a long time. Without repetitive reinforcement of the lessons from the training, it’s hard for the manager to apply that learning.
EBN: What about just doing employee surveys to look for problems before they escalate?
Hervey: Engagement surveys are an important tool for this, and the self-reported insights that you can get from employees are valuable. The same is true of anonymous feedback forums — the old “suggestion box” concept. But they need to be part of a larger, more comprehensive strategy.
EBN: So how do you improve that communication?
Hervey: We like tools that give employees a private forum for voicing their views, but ask clarifying questions through structured and behavioral interviewing. That way you can get the additional meat that can help an HR leader run an investigation, or look into an issue more deeply.
EBN: How do you feel about performance management software for helping managers with what would otherwise be difficult conversations, to keep emotions from getting in the way?
Hervey: I love that it adds structure and process, and sets expectations really well with teams. It also can remove bias from some of those assessments. But without the additional coaching from an HR team or coach, the impact can be limited, and the software can feel cumbersome.
EBN: Both managers and employees use your system. What typically prompts a manager to use it?
Hervey: About 20% of the users are managers. For them, it’s often feeling like they’ve given negative performance feedback that hasn’t been heard, and they don’t know what to do next. Or they’re running their performance reviews for the first time, and they want it to go really well. Sometimes they’re reluctant to go to their HR business partner for support, because they don’t want it to look like they don’t know what they’re doing.
EBN: And when non-supervisory employees use the service, what are the typical issues they’re struggling with?
Hervey: First and foremost it’s about relationships with co-workers and their managers. Usually it’s a lot of “I am not getting along with my new boss,” or “there is somebody on my team who is not fitting in,” or “I can’t seem to work really well with this person on another team,” and “how do I have a conversation that resets this relationship.”
EBN: Who are your counselors?
Hervey: Some have worked as HR generalists, leaders of their own people teams, corporate ombudsmen. They’ve been at everything from Fortune 500 companies to startups. On average, our pros have 11 years of coaching and employee relations experience. Around 50% of our coaches have graduate degrees in HR management, conflict resolution or social organizational psychology.
EBN: How is the service technology-enabled?
Hervey: One way is it helps to match people to the most appropriate counselor. There’s an algorithmic-based matching that uses the kind of organization, their seniority, the type of issue that they’re having. All that information is captured both from the company and from when the employee schedules their session. They are matched with a pro that’s appropriate for that set of circumstances.
EBN: Can you describe how a typical coaching session might go?
Hervey: First, we can’t solve problems for people, we can help them go forward and solve their own problems. We believe the core of that is having good, healthy, productive conversations about all these things that are hard to bring up. But the outcome of a session a lot of times is clarity of thought, confidence, and the having language needed to go forward and have that conversation. The coaching often involves role-playing to help somebody feel ready to take action. And there are a lot of tactical recommendations to help people communicate what they need, what they expect, and go forward with not just problems, but also solutions.
EBN: Do people ask for advice on dealing with sexual harassment?
Hervey: It’s a very minor percentage of our cases, but we are certainly equipped to help employees with it. The core of it is helping employees think through all of the options that they have for dealing with a potential harassment issue. They talk through the pros and cons of each, whether it’s going directly to the perpetrator, talking to bystanders, going to their own manager if that’s not the perpetrator, going to HR, using an existing reporting hotline. But there is never anything prescriptive on our end. Our pros also know the company’s harassment policy. It can help demystify what an investigation might look like or what it looks like if you do go forward.
EBN: Accessing this resource begins with an app. Do some people use the app as a texting platform and interface with counselors that way?
Hervey: The heart of the experience is the phone call, and the app is centered around scheduling these phone sessions. And what we found that people organically started texting with their pros after their sessions, with quick follow-up questions or updates on the situation. Texting facilitates the relationship, but it’s really about that phone call and that very hardy conversation.
EBN: How is general information shared with employers so that they can get some insights on what’s going on?
Hervey: In addition to basic utilization rate data, they get
aggregated de-identified reports on the challenges that employees are facing by location, team, and as many factors as we can give that are statistically significant. And those challenges are scored by our pros on how impactful they are on an employee’s productivity and their expected tenure with the company.
EBN: Are there any common characteristics of the employers that have started to use your platform?
Hervey: These are organizations that are taking a progressive approach to thinking about benefits. They understand it’s not just about the free food and the gym memberships, it’s about things that will really help employees succeed, help them grow and develop in their careers, make them proud of the places that they work.