Speakfully Insider: Maggie Carruth O'Connor

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Welcome to Speakfully Insider, a weekly series featuring thought leaders on important topics surrounding workplace mistreatment, company culture, workplace safety, social justice, and more.

Please introduce yourself.

Hi! I’m Maggie and I’m a people and culture consultant living in Chattanooga, TN with my husband, Chris, and golden retriever, Barry. I have deep ties to and a deep love for Atlanta, GA as well. I’m a true hobbyist - I enjoy the vocational work I do but I also enjoy trail running, playing violin in a band, learning new music, skateboarding/snowboarding/surfing, traveling (pre-COVID), and hosting and producing my culture-focused podcast, Culture Chats. I’m also the lead event organizer and producer for TEDxChattanooga.

What was the driving force for you to begin working in the people and culture space in 2014?

Simple. I wanted to represent something and be someone employees could truly trust. Truthfully, “HR” doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to employers’ relationships with their employees. And technically speaking, traditional HR duties can be wildly different from the duties of someone in the people and culture space. (I touch on this in the very first episode of my podcast, Culture Chats.) So, I wanted to do something and be something different. But it was certainly tricky. Back in 2014, Atlanta companies weren’t fully on-board with the “people and culture” titles, let alone responsibilities. That is different today, and it’s amazing to witness. Now, I’m trying to bring the same wave of positive change to companies today in Chattanooga.

How do your double degrees in Sports Management affect your work in the field of helping organizations to step up their culture game?

My time at the University of Tennessee helped me develop some of my hard skills. I learned how to be a better researcher, how to better manage my time, how to sell tickets, how to handle operations and logistics before games, things of that nature. My experience at UT was actually what led me back home to Atlanta to obtain my Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Equally important was my time there, which was also three years of the most difficult schooling I’ve ever experienced. 

I took a lot of pastoral care classes, and those classes to this day directly impact not only my professional life but also my personal life. In those kinds of classes, one learns what it means to truly listen and what it means to fully support another person. One learns that showing support and listening does not equate to trying to fix the problem immediately. But perhaps most importantly, taking those pastoral classes teaches one how to be more self-aware and reflective. The things I learned in those classes taught me how to establish relationships within the workplace that are grounded in trust and authenticity.

When you consult with an organization what is your process in ‘culture discovery?’ 

For my work, culture discovery must be rooted in two-way trust first and foremost. As much as I want business leaders to trust me, I must also trust them. I’m intentional with whom I want to work, as well. If the business leaders aren’t truly “in it” it’s inevitable that sustainable change will be near to impossible. 

The actual process involves heavy data collection, both quantitative and qualitative, as well as loads of observation. Essentially, the goal of culture discovery is to establish a holistic understanding of the organization’s context and culture. So one can imagine, to truly discover culture, honesty and time are key ingredients. 

Plainly, the larger the team or organization, the longer the discovery process takes. But it is a crucial part of the process of turning, building, or scaling company culture.

In your opinion, how do millennials require a change of guard or old school rules when it comes to the workplace?

The first thing to understand about millennials is that not every millennial is the same. I can’t say for certain that every single millennial wants their employer to have some sort of social impact on the world, for example. But thanks to research and data, there are things that, on average, most millennials seek out of their jobs and their employers. Two things that every person, not just millennials, truly yearn for is feeling respected and valued. When it comes to respecting and valuing employees in the workplace, it means creating a space where opinions shared aren’t ignored or ostracized. It means implementing systems that are rooted in fairness and equality. It means communicating with authenticity and clarity. 

With movements like #meToo and Time’s Up, do you feel there is a true impact as it relates to workplace culture?

Yes, undoubtedly so. In a perfect world, companies had always taken strong stances against harassment, prejudice, unfair treatment, bias, etc. But that’s sadly not how it is. So, as people have become more empowered to speak up about their experiences, specifically related to the #metoo and Time’s Up movements in their personal and professional lives, companies are having to take a look in the mirror and take hard stances and be vocal. Accountability hasn’t been more prevalent than in today’s times.

What steps do you believe will help in making workplace mistreatment and fear of retaliation a thing of the past?

That’s a loaded question. It all depends on the organization. Sometimes, workplace mistreatment and fear of retaliation occur at the highest levels, at the very top. Sometimes, those things are the product of just one line manager. 

First, there needs to be a clear process for reporting and documenting these kinds of instances. Employees need to know what that process is from start to finish. If you are reading this and you do not have a clear process in place, start outlining that today and communicate it clearly and often. Consider a platform like Speakfully so that employees can easily and safely voice their concerns. If you are reading this and you don’t know how to report things of that nature, ask. Ask someone in your HR/people operations department. If there isn’t one, ask your manager. 

Another great place to start is re-evaluating the internal review process, assuming and hoping there is one; specifically, implementing some form of 360-degree feedback process whether it’s bi-monthly, monthly, quarterly, bi-annually, or annually. This kind of feedback is rooted in anonymity, and if there are indeed cases of workplace mistreatment, bullying, fear of retaliation, etc., those instances can safely come to light.

Something else to consider is to implement monthly engagement surveys or pulse checks - whatever you want to call them. Obviously, make sure the surveys are anonymous and are consistent in terms of timing. These kinds of surveys not only offer employees another relatively safe place to express concerns, but also a place to highlight the good things on which leaders can double-down.

To level-up, I’d also recommend organizations hiring an unbiased and external individual or group of people to figure out where the cancer originates. 

Ultimately, eliminating workplace mistreatment and fear of retaliation is extremely difficult, because what’s at stake to get to a place of fair treatment are people’s jobs, thus their livelihoods. To make things of the past, employees are the ones who have to be willing to voice their concerns and opinions. That in and of itself is difficult if not impossible to do at so many organizations, sadly. So, if you are experiencing that in your workplace and you’ve exhausted all of your resources, tidy up that resume or portfolio and start looking for a new job, immediately.

If you could sit down with a historical figure to discuss equal rights and civility, who would it be, what would you discuss, and why?

I write the answer to this question on Friday 1/22/21, the day Hank Aaron died. I can’t help but think about his legacy and his hardships not only when he entered the baseball world but also when he became a figure in the public eye. So, I think I’d want to talk to him. I’d ask him to tell me things he remembers most vividly. I’d ask him about his relationship with baseball, for sure, but I’d also ask him how he was able to keep his head held high. I’d ask him if he regretted anything. And I’d ask him who he looked up to, and who paved a way for him to succeed when all odds were stacked against him. I’d ask him if he’s proud of where we are today when it comes to equal and civil rights. All in all, though, I’d do as much listening as I possibly could.