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Your employees need spaces at work where they can be vulnerable

Last summer, employees at Zendesk started holding “empathy circles.” Here’s what to consider if you want to facilitate space for honest conversations.

Your employees need spaces at work where they can be vulnerable
[Source photos: Evie Shaffer/Unsplash]
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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heightened focus on racial injustice, political unrest, and environmental issues like the climate crisis, employees had to largely bury their anxieties, put on a brave face, show up to work, and perform as usual this past year. But nothing about the past year has been “usual.”

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Under such circumstances, the “usual” isn’t going to cut it. In 2019 the World Health Organization defined employee burnout as a medical condition, citing the cause as chronic workplace stress. While many companies took an active role in prioritizing employees’ physical health during the pandemic, consumers are also calling on employers to take an active role in employees’ wellbeing and mental health. Our Customer Experience Trends Report shows that 54% of customers want to support brands that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces. It is not only time for leaders to prioritize employee mental health, but go a step further to facilitate spaces where people can come to work, openly share their emotions, receive peer support, and feel seen, heard, and—most importantly—understood.

Identifying Employees’ Need for Safe Spaces

At Zendesk, where we shifted to an entirely remote work environment practically overnight, we understood that many employees were about to face intensified emotions of stress, sadness, and anticipation. Then the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—as well as other racial and social injustices—shook the world, leaving our employees unsettled and sometimes angry—and understandably so.

We knew it was time to make a public commitment in the form of a statement about what we stand for as a company, highlighting our values of empathy, embracing diverse perspectives, and being an ongoing catalyst for change.

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We also started holding “empathy circles” around the same time. These gatherings are uniquely by and for employees, with a singular goal to hold time and space for each other. We can all donate money and change our policies, but are we truly listening to the people around us, those we work together with toward common goals?

These safe spaces are something companies can initiate on their own, immediately, to help support employees in times of crisis—but only if they are done in a thoughtful, constructive way.

The practice of empathy circles actually started when one of our employees, Delores Cooper from our office in Madison, Wisconsin, invited fellow employees to an impromptu “safe space” almost immediately following the murder of George Floyd. This was meant to simply give employees the opportunity to join together, speak, and listen. Delores expected a few employees to join for an hour-long discussion. However, more than 25 employees attended, and the event lasted five hours, underscoring the critical need for more opportunities for people to gather and talk.

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Empathy Circles in Action

Zendesk has hosted six empathy circles over the past year, with roughly 1,000 attendees globally. Themes have ranged from racism in America, to the role of intersectionality in EMEA and APAC, to combating racism and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community; but these discussions can cover any topic you wish to shine a light on. The conversations are generally unstructured, which leads to open dialogue; however, it’s helpful to have a pair of facilitators open the discussion with historical background or factual news. They can share personal stories or motivations to set the tone and create group trust.

To date, we’ve received overwhelming positive feedback from our workforce about the circles, with 95% of participants saying they helped build a safe space and empathy in the workplace, and 96% saying they would recommend the experience to a colleague or friend.

The Power of Listening to Facilitate Vulnerable Conversations at Work

As managers and executives, we have a tendency to walk into a discussion with the urge to lead the conversation. In empathy circles, it’s critical to set the expectation that company leaders will participate, but not in the expected capacity of keynote speakers. Taking on a listening role has its own immense power, showing employees that those in leadership positions are just as vulnerable in the moment.

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When it comes to customers, businesses succeed when they understand the importance of listening—to recognize their pain points, know where they’re running into challenges, and ultimately, offer them innovative solutions which lead to higher loyalty and propelled growth. The same reasoning holds true for your employee base.

If you’re considering implementing a similar idea in your workplace, here are some ways managers can take an active listening role:

Plan ahead: Avoid awkward silences by preemptively reaching out to employees who are thought leaders within the organization and vocal about the topics being covered, and encourage them to share their stories.

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Think local: Host empathy circles by region and appoint local leaders as facilitators, while accounting for crises taking place across the globe that affect your employees in states and countries outside of your headquarters. This ensures the facilitator is well known by the circle’s attendees and has a deeper understanding of the circumstances for which the safe space is required. Their own story and vulnerabilities will empower those affected to follow the conversation and speak up.

Set ground rules: What happens in the empathy circle, stays in the empathy circle. Before starting the conversation, it’s important for facilitators to establish a non-retaliation rule and emphasize that this will be a space of sharing and learning without judgment. At Zendesk, we had our Legal and HR representatives set the tone upfront by reaffirming no retaliation would be taken based on stories and personal experiences shared. While each circle has its own nuance, we always stick to three ground rules: respect, confidentiality, and discomfort (be open to thinking differently).

Personalize: Carefully curate the topics of discussion for each region; have a wide range of employee representation, and offer time and space in between sessions.

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Another important step for leaders is to do your own personal work alongside facilitating for others. This means digging deeper into your drivers, values, and beliefs, and educating yourselves on the day-to-day issues facing your employees. For example, utilize social media—read blogs, tweets, and news articles so you can get caught up on topics that are important to the communities you want to support. The real connection resides in the intersection of personal reflection and creating space for others.

Understand Progress is a Process

It’s important to recognize that no company is the same, so establishing your own empathy circles will be an ongoing process. Conducting employee surveys after each circle and hosting brainstorming sessions will help tailor your safe spaces to your unique sets of employees and their diverse perspectives.

Along our journey at Zendesk, we learned that grouping the circles by Employee Communities (what we call our employee resource groups) created echo chambers within the same sets of people confiding in each other. Instead, we created empathy circles where we welcomed entire regional employee bases. Curating sessions by location instead of already-established groups welcomed a more inclusive set of identities, with employees of various ethnicities, backgrounds, and gender identities, attending. This resulted in deeper conversations and a heightened understanding about different employees’ personal struggles.

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The point of an empathy circle is not to be able to turn around a quick change or particular outcome, but to listen and learn, and to give employees space to be heard. Conversations like these will naturally open up new areas for growth and change, but it’s not about mining them for action items. That being said, employees may have great ideas you haven’t heard yet. For example, a core theme emerged from our first five empathy circles on the topics of racism and intersectionalities: the strong desire for more education and tools on how to be an effective ally. In response, we introduced mandatory annual inclusive workplace training, as well as an Allyship Toolkit to our entire workforce via ‘The Lab’, our personalized virtual learning platform.

When You Can’t Build From Scratch, Partner

If not handled well, the effect of a distressing event can have a significant impact on your employees’ morale and productivity. If you aren’t able to build your own empathy circle program entirely from scratch, another great option is to partner with organizations who are doing truly meaningful work in this space.

Modern Health is a great example of a workplace mental health platform that partners with companies to offer provider-led group sessions (in addition to other forms of coaching and therapy). In fact, more than one quarter of Zendesk’s global workforce have used their Modern Health benefits.

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With so much of our personal lives now intertwined with our work lives, companies need to take responsibility for supporting the many facets of employees’ lives—in and out of the “office”.

Empathy can come to life even if we are not physically together—and perhaps it is even more important when we are not physically together. Leaders must create the spaces for employees to support each other when an open dialogue is needed. When we do, the result is organic, raw emotion that can propel meaningful change and a happier, healthier workforce.


As Zendesk’s chief people and diversity officer, InaMarie Johnson leads the company’s vision for delivering a great employee experience. Day-to-day, she is responsible for overseeing multiple functions, including talent acquisition, development, diversity equity and inclusion, and workplace experience functions.

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