Prioritize Inclusion & Belonging: People are engaged when they develop authentic relationships at work and in order to do that, people need to feel like they can be themselves and that they’ll be accepted. We are all different — in big and little ways. But it takes an environment of acceptance and inclusion for people to feel comfortable opening up and sharing.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain. Janine is a passionate advocate for healthy workplace culture. A former employment lawyer, Janine envisioned how technology could democratize access to legal information by advising employees about harassment, bias and other issues while making trending employee concerns visible to employers. To make it happen, Janine recruited engineering and product leaders from Linkedin, Adobe, and McKinsey to join Emtrain and re-invent and automate the employee relations process. By bringing in machine learning and predictive analytics, Emtrain allows people to go from reactive to proactive in stopping harassment, bias and ethics issues.
Over the last decade, Janine has grown Emtrain to a 40-person culture tech company with 800 clients that span Fortune 50 to technology startups and include such clients as Netflix, Buzzfeed, New York Times, Workday, Dolby Labs, Pinterest, Yelp and many others.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Certainly. As an employment lawyer, I became frustrated with what I call the litigation paradox — meaning employers are so focused on defending potential employment claims, they often end up alienating employees and causing claims. And they cause a negative workplace culture because they’re often not authentic or transparent when responding to peoples’ concerns. The threat of litigation has shaped employee relations strategies for the last 20 years and it’s time for a new system where employees get authentic advice they trust to solve their own workplace issues.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2016, I wrote an article predicting that #MeToo would happen because of social media and the fact that millennials and Gen Z employees were more comfortable than older generations speaking out and demanding change. It was surreal when it happened the next year and my coworkers thought I had “special powers.” I just had experience and a long view of employee relations.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! Years ago, I had a vision of a new type of platform where people had easy access to experienced, trusted advice on employee rights and responsibilities. After more than a decade of bootstrapping the business, we were finally able to invest in and recruit an experienced product team to build the new platform. The new platform is going live this month (March) and it will definitely help employees solve their workplace concerns. It will also give employers an anonymized summary of trending issues and concerns to allow employers go from reactive to proactive.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think we’re in a paradigm shift where leadership and employee relations strategies have not kept pace with social and demographic changes. As a result, there’s a disconnect between what people want and need versus the status quo where leadership does not invest in creating a culture of trust and authenticity. Without a culture of trust and authenticity, people will disengage, which triggers unhappiness.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
It negatively impacts all three since they’re all interconnected. Employees need to be engaged to be productive, which directly influences company profitability. And it’s hard to achieve employee engagement when employees are unhappy or not feeling well.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Build a culture of trust: People need to believe their leaders will do what they say they’ll do. When employees feel like they can’t count on leadership to follow through on commitments, that’s when leaders can’t count on employees.
- Have a social mission: It’s much more rewarding to know your work is for a good cause that benefits people when you’re working hard. And without a social mission, the compensation and professional development opportunities have to be compelling to keep people engaged.
- Invest in employee development: Emtrain has a value of win/win professional development. So as long as there’s a benefit to Emtrain, we invest in different training and development activities and/or flexible work-schedules to allow people to pursue “passion projects” and/or increase their skills and marketability. As an example, we routinely partner our video team members with experienced industry personnel to help increase their skills since it’s a win/win. In another situation, we provided a very flexible work schedule to one of our executives to pursue her passion project — authoring a book about workplace drama.
- Create shared values/shared language: A healthy workplace culture requires people to operate from the same set of values so everyone is committed to the same goal. A healthy workplace culture also requires a shared language when giving feedback about actions people find respectful, disrespectful, demoralizing or toxic. Using a shared language makes the feedback more effective and less personal. Emtrain has developed and recommends the Workplace Color Spectrum as a shared language for people to provide feedback on co-worker actions.
- Prioritize Inclusion & Belonging: People are engaged when they develop authentic relationships at work and in order to do that, people need to feel like they can be themselves and that they’ll be accepted. We are all different — in big and little ways. But it takes an environment of acceptance and inclusion for people to feel comfortable opening up and sharing.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
People can mobilize online and challenge business leaders to adopt changes that improve workplace culture. Look at what happened at Google where the workers forced management to drop their policy of forced arbitration. Employers do not like to be in the headlines because their workforce is calling out for change. Workers are increasingly in a position to focus attention on workplace culture issues and demand change given the power of social media.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I inspire people through my conviction that we’re building a platform that will fundamentally change the employee experience. Emtrain has largely been bootstrapped which means people have been wearing multiple hats for a long time and working incredibly hard. And my leadership style is to always push for more. But at the same time, I care about each person on the team and I believe people feel my care and support. So, I think my leadership style is to be passionate about our goals and always push people to achieve more, while showing that I care and appreciate them.
I didn’t realize I pushed so hard until this past year when we recruited people from top organizations like McKinsey, Linkedin and Adobe. At different times, our COO, Chief Product Officer and VP of Design all told me they had never worked as hard as they were working at Emtrain, but they loved the work and were committed to realizing the vision. I’m grateful my team embraced the vision and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it. At the same time, I’m pretty accessible and I certainly try to be supportive for everyone.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would not have achieved the same level of success without the support and participation of my husband. Building a company is a long haul and really stressful. My husband has been a support system and he’s shared the burden of solving thorny issues along the way. He has also helped me see where I need to grow in order to be a better leader for Emtrain. I don’t think I would have stuck it out this long without his support. In addition to my husband, I was fortunate to have a technical co-founder who has an incredible amount of perseverance and grit and who allowed us to stay the course and get to the point where we could recruit an experienced product team to bring the vision to life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m enjoying creating opportunities for people. I have the ability to make a positive impact on people, either through professional development or by providing generous economic opportunity and I’m very mindful of that fact. I want to be a positive force for the people on my team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your weaknesses are your strengths and your strengths are your weaknesses.”
This is my “go to” quote these days and I think it has a broad application. For me, I used to think “poor me” since my dad abandoned my family when I was 13 and we hit hard times. My mom worked two jobs and I started working at 15 to put food on the table. Growing up that way is a huge disadvantage — I’m appreciating it now as a parent since I see how much a parent influences a child’s success. I had no support. But growing up that way does make you have grit and perseverance — essential ingredients for any entrepreneur.
On the flip side, one of my unique strengths is that I can connect the dots of seemingly unrelated pieces of information and imagine solutions or see possibilities that most people cannot see. I like imagining new innovative solutions. And while that is a strength, it quickly becomes a weakness when you’re a business leader and you’re responsible for getting people to focus and execute on a current plan.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to start a movement that caused California venture capitalists to commit 15% of their funds to founders who are women and/or people of color, which would have a triple social impact. First, it would create economic opportunity for women and people of color. Second, funding diverse founders would accelerate diversity and inclusion because those teams would be more diverse since their leadership is more diverse and they’re recruiting from different social networks. Third, it would create more diverse products as people see different market needs based on their personal experiences. For example, I don’t think anyone but a woman employment lawyer could have created Emtrain’s product — a neutral platform that gives employees advice about harassment and bias and trending concerns and analytics to employer!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!