With Kind Regards: Embracing Our Workplace Values

By David Phillips and Sara Miller-Paul

In response to society’s divisive rancor, a popular T-shirt is resonating, saying: “In a world where you can be anything … BE KIND.”

As longtime Jewish professionals, we’ve noticed that being less-than-kind is becoming more common in the Jewish community. We know the gravitational pull of the status quo is strong, especially regarding communal self-reflection. Sadly, we have learned that disrespectful behaviors in our organizations have become for many a fact of life, and in the spirit of this Jewish season, we want to address the following:

Conversations to expose these behaviors are long overdue, as well as resultant shifts in behavior and culture. Jewish values and ethics teach that demeaning, self-centered, or cruel behaviors are unacceptable. Whether as witnesses or as impacted actors, we know that “bad behaviors” often represent systemic organizational dysfunctions or unhealthy culture. To rid ourselves of unacceptable conduct, both good and bad cultures must be brought to light, rewarding those which model respect, ethics, and values.

We are heartened by the crucial conversations brought by the #MeToo movement around sexual harassment and assault. Because this raises awareness about power dynamics and organizational culture, we want to create space to discuss additional forms of painful workplace treatment. In some cases, stories have become community legend: instances of donor aggression, career manipulation, termination due to external pressure, and unethical requests.

Troublingly, inappropriate activities and punitive decisions often do not reflect performance but can be traced to a power differential – the strongest of which is financial. In these cases, an executive must make a difficult decision from only poor options, which often ends up being the perceived least financially damaging, rather than ethical. This can quickly become the culture of the workplace. Such ‘least damaging decisions’ can destroy careers and livelihoods, and the non-disclosure agreements that accompany them reinforce that power, threat, or finances can bury anything.

Despite the Jewish values referenced in our mission statements, these antithetical actions persist. Studies such as those undertaken by Leading Edge provide excellent baseline comparisons: respondents’ statements that “leadership and talent are a priority in the Jewish community now more than ever” stand in contradiction to behaviors which push away talent that we struggle to attract and retain. To be clear: if a staff member is not meeting expectations, and fair, reasonable actions fail to rectify the situation, separation should be undertaken – BUT, from a place of kindness and compassion.

We worry that organizations, leaders, and communities frequently fail to invoke the art of kindness. This is particularly heartbreaking as it feels antithetical to the reasons that we were drawn to Jewish communal service in the first place. “Chesed” (“Kindness”) may be construed by some as weakness, but at its root is an expression of warmth, concern, and caring. We can celebrate someone else’s success or acknowledge failure with humanity and humility and not diminish professionalism or volunteerism one bit!

Research demonstrates kindness as an important predictor of satisfaction from relationships to careers to interpersonal skills. Our sacred texts elevate it to an ethical and moral obligation. Enculturating kindness is not always easy, but it should always be our automatic, baseline behavioral choice.

We would do well to ask ourselves and others if we are addressing issues consistent with our Jewish values. When our principles are positively transmitted, let’s celebrate and learn from those examples. If we are to attract and retain talented staff (and volunteers) we need the ethical-spiritual anchor of kindness.

Examples of kindness from an active, practical perspective:

  • When interviewing interns, taking the time to provide meaningful feedback to those not selected, even connecting them with alternative
  • If a family is struggling to pay a bill, open communications by meeting in a space that they find comfortable and safe
  • When a staff member is struggling with a task, offering practical assistance, acknowledging the “stretch,” and ensuring they know that success or failure is shared by the team.

These would stand in contrast to stories we’ve heard:

  • A staffer being tasked to deliver paperwork to a strip club for a volunteer’s signature, feeling obliged because the volunteer was a Board member and significant donor
  • A CEO delegating the task of dismissing a long-time employee to the HR manager because it would be too ‘difficult’
  • A donor threatening to cut their gift unless a particular professional is assigned as their contact.

The impacts from these scenarios can change lives, as wounds are carried by all parties. To the individual experiencing it, the lack of rachmanut (compassion), professionalism, or caring can be damaging emotionally, financially and physically. When each successive opportunity slips by to act on our values, our world becomes more broken and engagement in the Jewish community diminishes.

Though most employers have policies that define unacceptable behaviors, if kindness is enshrined as the baseline of their culture, civility among people, organizations, and communities becomes a common expectation.

Suffering and isolation can be the price for calling out negative behavior. Employees on the raw end of an unequal power differential can find themselves without recourse. When career-ending messages and expensive legal actions become part of the equation, few Jewish professionals have access to the thousands of dollars needed to fight back, or even to litigate. The scales of justice are not equal when squared with the reality of harassment, lies, and legal bills.

There are ways to help our peers. Imagine a venue where Jewish communal professionals find emotional and financial support, where an equally powerful resource protects and defends their interests. In a similar way that a union can help mitigate and solve problems, we believe such a resource – somewhat comparable, perhaps, to a respected Bet Din – could also include education for the offending organization. Could this new entity also help relocate talent? Save talent in the system? Leveling the power differential could profoundly change the Jewish professional experience and marketplace.

The same entity could highlight and reward workplaces where leaders consistently act with kindness. As we have seen with conversations about sexual harassment, warnings regarding where to work and whom to avoid happen in the shadows, protecting offenders, regardless of their wealth, status, or leadership role. Limiting access to this information stifles the community’s efforts to reward the great and remove those who do harm.

Imagine a mechanism to expose magnificent workplaces with a history of developing talent and supporting professionals in line with Jewish values, an entity that develops and applies metrics to identify the best among us that practice kindness and ensure professional growth.

We also recognize the importance of measuring correctly before grading publicly in this information age. Using a carrot -not just a stick- we can find a way to promote workplaces where professionals and volunteers collaborate successfully. Work can be tiring, frustrating, and emotionally vexing, but it should never feel unsafe, ignore harassment, tolerate abuse of power, or use fear as a motivator.

Happiness and good behavior have been proven to correlate with increased productivity and reduced attrition. Employee loss is not just time-consuming but costly, as employers can spend 6-9 months of an incumbent’s salary replacing them. When referenced with Leading Edge’s data that less than half of respondents expect to remain in the sector for five years, kindness not only makes good business sense, it consistently serves as a predictor of organizational health and employee satisfaction.

Taking a step back, when some colleagues consider kindness to be a negotiable facet in the Jewish communal workplace, it speaks volumes. The risk of being ostracized for exposing negative behaviors is real and scary. We are not naïve. We know a culture of kindness will not solve everything, but challenging poor behavior and supporting employees can move our field forward.

What else can be done to bring chesed back as a communal norm? We welcome your thoughts and voices as we put our minds to work, moving our community forward with kindness.

David Phillips is Principal of Immersive1st Consulting: a practice dedicated to harnessing the power of immersive experiences to engage people and build community. He is based in Jupiter, FL and can be reached at david@immersive1st.com

Sara Miller-Paul is Managing Director of Richard Levin & Associates, the first executive coaching firm. Together with a team of consultants, facilitators, and coaches, RLA harnesses the power of emotional intelligence, empathy, kindness, and compassion to help organizations and leaders reach their potential. She is based in Providence, RI and can be reached at sara@richardlevinassociates.com