Every six weeks or so, we have a staff meeting for our employees, typically at dinner time so we can share a meal together. It’s usually pizza or burritos, their favorites. These meetings are a time to talk through operational issues, connect with one another, and solve problems better served through open conversation, brainstorming, and consensus. Everyone is invited to add agenda items that we incorporate as we go.
Traditionally each meeting begins with a question we all answer in round-robin fashion that has nothing to do with working at the store. It’s a personal reflection question that either my business partner or I asks, sometimes thought up right then. We then facilitate the conversation and the balance of the meeting.
A few months ago I decided to ask “What makes you come alive? What are you passionate about?” Just before this particular meeting, Jesse, a 20-year old college student and steady reliable employee, took me aside. Jesse had something to tell everyone and wanted to do it first thing. Curious, I asked if it was something that would change the tone or direction of the meeting, and when told yes, I asked what it was so I could decide whether or not to honor the request. When I learned what it was, I decided not to let Jesse go first. I know from many years of facilitating these meetings the importance of maintaining leadership and control by carefully and purposefully steering the group process, yet with enough flexibility for spontaneity.
Like all meetings, we started with dinner. There was a lot of laughter and ease and as we all finished, I began by asking the question. We all went around, shared our answers and by chance, Jesse was last and said, “I want you all to know that I no longer identify as a girl. I identify as a guy. I will soon be starting the process of changing my gender, and I want you all to know. I also want to say that I know it’s going to be hard for you to use male pronouns when referring to me and I won’t judge you when you get it wrong. It’s just part of the process. And I want to say that there’s no way I could be telling you this if it weren’t for such a safe working environment. I couldn’t ask for better employers.”
It was an astonishing moment. I was so moved by his courage. Not only did the staff completely take it in stride saying things like “Oh yeah, I have a friend whose done this,” and “Oh, okay, thanks for letting us know,” and “I can hook you up with a great resource on campus,” but the fact that we have been committed to providing a safe and dignified work environment from the outset, had come home in a direct and powerful way. It was one of my proudest moments of 25 years as an employer and business owner. It was a moment of realization of what is possible when the components of mindfulness are put into action as a regular and normal way of being.
And it was a moment. I am under no illusion that our work is never done; that supporting and maintaining this kind of workplace culture requires diligence and awareness, determination and love.