For New Residents, Corporate Utah can be Baffling, Isolating
With a strong, growing economy and an ultra-low unemployment rate, Utah is attracting increasing numbers of workers from out of state. But all too often, those employees experience culture shock in their new workplaces and communities, due to Utah’s unique religious and political landscape.
That’s why it’s crucial for companies to actively work to make their workplaces welcoming to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, said several panelists who spoke during the “This is the place. But where am I?” conference last week. The conference, organized by The Seneca Council and the Women’s Leadership Institute, was created as an introduction to religion, politics and gender in Utah for people new to the state.
Roughly 40 percent of Utahns are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons. In rural communities, that percentage can be much higher. In workplaces with growing ranks of people from outside the state, assumptions and misconceptions can cloud relationships between Mormons and non-Mormons.
“If you’re a transplant here, those assumptions that people are making upon you can feel very uncomfortable,” said Kat Kennedy, chief product officer at Degreed.
The solution, she said, is to acknowledge the assumptions on both sides, and talk about them.
Kennedy said Degreed, a tech company that offers a lifelong learning platform, promotes “open discussion and radical candor” in order to foster healthy conversations.
“For me, it’s about communication to overcome assumptions,” she said.
Kennedy’s own team has what they call “the safe table,” she said.
“So if people want to talk about politics or they have a question or they were made to feel uncomfortable, we go to the safe table and we know that anything that’s said there, you can walk away and there should no hard feelings,” she said. “It is the place to go and have open-minded discussions.”
Assumptions can get in the way of creating healthy relationships with co-workers, said Sarah South, vice president of laboratory sciences for AncestryDNA.
“It’s important to recognize that people are individuals,” she said. “If you’re trying to get to know your co-workers, make sure that that’s the forefront—you’re trying to get to know them, because you’re trying to have a good working relationship with them. So try not to make too many assumptions that if they’re A, then they must also be B.”
Alex Shootman, CEO of Workfront, said the high concentration of members of the LDS Church in Utah actually relaxes the conversation around religion.
“I’ve never seen anybody in the company trying to convert someone else into their faith system, and I’ve never seen anybody in the company be uncomfortable talking about what their own faith is or their lack of faith is,” he said. “So for us, I’ve found the fact that we have a lot of people that are in a faith system, I’ve found it to actually relax the tension on a topic that in a lot of other places would actually be a tense topic.”
Practicing candor and openness may also involve explaining insider lingo to non-Mormons, said Owen Fuller, president of QZZR. Terms like “Family Home Evening” or the “High Priesthood” may elicit confusion for those not in the faith. But more importantly, the insider terms can make them feel like they’re not really part of the team. So be aware of that language, said Fuller, and be willing to explain it to co-workers who aren’t familiar with it.
“Whether it’s religion or otherwise, how can we as leaders, as peers, create an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable?” said Kennedy, noting that if people don’t feel psychologically safe, they certainly won’t be productive.
Politics and religion often go hand in hand in Utah, and that can lead to some workplace tension as well.
“The most difficult topic to address in Salt Lake City versus anywhere else that I’ve been is support of the LGBT community,” said Shootman. “There is a tension that exists here that I haven’t experienced anywhere else when we start bringing up as a company the support that you want to have of the LGTB community. … Some of our employees get concerned that we’re trying to be political. But then we sit down with them and we say, ‘Look, this isn’t about being political.’ It’s about the fact that every brain is gray; we’re a software company and we need a lot of brains. And there are a tremendous amount of smart people who are super talented in this community, and we want them to look at our company and say, ‘Holy cow, I could be super successful working at Workfront.’ So that’s the image that we’re not only going to project, it’s the image we’re going to have.”
One way to address this topic head on is to make sure employees understand your company’s viewpoint on the issue before they are brought onboard, said Kennedy.
“Degreed has a company principle that it is committed to equality in all realms, be that religious, sexual preference, whatever it is,” she said. “We will and do promote equality, and we will actively do activities and things to encourage that. … Before you even join the company, you are aware that that’s a principle that as you’re joining, you will be committed to.”
Shootman said people in Utah are actually “super tolerant, so they’re never going to say a company shouldn’t be fair on the subject.” But nevertheless, they can give small, unconscious cues that they are not comfortable with it. For example, he said, if somebody says, “‘This weekend I went to a movie with my partner,’ and there’s a visceral, body-language reaction from half the team members when that happens, then that person is not working in a safe place.”
To combat that type of bias, Degreed holds monthly trainings to explore the ways unconscious biases can manifest themselves, said Kennedy.
Many LDS men and women serve religious missions in their late teens and early 20s. Those missions expose young adults to other parts of the country and the world, creating an openness to cultural differences, said Shootman.
“The world looks different when you’ve looked at it from another country. Most of your workforce has lived in another country, which creates a great openness from a cultural standpoint, great language skills,” he said. “Irrespective of your faith system, I think the missionary tradition creates a pretty healthy workforce.”
Shootman and Fuller both noted that recruiting women and minorities to Utah is often difficult, not only due to perceptions about the culture, but because they can feel very alone and isolated in Utah. That’s why cultivating diversity within a company can be key for recruiting from out of state—it lets candidates see that “there’s someone like me here. This is a place I can thrive,” said Kennedy.