If you want to see changes happen at work, you must be willing to put yourself out there as the reason change is needed and needed now. Is your paid personal time measly? Is the office environment counterproductive? Do you not get enough employee benefits?

Many years ago, I worked for a senior partner who had been hired into our large organization from a smaller firm. In the weeks after her arrival, she quickly established herself as a strong, visionary leader and someone every junior and mid-level staff person wanted to get to know. So I jumped on an opportunity to hear her talk at an after-hours event for professional women. It was there that she told a story about her experience as an expecting mom at her previous company.

In short, she was the first woman in her organization to get pregnant and plan to return to work after her baby was born (note that this happened more than 23 years ago and right before the passage of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)). Her colleagues and bosses were delighted for her, but they immediately realized that there was a problem. Their company lacked a maternity leave policy--something that, suddenly, had become critically important to keeping this talented person around. In the months before her due date, her company was successful in establishing a forward-thinking and, ultimately, a compliant policy that remains in place today. She was employee zero.

My guess is that other people in my former partner's company noticed the lack of a maternity leave policy. However, they didn't have the impetus to put in the effort to change it. The same is true for many of us and the issues we notice at work: We see things every day that could be better, but we have too many other things on our plates to make changing those issues our top priority. These old policies just don't work in modern offices, but change is slow in coming and nobody wants to be the first one to complain. There's no employee zero.

Employee zero- a term coined by innovator Julia Beck of It's Working Project- is the first person who notices which things could be better and acts to improve them. It's a positive spin on the concept of patient zero, the first carrier of a disease in an outbreak. What's exciting about this is that it just takes one person to get the ball rolling towards big changes--but that one person can't be just anyone.

It takes a specific person who is personally and negatively impacted by a certain policy to create the momentum needed for change. It's how many of our outdated laws are changed. As explored in the More Perfect Plaintiffs- a fascinating podcast from RadioLab about the case that ultimately lead to the Supreme Court's most recent decision on marriage equality- you learn the backstory on the Texas couple whose arrest for a rarely enforced but still existent law became the event that changed everything.

So, how do you initiate change? You must either be employee zero or support someone else who is.

In some cases, simply stating the issue to senior managers from the perspective of someone personally impacted is enough. They'll see the pain, recognize the problem and the obvious solution, and make the change.

In other cases, change doesn't come as easily. This is when traditional tactics of changing things at work by creating a vision and soliciting senior buy-in simply doesn't work. If you're willing to be or support an employee zero, try these steps instead.

  1. Tell your story. Employee zero has to start with the story that describes the challenge they're facing. This is the biggest stumbling block because people can be reluctant to come forward out of concern that they'll be singled out as troublemakers to management. The story must be personal, specific, and as objectively factual as possible while avoiding any unwarranted speculation about the motivations of the company's decision-makers.
  2. Know what you want. Just wanting "things" to change isn't detailed enough to spark action. Instead, describe as precisely as you can which policy should be repealed, what (if anything) it should be replaced with, how you'd like to see the change implemented, and when you will be satisfied.
  3. Find the others. There are likely other people at the company facing the same issue. Your courage might inspire them to join in. If you can engage them, you can build a stronger case because management is more likely to listen to a larger group of impacted people rather than an individual.
  4. Know why they'll say no. Knowing the real, business obstacles that leadership will face when making the change is critical to helping craft workarounds. Accept that the change won't be easy for them to make (or they would have already done it.) Have good reasons for them to make the change anyway.
  5. Ask for feedback on if your process to spark change was effective. As Justin Bariso clearly describes in his piece on a recent petition that went wrong for a group of interns, seeking feedback from outside of your immediate peer group is essential to understanding the various perspectives and taking these into account.

Taking these steps ensure there is a solid reason for making change because there is a real face, a real person to demonstrate the need and benefits of doing things differently. You may have even been a part of efforts to change those policies simply because it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned initiatives at work fail before they're implemented because they lack a specific case--someone who will directly benefit from the change.

There is tremendous power in being employee zero and advocating for change that will benefit you and many employees into the future. Not only will it make your company a better place to work, it will encourage you to initiate change when it's needed in the future.

Published on: Jul 27, 2016
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