The Problem

Today, the often discussed “forgotten employees” of workplace protections are found in the tech freelance boom – Uber/Lyft drivers, TaskRabbits, etc. What few in the general public have exposure to is the long-standing tradition of public advocacy and political campaigns thriving through the efforts of the original gig economy – the political staffer. Fresh out of college, or in some cases still in school, these young professionals get the urge to impact change wherever it may be found and travel around the country. They live in unexpected places and work on projects for just weeks or months at a time.

While this brings excitement and new experiences, it lacks the traditional workplace safety net that our peers in the corporate and public sectors are able to rely on. Not only is there wage and benefits insecurity, but also in established workplace culture and employee protections. When questions are raised like, “Where’s the employee handbook?” and “What are the reporting methods for a hostile workplace?” they can’t always be answered with accuracy or consistency. Legally, these questions don’t even have to be addressed in some cases because most campaigns will fall under the 11, 15 or 21 employee thresholds that trigger some federal employee protections. Additionally, some harassment statutes of limitations can be as short as 180 days, which might be slightly longer than your full stint on a campaign.

With conversations about workplace culture touching every industry, we – as social and economic justice warriors – need to make sure that the fast-paced, temporary and underfunded nature of our industry doesn’t get in the way of our obligation to provide employees with a strong and healthy workplace culture.

The Challenges

Time, funding and professionalism. From the first dollar infusion and the word, “go” you need to have people in place promoting your mission – the go-to expression is “building the plane while taking off.” The best people to enlist are the scrappy, in-the-trenches grassroots, communications and fundraising professionals who know how to turn vision into action. These people are often working 14-18 hour days and generally don’t have the HR and operations professional background required to implement systems and processes to foster the most communicative, diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Without a defined culture and workplace mentality in place and a professional to oversee the implementation of HR systems, issues can often grow into larger problems. Small arguments escalate into larger ones, off-color jokes left unaddressed foster resentment and something about threatening employee safety/comfort/legal problem, cliques and other schisms could form that threaten the continuity and mission-readiness of your operation. Most political operations will punt on addressing many of these issues because the mentality is frequently to put out the fire burning closest to you. But by the time you get to this point, it is often too late, especially considering the short lifespan of our kinds of projects.

The Way Forward

Working with a professional to create a strong campaign culture as the backbone of your organization allows you to produce higher quality of work from a happier, more motivated workforce. An organization that lacks this backbone from the get-go will never be as strong. You must start with building your tool kit of human resources tactics and stressing its importance. Once in place, a campaign culture is effectively an informal control system. If everyone knows and lives the organization’s values, those values will show in your work product. The upfront investment in creating the process will ultimately serve as the biggest driver of efficient and successful work product even during your most stressful days. What’s included in the tool kit? Here are the basics:

Define Values and Culture, Then Live It: Before you do anything else, you need to determine what the key aspects are of working for your campaign or organization. How is success defined? What is your mission? How do you want to interface with the public? What is proper workplace decorum? How are different voices heard and incorporated? These and other questions should be answered through a mission or values statement and formally cemented. Policy only becomes culture when it is demonstrated through daily actions of leadership and then mirrored by daily actions of staff and volunteers.

Establish Guidance and Corrective Systems: It is important to address guidance and corrective systems from the first interaction with a potential employee. This starts during the interview process. Create standards and guidelines to evaluate candidates and ensure that potential employees are aware of the culture, values and expectations of the organization. Achieve this through questions and scenarios that illuminate a applicants workplace personality, teamwork and conflict resolution skills. Once on-boarded, use tools such as an employee handbook to lay out expectations and processes in clear, easy to understand terms. Then use measurements such as regularly scheduled anonymous staff surveys to evaluate work product and attitudes, and maintain a pulse on general workplace morale, in order to make corrections as needed. These broader tools are not replacements for small group discussions and one-on-one check-ins, but they provide leadership with measurable data to evaluate organizational culture. They also serve to reinforce the importance your organization places on culture and hearing the voices of all employees. Use these tools to better understand when a handbook or policy might need to be supplemented with further training, discussions or clarification.

Don’t Stop at Diversity; Remember Inclusion: This is an especially salient point for the transient nature of campaign employees. Campaign employees generally come from all over the country. This means that they forgo aspects of their personal safety net and find themselves relying on their colleagues for professional and social support. Organizations should go the extra mile to ensure that employees acclimate to their new work environment. This might take the form of team building and get-to-know-you activities such as escape rooms, movie nights, potlucks, pizza parties, community service projects, book clubs, etc. Usually overlooked, there should be some form of personal time – as appropriate – from days off to an actual lunch break to attend to personal needs that are generally thrown by the wayside during campaigns. It cannot be stressed enough that team-building should not have the primary focus of an activity be alcohol. Ideally, team-building activities should be rooted in the core values of your organization to ensure the right message is being conveyed to your staff. A staff that knows and understands one another – and that has room for personal time – will be less likely to engage in activities that could be hostile or negative towards each other.

Create Safe Spaces for Employee Conversations: Employees should know when, where and how they raise workplace issues in a discreet and safe environment. This goes for everything from, “How can I get my office supply needs met?” to “Where do I report an uncomfortable or hostile work environment?” Regularly scheduled staff meetings with pre-circulated agendas that include time for open discussions are strongly encouraged. Use these as opportunities to highlight successes and shared sacrifice to underscore professional achievement and cohesion as core values. If there is a tendency for some people – including leadership – to interrupt, incorporate a tactic to make sure everyone is aware of who should speak when and make sure the policy is enforced no matter who interrupts. In addition, anonymous or discreet reporting systems are recommended to handle more sensitive issues. Remember that when putting these systems in place, third party reporting should be considered to address the need for safe and comfortable conversations – no matter who is involved or the subject matter.

Tackling workplace culture is not easy and is by no means a science. Human resources contains one of the most unpredictable elements: emotions. By putting these frameworks in place from the start, you can go a long way in establishing a healthy and productive campaign environment. Making it successful is an ongoing process that needs to be cultivated through daily actions of leadership and staff. One key element that you won’t be able to take away from this article is having a professional on your team to help tailor your own workplace culture. We can check that box for you if you give us a shout – HQ@AtScale.org.

Max Cummings is CEO of At Scale, a leading Democratic consulting firm specializing in operations, personnel and direct voter contact. He has 14 years of political experience including managing operations for multi-million dollar consulting firms and national organizations. He can be reached at Max@AtScale.org.