Can Text Messaging Help You Resolve A Sticky Work Scenario?

How often do you find yourself in a challenging work situation and think, “I just don’t know who I can talk to about this,” or need real time professional advice when your best friend is unavailable?

A new nonprofit, Empower Work, might have a solution. It’s designed to provide anonymous, immediate and financially accessible support for people in exactly those types of tough work situations.

By using a network of trained peer counselor volunteers, Empower Work strives to allow professionals to feel heard, supported and, if needed, connected to resources, all via text or web chat.

Empower Work founder Jaime-Alexis Fowler started the organization after noticing a pattern: people who could afford career development resources and executive coaches were advancing professionally, while those who didn’t have that kind of formal support were struggling to navigate complex workplace dynamics.

Fowler explains, “Challenging work experiences are universal. Resources to navigate them are not.” As a senior leader in a variety of organizations, she noted this disparity in access and saw it as an equity issue.

To test her assumptions, Fowler conducted an extensive research project. Preliminary results from a qualitative and quantitative study found that access to career support resources were particularly limited among people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, early career professionals, and first generation college students.

While half of respondents had left their jobs as a result of a challenging work situation, those with less social capital often took steps back or pay cuts when they didn't have someone to talk to and help them navigate their next steps.

Empower Work was specifically built to help these groups but is open to all – including men – who are interested in discussing the ethical or emotional sides of professional situations, but feel they don’t have outlets to explore them.

What “Counts” as a Difficult Situation?

Empower Work recognizes that there is a wide range of tough moments or challenging work situations and that they can vary wildly from person-to-person. As such, it’s intentionally open-ended about what kinds of situations counselors are available to discuss.

Fowler shares this story as an example of why she was called to start Empower Work. Before launching the organization, Fowler interviewed a woman who was the first in her family to go to college and had grown up in an agricultural community. In her job in the tech industry, she thought she saw deceptive business practices and poor treatment of other employees.

She told Fowler, “I didn’t feel like I had any resources. I would have liked to talk to someone and say, ‘This is how I’m feeling. Is this reasonable?’” Unsupported, she ended up leaving the role without a plan for future employment. She is currently driving for Lyft while she looks for other work.

Fowler envisions a world in which Empower Work counselors could have provided a “gut check” about the potentially shady behavior and helped this recent college grad decide what her options were.

Experience has shown that users’ goals in getting support are as varied as the situations they are navigating.

After Empower Work launched its pilot program in July, one user wrote in because her position was about to be eliminated. She was concerned about many factors, including her healthcare and financial security. A surprising component of the conversation was when she realized she worried about how her colleagues would perceive her knowing she had lost their job.

Fowler says, “While a user might come to us with one question in mind, often there are many factors they end up working through. Our counselors are trained to talk through all the complexities of a situation.”

From a logistical standpoint, an Empower Work counselor helped the user consider the nuts and bolts of the separation agreement. The counselor also helped her practice talking about the conclusion of her current job so that she could walk into her next opportunity with confidence.

Users aren’t only writing about “negative” professional experiences. Fowler says that another person’s tough moment could be, “I have three really great job offers, and I have to decide among them.” When users request support surrounding job offers, Empower Work’s counselors help them parse out what's most important to them in evaluating possible opportunities.

Expanding the Model

The resource is expanding quickly. As more volunteer counselors sign up and users write in, Fowler expects to decrease response time (currently, a counselor replies within 10 minutes) and continue to expand the hours counselors are available (currently 8:30am - 8:00pm PT).

Fowler envisions Empower Work as a resource for professionals to talk openly and anonymously about the complexities of work, feel heard and get the support they need.

At a time when online career advice abounds, Fowler sees text messaging as a key tool to meet a growing demand for free or low-cost, personalized, real-time, anonymous support.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.