HR Indaba hears why leaving employee experience to chance is a big gamble

54twentyfour's Julia Makhubela says employers must acknowledge people's different circumstances.

“When you feel valued and respected in the workplace, you rave about your company to your friends and family. You stick around, you go the extra mile and you participate more. However, when we are not respected and valued, we do not show up at work. We withdraw, we become combative, we try to survive and most of us become disengaged before we eventually leave,” said 54twentyfour founder Julia Makhubela

Speaking at day one of the HR Indaba in Sandton this week, she said it was her own experiences that drove her to start a company dedicated to helping organisations understand diversity and inclusion. 

The name of my company comes from the street number of her childhood home and signifies the transition from growing up in a low-income neighbourhood rife with crime and teenage pregnancy to being a millennial climbing the corporate ladder. 

Said Julia: 

“When I started working, I spent ten years of my career job-hopping. Six years into that period in my life, I found a tech company that gave me a huge salary and I went from living in a small dwelling in Soweto to the Pepper Club Hotel in Cape Town. I had a job that gave me great financial perks. But three months into it, I again started feeling undervalued and not respected…It was little things they did like asking me to make tea or telling me to take notes in meetings.” 

Unlike her mother who was a factory worker that stayed in a toxic environment in a culture of fear for nineteen years, Julia did what most young people do when they are unhappy and changed jobs regularly. 

It’s an issue that most companies raise, especially when speaking about millennials. After a while, Julia realised that he problem was that certain groups of people simply did not experience the workplace in the same manner as other groups. 

“When I moved back to Johannesburg after that terrible job in Cape Town, I started to show signs of PTSD because my experiences in the workplace emotionally resembled my experience as a child in a poverty-stricken household,” said Julia, adding that, even though the law has changed to allow certain demographics to be included in the workplace, the mental barriers to inclusion still exist. 

“We don't know how to engage with each other because we grew up in silos.”

Approach different people differently 

Julia went on to describe how different people have different circumstances and perspectives that employers must acknowledge and take into account when attempting to make their people feel included. 

If employers want to attract a Gen-Z black girl that takes two taxis on her commute to work, was part of the #feesmustfall movement, and is the first breadwinner in her home, you have to be careful about the experience you give her as an employee if you want her to stay. Whether that is by giving her transport money for the first month until she receives her first salary, or being careful not to expect her in the office for early meetings, Julia said companies must do things to show that hey empathise and understand that individual’s situation. 

She said: 

“At the other end of the spectrum, you can find an old white man who has more than 20 years' tenure and has a lot of institutional knowledge. If those kinds of employees are not engaged properly, they become dysfunctional. They hoard information and become reluctant to mentor young professionals."

Ultimately, Julia said the key was not to view the employee experiences as a collection of activities that take place during office hours but rather as an extension of the human experience.