The country appears to be divided right now over a number of issues: gun control, taxes, and immigration, to name a few. One could say the climate in D.C. is stormy with a chance for acidic rhetoric. Two former White House Social Secretaries, one Democrat and the other Republican, are helping bridge the divide by injecting a little bit of kindness into workplace discourse.
Jeremy Bernard, White House Social Secretary during part of the Obama Administration, and Lea Berman, White House Social Secretary for George and Laura Bush, teamed up to write Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life (Scribner, 2018). The authors said the timing of the book, labeled as “a guide to personal and professional empowerment through civility and social skills,” was a mere happenstance.
“We would love to say this was planned [to release] during this perfect time for it,” said Bernard. “The truth is we started working on it a few years ago . . . and there was no talk of who was going to be president. And while every election is divisive, we had no idea how divisive this one would be.”
The actual influences behind the book were their real-life White House and other workplace experiences: seeing how employees interacted without deep thoughts about how their words and actions could have lasting effects on those around them and on their own careers. This was especially true for younger professionals who were just entering the workforce and who may have relied more on technology to communicate with each other rather than face-to-face interactions.
For recent college graduates, the authors offer these kindness and career development tips from their book:
- Keep it courteous. If someone says something politically charged that you disagree with, you can simply say “I don’t agree” or “That’s not how I see it.” If the other person persists, say, “I don’t think you’re going to sway any minds today! Maybe we should talk about something else.”
- Be empathetic while you listen, without judging, but simply trying to understand what someone else feels. Each of us has experienced a time when we felt ignored or not valued; the difference it makes when we believe we’re acknowledged and included is immense.
- Remember that nothing is beneath you; most people must start at the bottom. What you learn along the way will give you useful experiences—even if all you’re learning is how to get along well with others.
- If you don’t know what you want to do, take a job as someone’s assistant. You’re making connections, learning basic office skills that will always be useful, and gaining a level of discipline that you will need to learn no matter what you decide to do. It will teach you how to be professional and what the expectations of a business setting are.
- Be flexible about what you think you should earn. Remember, you have no salary history on which to base your ask. There may be hidden opportunity for growth and promotion in an entry-level job, or begin by working at a great company even if it’s not the job you want with the intent of moving within the company to a job you do want.
- Make your social media profiles private, even if you have a fledgling blog. It’s worth it, because your social media snapshot may not serve your work identity and may inadvertently offend those with opposing views.
- Don’t just do what you’re asked or expected to do. You will be noticed for your exceptional hard work and effort.
- Read everything twice before responding to emails; proofread everything before you send it.
- Be polite. This means making eye contact, shaking hands, and saying “please” and “thank you.”
While some of the advice might seem like basic manners, sometimes having them spelled out helps to remember them, said Berman. She offered a parting bit of advice: “Take initiative whenever you can. Those who worked the long hours and were there to help when we needed it—those were always the interns we hired and got to stay at the White House.”