Best of: Why is empathy at work about more than pronouns?

July 8, 2021

To close out the month-long celebration of Pride, Chris Hyams sits down virtually with Ryker Knapp, Senior Learning and Development Specialist at Indeed and the Executive Community Engagement Lead for iPride Americas. As a transgender man, Knapp shares his personal experience of coming out — and why empathy at work is about more than pronouns.

- Hello and welcome everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. I identify as white, straight, cisgendered man and my pronouns are he and him. And I'd like to welcome all of you to the next episode of "Here to Help" This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID 19. Today is June 30th, we are on day 484 of global work from home. Inclusion and belonging is one of Indeed's core values. And throughout this month of pride, our diversity, inclusion and belonging, or DI&B teams and our iPride Inclusion Resource Group have hosted many events with the theme of: Bringing Pride Home as a celebration of belonging at Indeed while we remain apart. These events, conversations, and celebrations aimed to uplift LGBTQIA Plus voices and educate allies on how to support the community. However, even as pride month is coming to a close at Indeed pride is not just a June thing, we celebrate pride and practice allyship every day. Today, I am delighted to be joined by Ryker Knapp, Senior Learning and Development Specialist here at Indeed and Executive Community Engagement Lead for iPride in the Americas. Ryker thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thanks for having me Chris. I'll do a quick intro too, so for those of you who don't know me my name is Ryker Knapp, I identify as a white, hetero-flexible trans man and my pronouns are he, him. I'm actually out of our Scottsdale Arizona office and I am a proud life partner and dad.

- Well, let's start off where we always start these conversations with a check-in, how are you doing today right now?

- I'm actually doing pretty good and I'm pumped to be here. I feel like I've gotten to a point where I've adjusted to work from home pretty good. I definitely have my spouts of missing the in-person collab moments with coworkers and then just being able also to teach folks in person, I miss those moments as well, but I feel pretty good.

- Well, we have a lot to cover but since you mentioned teaching before we dive in can you tell us just a little bit about what it is that you do everyday to help people get jobs?

- Yeah, so what I do every day directly correlates to employee retention for professional development and career progression. And so I kind of like to say, I help people grow at their job, but like you said I'm a Senior Learning and Development Specialist and so currently I support our GPS and CSI segments and my main focus as of now is on leadership development.

- So, you have had a really interesting and varied career and a number of different roles before you found that learning and development was the place where you belong. Can you talk a little bit about some of the other roles you had and how that helped shape you in your professional life?

- Yeah, so it's actually a somewhat of a, it starts out as an ironic story if you will. I did not grow up enjoying school or the classroom setting whatsoever. I struggled a lot because of like undiagnosed like learning disabilities at the time, and then because of that I had teachers that grew frustrated with me, some that were fine to leave me behind. And so it put a bitter taste in my mouth around school and learning just in general. What I did do though is I channeled a lot of the energy I had in me into art and into like my creative side. I think I chose that path because you can't really be wrong there. So it's an easy way to express that stuff and not you know be ridiculed for it. So it felt safe. Unfortunately, art doesn't really pay the bills very often so for an adult job I had to go look for something to pay my bills. And at that point in my life I was also, so I was like in my early 20s I had recently come out as part of the LGBT community. In my search for this adult job I actually was looking for a company and not specifically a job role. I wanted to work somewhere that was a company that cared about their employees, that was obviously LGBT inclusive. And I wanted it to just be somewhere that I knew I could thrive and that people would be advocating for me. Being in Arizona as well was somewhat of a hurdle in that space we're not a big, we're not Silicon Valley, we don't have all these big huge companies here, especially, you know, we're talking about close to 12 years ago. So at that point really the only thing that was out here was PayPal. And I essentially applied for every single entry level position they had and I landed a debt collector job. I knew some things about finance I grew up with a father that owned his own business, he was a CFP, so a Certified Financial Planner, you know, some fun things we did was talking about the stock market when it used to be printed in the newspaper. And so I knew some things about finance but I hadn't really learned the back end of stuff. What I learned quickly in that role is that it was a very emotionally taxing position, sitting and talking to folks. So outbound calling and talking to folks day after day about the hardships, their financial hardships, their personal hardships; talking to people about I'm unemployed, I can't pay any of my bills right now. Me paying you this bill is either I pay you or I don't feed my kids or how their medical conditions were so severe that they couldn't work and also their insurance found a loophole in order to drop them. And so that's the only thing they could afford to pay. And then some of the more tricky conversations where people having no idea that the debt even existed, because it was a form of like family fraud, someone they felt they could trust charged against them. So it was some interesting conversations to navigate but also at this point in my life outside of coming into like my identity and all of that, I had also lost both of my parents at this point in my life. So, in this heightened sense of existence and life and life being precious to me having these conversations with people, I like to say that I got a lot of growth out of all of it because what I did is my empathy and my compassion muscles got worked out a lot. So I got really buff in that area if you will. And that growth actually is what projected me forward in my career. I learned really quickly that it paid off far more to sit and listen and be an ear for people than to go through the motions of what was being told for me to do on these types of calls. And through this I actually promoted fairly quickly within like a 14th month timeframe, I went from just dialing out to then mentoring, to assisting with training classes, to then getting into late stage collections. So helping people navigate their six month plus past due bills and then went for a team manager position and got it. And one of the main things was that I had leaders around me this whole time, of course, right, I'm reporting to people. And I was very lucky, blessed, whatever, to have a specific leader that was truly invested in my development. They saw my authenticity, they saw my empathy and they, they wanted to see me, they used to say this to me but they wanted to see me be their boss someday. And they invested in me and they were able to kind of diagnose things about myself, I was young, I was still figuring out myself, they were able to help me hone in on the things that I loved and what I was good at. And I believe that all of these experiences combined are actually what shaped my super power as an educator which I feel is my empathy and my understanding of what it means to truly have a safe space when you're learning something new.

- It's a really amazing story to me in that clearly because of what we do at Indeed we help people get jobs. One of the things that we talk about is just the power and the meaning of a job in someone's life it is. For a lot of people a job is a job and it's just a paycheck but if you show up in more ways than one those experiences can really have a profound impact and something like being a debt collector which might not be something that you would have thought would have been a profound experience can open us up to a new way of looking at the world and that's really powerful. So you talked about having these leaders and I know in our discussion yesterday when we were getting ready for this you talked in particular about one manager who really helped you find this passion. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

- Yeah. So my first manager ever at PayPal, it's incredible human, she was the one that really, I guess we just say she was there for me. She was the one that helped me identify why I had a twinkle in my eye when I was educating or teaching others. She saw that passion way before I ever saw it. I was still carrying all the weight and the baggage of childhood education and not able to see that I had a skill there. She threw out our careers together. She actually got promoted to a director, a site level director. And when the opportunity came for her to start building her L&D team she actually reached out to me, she's said I have an open position I think you would be a great fit but you of course need to apply and you got to get the job. I was like, okay. It came with a little bit of a caveat, it meant that I needed to leave Arizona and I would have to go move to Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City, Iowa, for folks who don't know is a tri-state city but it is tiny. It is like population I think when I was there like 90,000 people. And so it was going to be a very big difference. I grew up in Southern California right outside of LA so I'm used to big city and then I live in the city of downtown Phoenix. So it was an adjustment for sure, but I made that jump to not just for my career but I knew she was going to be there and she was there too. And, it honestly came down to her being willing to give me a chance, seeing me for me and who I am and my skillset and then believing in me and that's what meant the world. She actually shows up later in a really meaningful point in my life but we'll talk about that in a little bit.

- One of my first jobs actually out of college was as a teacher, I lived in, you talked about a small town being 90,000 I lived in a town in Vermont with 3,000 people and taught a public high school. And so I know a little bit about what a classroom setting is like there, but can you talk a little bit about what a classroom is like in a corporate setting and for the folks who were going through your training what is different about their classroom experience and then when they go to work day to day afterwards?

- Yeah. So I think of running a classroom or taking on a new cohort of learners, I kind of think of it as like a garden of safety seeds and planting this garden, right? And it's got a nice fence around it. We're watering, being nurtured and cared for. And these are all my babies in a room that I'm helping flourish in order to do that though I have to be genuine, I have to be authentic, I have to be a voice for them, I have to be aware and attentive to every single seed, I have to lead with empathy and compassion. And ultimately the overarching goal is to foster a place of emotional and physical safety and a place where feel like they can thrive. I feel as though I talked about my past like I feel like learning is hard enough as it is. And as we add in our diverse identities, our backgrounds, our traumas, and we show up to learn it's a lot and it can be a lot for people. And when we're talking about the corporate setting, you have to have that corporate filter, right? And so you want to show up authentic so you can learn your best but you also need to show up great, right? And as an educator I feel incredibly responsible to always think with everything that I do, if I'm building content, if I'm facilitating whatever I'm doing I have to think, will every learner feels safe enough to to learn. And if I don't keep that lens then we can forget about folks remembering everything or learning everything. And this is a kind of a stark contrast to how everyday life is, honestly when our cohorts bloom and they're plucked and placed where they're supposed to go, I go through a spell of worrying about them because I know when they're out there in the real world they're going to have to find their own resources, they're going to have to be adaptable to the types of leaders that they get. And leaders can change a lot over your lifetime in a workplace. And they're now also not just being measured on, hey, like, did you understand that what else can I do to help you? It's they're being measured on productivity and they're accountable to it. And so it goes from this safety net to like harsh reality, right, and then we can talk about that for almost anything in life that kind of happens to you. But it does feel a little bit like the empathy and that safety kind of dies a little bit. Of course it's incredibly important I don't want to dismiss the fact that it's like it's important for people to become self-sufficient to learn how to find their own resources and tools. It's about career progression that's what it is. But I think what I'm talking about is a little bit more about how the conversation changes and how like, when they're with me I'm their advocate, right, and I'm the one that's the foundation that they're building on. They don't report to me, but they do report for me, they're showing up every day to learn from me and I don't know if I have the solution of the answer of why there's this delta between these two experiences of going from a classroom to going to your everyday life. But there's definitely this gap where I don't know the answer, I honestly don't know the solution but I know that there's an area of opportunity for there to be a closer connection between the two.

- What comes through very clearly and you've used this word compassion and the word empathy quite a bit. And it's clear that you've experienced that in your career from others you talked about this experience with this manager and that what you're trying to do is bring that to other people through your classroom environment. Can you talk a little bit more about, I guess, the experience that you've had with other people and with this manager, you talked about how it was shaping your professional experience but can you talk a little bit about how it shaped your personal journey to how you got to where you are today?

- Yeah. So this same manager, she like you said really helped me get into the world of learning and development, but she actually was a huge asset to my transition. I never ever could forget the day that I came out to her. We were at work and I sat her down and I told her, and sometimes you got to be blank because you just got to say it so you can get it out but I sat her down and I said, I'm transitioning, my new name is Ryker and my pronouns are he, him? And I paused and we kind of looked at each other a little bit and then I said, "I came to you because I don't know "how to navigate this at work "and I'm honestly really scared." And she looked at me for awhile, felt like forever, because I was like I have no idea what's going to happen, I trust this lady like crazy, but like I'm still terrified. And what she did in that moment was a life altering for me. She went into a story about her own life she shared that in college her and her boyfriend got pregnant. Her boyfriend was black, she was white, she said, she knew that once she told her family she would lose pretty much all of them. And she was right, she did. But she shared that the love for her daughter, her unborn child, and the love for herself was more valuable to her than she was willing, what made her willing to go through those loses of all the people around her. The... and on the flip side of that story of hers is that her daughter is now a lawyer and is thriving in life and she still doesn't have contact with her family. And the whole point of her telling me this story was to show me true empathy for what I was sharing. She knew that by me sharing this with her I was scared because I was afraid I was going to lose her. I was afraid I was going to lose every single person that was what made me safe and that I thought were people I could turn to, which is the true definition of empathy, right? She identified something inside herself that could understand what I was going through. And beyond that she asked me like, okay, like, how do you want to do this? How do you want to come out? And I just told her I want to go to every team huddle and I want to tell my story it's my story and I want to share it. She agreed and she showed up to every single one with me. She stood next to me every single time. And this interaction has now become essentially my beacon of how I interact with others throughout my career. When I am in a classroom if I am working with my coworkers on my team, we all have these moments in life no matter what the context is, where we have to channel that piece of empathy in order to be there for the person and to ensure that we are providing a safe space especially in the workplace.

- Thank you for sharing that's a really powerful story I've heard you tell it before and it gets me every time and it really is I like the use of the word beacon 'cause it's hard somehow to imagine how to show up for people in situations when you can't predict what they might be but hearing stories like that I think gives me inspiration. So thank you for sharing that. Now I also have seen you at Indeed and you are successful and thriving and an amazing collaborator and contributor and I know that you still face challenges. Can you talk some about what some of the challenges that you deal with are?

- Yeah, I mean, overall honestly I'm in a very good place but I know like any other identity that is on the margin I do fall victim to biases still. There's a lot of stigmas out there about trans folks. I do feel it and I see it and recognize it when people react differently to me because of who I am. I know that in my lifetime I've been blocked from positions, I've been not included or I've been forgotten because of people's hesitations around biases and false information that is set out there about trans people. I think one of the biggest ones is that people essentially expecting you to lose it at some point because I'm trans, there is this big stigma about mental health and mental stability because of my trans ness, right? And they believe out there that there's no way I could be a level headed person and be trans, right? That seems wild which is a huge misconception of us out there. Trans folks we have so much common with everyone else I mean, we battle a lot of the same things that everybody else does that has nothing to do with gender. I have a family, I have fallen in love, I've fallen out of love, I'm spiritual, I have hobbies, I have talents and skills. And those come with pros and cons for all of it and we all have those types of challenges. But yet I'm still defined by this one piece of my identity and in order to progress and to thrive and do well, it's sometimes feels like pushing a boulder up a hill. And you kind of got to let the stuff just roll off your back, I know anybody who's listening to us right now who lives in the margin of our marginalized groups knows exactly what I'm talking about. I don't even really have to explain it, I think we've all kind of felt that before. I think one of the easiest ways I explained it it was honestly to my family when I came out and I talked about my transition and there was a lot of concerns about what I was going to be like when I transitioned. And I was speaking to one of my sisters and I was like, Joanne it's not a brain transplant. I still have the same thoughts, the same memories, the same ambitions, the same feelings. I still remember when we were little we would go to McDonald's and you're a vegetarian so I'd eat the meat patty and you'd eat the burns. Like none of that changes like all these things are the same. Think of it like any other life transition, pretend I'm getting married you would support me through that transition, you would support me through why is this person never leaving my house? Why are they always around? You would support me through those conversations. My last name would change like there's a lot of things that would alter and I would need your support. And if it was treated as such, it wouldn't feel as weird, it would surprise people how normal the change truly is for us.

- So, I mentioned at the beginning, our DI&B team. So in the corporate world, this work is sometimes D&I, diversity, inclusion. Sometimes it's DEI, diversity, equity, inclusion. At Indeed LaFawn Davis who came in and really we'd been doing work with IRGs before, but LaFawn really got us to where we are today and she added the B for belonging, diversity, inclusion, and belonging and that's something that's really important. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what belonging means to you and then in particular in your work how learning and development can help create a culture of belonging and compassion in an organization.

- Yeah, for me it means safety. I use that experience that I shared earlier with that manager to remind me of, in all those moments of life what we need to do to be someone like her. And I think L&D specifically we're at that front line of fostering safety. We're the first people that see that group of new people that come through the door, right? And it's our job to build that safe space when people walk in the door day one. It's on us to reset the safety sometimes, when we're doing continued education or leadership development, right? It's us to recalibrate and say, hey, this is safe for you to pause and learn and then carry forward and progress in your career. I often think about like how the outside world is honestly really scary for a lot of us. And people did say it bluntly speaking for myself people want to do harm to people like me. In others in different marginalized communities but I don't know why but it's a reality that people get so visceral about the existence of me, that they want to harm. And, with all of that going on in the outside world, our inside world should be as safe as possible. And I think work is a hundred percent part of our inside world. I say that because the average person actually spends close to 90,000 hours working in their lifetime. That's essentially 30 straight years. If I'm going to spend a huge majority of my life doing something, I want to love it, I want to be emotionally safe doing it and I want to be supported in it. And, being in L&D we get to do that for people, we get to build that safety for the 30 years that they're going to be in the workplace and I think it's a really valuable and impactful place to be in.

- You've been talking about being on the educating side but talking about the learning side which is really what this is all about and what does it mean to be open to learning? Everything that we think that we understand about human psychology is that we are resistant to new ideas, people don't like to change, and yet you have to have this openness to take on new things. So how does that show up in the classroom?

- Yeah, that question's a doozy always because there's so much that goes into a learners, openness to learn. First, I guess I'll call out that like the openness to learn and the resisting new ideas honestly can't exist one without the other. As you learn new things you need to be open to new ideas that are shared with you. That comes with people having a really hard time with change. Like you said this is why when we're teaching new things to people we need to foster that environment. Like I've been saying that feels inclusive, that feels safe. And that people who have their guard up feel like they can let it down in order to let new things in. And again, like I said earlier we've got to keep thinking we'll every learner feels safe enough to learn. And if we don't foster that safe space, again, we are not going to have people that are going to have the ability to absorb the information we want them to. This also goes way beyond the classroom, this applies to peers teaching peers, this applies to leaders leading teams and to leaders leading companies, right? So we're essentially kind getting into brain science here but if you don't feel safe, you are now triggering someone's fight or flight. And for an example, let's say you're walking over a very high old wobbly bridge. And while you're on this bridge someone on the other side trying to teach you, someone's on the other side of the bridge trying to teach you how to pull the cord for your parachute in case that bridge goes out. That is too late buddy, like that is way too late, the time to learn it was when it was safe on that hard ground before you got on that bridge. And I guess what I'll say is if you are running into folks, whether they report to you or what, and they have a resistance to learning or to something new that is coming out on your team I would do self-reflection and I would ask 'cause this is what I do as a educator, I would ask have I fostered a safe space? If you don't know the answer to the question I would encourage you to ask and be open to the answers you might get. I can think of situations in my career where I've thought, you know, gosh, I don't think this concept is that hard but this group of folks are not getting it and I don't understand why. And it could have been a scenario where maybe there was a class clown, right? And they're causing a distraction what's done is causing a frustration. And then it feels unsafe because we're now having this internal conflict in the classroom. And as the person who's in charge of providing the education that's also on me to mitigate that situation from happening or stopping it. And so there's a lot of scenarios that can come up that prevent people from having that openness to learning and then also causing the resistance.

- I feel like everything that you're saying makes so much sense and it feels completely radical. Like I don't think this is how people, most people think about the role of education in the classroom either in school growing up or in a corporate setting. So it's inspirational. I want to just take a moment, so it's the last day of June here, June is Pride Month. Can you talk a little bit about what pride means to you?

- Yeah, of course pride means a lot to me specifically because of the history that it holds. There are so many that I get emotional about history sometimes sorry, but there's been so many that have come before me who've lost their lives who have paved the way. I talked about challenges that I face still, they're nothing compared to the people before me. And so for me Pride Month is a time to celebrate them, celebrate myself and others like me. It also reminds me to take pause and look back and say, dang look at me, look where I'm at, look what I did, when a lot was against me and to be really proud of myself.

- Well, I really, it means so much for you to have the courage that you have to talk about these things and to share your story. And I know that for many people that is the hardest thing, coming out stories are always to me the most profound, because it's that leap of faith. And to some degree, every time that in a public forum, you're just talking about who you are you're making that leap of faith over and over again. What inspires you to put yourself out there like this?

- Yeah, I think one of the biggest things is that representation matters, even within my own community, my own trans existence. I do sit in a lot of privilege in that space. I'm white, I pass as a cis male, I'm able bodied. I also have a wonderful job that allows me to be out and celebrate that. So therefore I have the ability to actually choose to be visible. There are so many trans folks that are forced to be stealth, we use the term stealth as like incognito or hiding because it's not safe. And then we have folks that don't have the same privilege of being able to hide either. And so I choose to be visible for people that can not be because I have a safe platform and a wide net that I can cast out and hopefully provide safety for the folks out there that don't have it through education. I also do it because I want people like me to see their potential and see how they can push forward progress and where they can be. And then on a little bit of a more personal level I think I deserve it. I've worked very hard to be myself despite the ridicule and the loss, and I deserve to be heard and seen.

- Well, as we wrap up I'd like to just ask what I normally ask what I normally ask at the end of these discussions which is looking back over the past 16 months and throughout the course of this pandemic, there's been so much that's going on can you talk about something that has happened that has given you some optimism for the future?

- Yeah, so I'm actually really optimistic for the elevated compassion of people's diverse lives, that I feel like the pandemic gave us. So something and it did for us is it gave us a glimpse into the lives of our coworkers and the diversity of our everyday lives. What came along with that is that how much we truly have in common when we take that corporate hat off. And we stopped looking at the surface and I think it has really humanized everyone, it's taught us to give people grace, I'm optimistic about how this will actually translate into an in-person work environment because I foresee an evolution around leadership approaches. When we have seen the value now of putting our employees first and the true return on investment that comes from when people feel seen and cared for and protected. I'm optimistic and honestly excited to see how that translates as we go back to in person and stuff.

- Well Ryker, thank you so much for joining me today and thank you so much for sharing your experience and your empathy, your compassion, and being an inspiration and I really, I can't thank you enough for being open today and for everything that you do at Indeed to help people grow as they help people get jobs. So thank you.

- Thank you.