How to Build a Compassionate Workplace

Methods for interacting with emotional labor that create a net positive for everyone in your nonprofit organization.

How to Build a Compassionate Workplace
15 mins read

If your diverse workforce does not understand or care for one another, you do not have inclusion.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workforce are a practice. You can have a very diverse workforce, but if your workforce does not understand or care for one another, you do not have inclusion. In that case, systems to achieve ambitious goals can break down rapidly.

When fundamental systems of how we do our work—in concert with the systems of how we understand each other as a team—break down, that disintegration can tip everyone into a workplace that is uninspiring at best and toxic at worst.

An overlooked tributary of D&I work is the neologism emotional labor. Like the broader umbrella term DE&I, emotional labor, too, has many branches to explore. One of these is the activity of “othering questions.” When devoid of authentic care, this activity can result in net negative emotional labor from the person being asked the questions.

Othering happens when at the individual level, a person of the dominant culture demands information about the non-dominant person out of “curiosity,” or out of “trying to get to know the person.” Read the companion article on othering to learn more.

I want to explore emotional labor, and specifically, “othering questions” together with you, followed by some examples of how to manage emotional labor within your workforce. The point isn’t to eradicate emotional labor from your office completely (that’s impossible) but to weave into your office culture methods for interacting with emotional labor that creates a net positive for everyone in your organization.

Let’s dig in!

The Emotional Labor in Being Othered

The effects of Othering Quesitons:



In The Middle

Emotional Labor


dominant culture

Pictured above: Othering questions can foster inclusion or fuel division.

Othering questions are questions you are asked specific to the questioner’s perceived difference between you and them. The confusion, defensiveness, emotion—and even the desire to be friendly or even an ally threaded throughout interaction—makes othering an important concept to break down.

From my personal experience, I’ll give a couple examples of othering questions:

  • “Do you identify more as Black or as White?”
  • “You’re from New England? Why is everyone so mean there?”

These are not particularly nefarious questions at all, but they are questions specific to key pieces of my identity marked as “different from” the person asking the question.

Emotional labor is a byproduct of answering a question posed in combination with no real bond between me and the inquirer and with the assumption that (since these questions are “benign”), I will give the answers. The expectation of my emotional work with alacrity (to grin and bear it) lurks within this dynamic.

Other examples:

  • What are hair locks?
  • Why do you only wear dresses/skirts to work?
  • What was it like to grow up socioeconomically disadvantaged?

On the surface, these questions are not necessarily harmful. Tactless maybe. However, at the root of these questions is the assumption that you will answer those questions, and that is the invitation for emotional labor to join the conversation.

What if you don’t want to talk about which race you identify with more, or how you grew up? What if the person asking doesn’t know you well and hasn’t done any kind of work to make you feel comfortable in a way that actually lands for you?

How You Can Create a Culture of Care at Work

Remember what I said about DE&I work? It’s a practice. All the suggestions below take time to establish, and once established, you can’t stop doing the work. That is how DE&I becomes a part of your culture.

With an understanding of the emotional labor that othering carries with it, you can begin to rethink interactions in the workplace. To start, take the following steps:

Establish a culture of giving and receiving feedback often.

This should extend from manager to staff, and importantly, from staff to manager. This means feedback on performance, but it also means feedback on how to go about accomplishing your work together and how to communicate among teams. To build communication bridges and trust, you can also ask how things are going generally.

Establish a culture of care among your team.

I talk about the “well of reciprocity” a lot. (I wrote about it here.) The well of reciprocity is a metaphor for how we promote healthy team relationships and what happens when we don’t invest in those relationships. Some questions take just a little out of the well. Others take much more. Be mindful that you are returning to the well what you remove from it.

One way to establish a culture of care is to talk about your working styles. Example: Do you know who in your team is more of an audio learner or a visual learner? You cannot do the work at hand successfully without knowing how people work and learn.

A second way is to reflect honestly and openly about why specific behavior exists. Is there frustrating behavior at your office that has not been respectfully confronted? For example, is someone consistently 15 minutes late to meetings with the assumption people will fill them in on what they missed? Take care to ask them about how they’re doing before jumping to conclusions.

Establish a culture of continuous learning.

People change, the work world changes, the economy and our larger culture all change. When I was coming up through the ranks, we barely talked about gender fluidity, and people of color were required to alter their hair to fit a norm just to be employable. (And yes, I have been asked why my hair looks the way it does if I’m brown.)

There were very few lactation rooms or single-stall gender-neutral restrooms or visible tattoos or piercings or service dogs in the office. We’ve made progress by learning more about our community needs as concerns are brought to our attention.

It’s important to understand that this is a journey and to be open to learning.

How We Create a Culture of Care at Food Recovery Network (FRN)

We talk about the work, not the person.

We have “pre-mortems” and debriefs as a best practice for most of our projects. We’ve become used to talking with one another about how we do our work. That way, when personal questions are introduced, it’s not so uncomfortable to hold people accountable for them that just don’t seek accountability. When the focus is work, a team member receiving a personal question has the space to say, “I don’t think I want to talk about that,” and it’s received with care and not with insult.

We don’t assume employees feel comfortable publicly correcting people

On the team about mispronouncing names, making sweeping statements, etc. Employees need to be able to express discomfort in a safe space with a manager to talk out the situation, receive tools, and create a resolution that is a net positive among the two people.

We don’t assume people want to talk about their identifiers!

Just because hair color, tattoos, scars, method of dress, etc. are visible, or other identifiers such as religion, children, marital status are known, doesn’t mean the person wants to be involved in a conversation to explain to you what any of those personal identifiers mean to them. And that’s okay. It’s critical that people understand cues from one another.

We come to understand those cues by establishing a culture of course-correcting and setting boundaries. One way that you can do that is to talk to each other and practice course-correcting and setting boundaries. When we practice, we begin to remember and understand the preferences of our teams.

We actively talk about self-care.

We check in to see how people are doing. If someone is asking you to do some emotional labor for them, and you feel, for whatever reason, you can’t during that moment, you need to feel free to express yourself. We need to recognize that establishing a culture of feedback, or expressing care and creating strong bonds is a practice.

Relationships are dynamic

Even the strongest of relationships can move in many different directions—including growing stronger in ways we don’t anticipate. Remember, asking someone to edit a document because it’s part of their role is very different from asking that person to talk you down from a frustrating situation you just had with another colleague.

  • We added an “office vibe” section to our all staff meeting to discuss how things are going at the office globally. Here, we link articles about how to be a community ally. We talked about certain gendered phrases like saying, “hey guys,” and how that term lands for some people. I personally do use that phrase, but I made note of who on the team didn’t like that term. I try my best to avoid using it. And, in the moment, if I say “guys” when addressing my team, I correct myself and say, “folks,” or my favorite Pittsburgh term, “yinz.”

    We don’t necessarily discuss office vibes every single staff meeting: We also have an Excel spreadsheet with a list of podcasts, books, movies, etc. that we can pursue to learn more about cultural topics.
  • I am as transparent as I can be with my team. We talk about the budget and the long-term vision for paying every single person on our team a living wage. We’re not there yet, and we all try to take part in making that happen. I also let my team know that I am trying every day at FRN to be more inclusive, to be an ally, and what I do outside of FRN as a human in the world. Have I mentioned this is a practice?

Action steps you can take TODAY:

  • Familiarize yourself with the terms emotional labor, emotional work, and othering. You don’t need a PhD in DE&I, but begin exploring the terms and reading the stories of people across workplaces. This will take time. This is work. It’s your responsibility.
  • Begin to add phrases into your lexicon like, “Is it okay if I ask you…?” “Do you have the bandwidth to talk to me about…?” Establish that you want to start with respect, that while in your pursuit to respect the person first, that you’re trying. Trying is not perfection; trying communicates you’re in this together. It’s a tremendous shift in positionality to let go of a perch of dominance on which you may not know you sat.
  • Add to every single agenda a section to ask everyone how they are doing. Yes, this will add time to the meeting if you’re not used to doing this. But time is the investment you need to make to get into the practice of hearing from people.
  • If you have exit interview questions that you ask people when they leave the organization, begin asking those exit interview questions now.
  • Talk to your team to understand the root of why a situation is so frustrating. You probably know of a few things that are happening that frustrate people. Don’t just sweep it under the rug. Can the situation that’s causing the frustration be changed? If not, does the person know why it can’t be changed? Is there a compromise you can make?

For many of us, beginning down the pathway towards inclusion can be difficult because we don’t know where to start, we don’t feel equipped, we don’t have the budget, or we’re afraid of doing it wrong. But we all have the power to look at our own office culture, to see whether we can prioritize a space that is compassionate and supports the maintenance of healthy relationships across all staff.

From there, the wellspring of trust, care—and, yes, inclusion—can open.

About the Author

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Regina Anderson Regina Anderson joined Food Recovery Network (FRN) as the Executive Director in 2015. In this role, Regina is responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and fundraising efforts for FRN, which seeks to recover food to feed everyone who is food insecure in the United States.

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for more than twenty years, Regina is committed to social justice issues because she believes two things: this sector can make the biggest difference and people are the engines of positive change. At Independent Sector and LIFT in Washington, DC, Regina worked to raise awareness of the nonprofit sector’s abilities to solve our society’s most complex issues, including structural poverty. Regina received her MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University as well as her BA in English Literature from the University of Maine at Augusta. Regina sits on the Board of Directors of Food Tank and RegenAll and is a member of Pink Noise Projects, a Philadelphia-based artist collaborative.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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