In these highly divisive times, it can be a struggle to curb political discussions in the workplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Politics has always managed to find its way into the workplace. Casually popping up in conversation here and there. Usually reserved for the water cooler. It always managed to seep through the cracks like a gentle breeze. But, what was once just a breeze, has now become a tsunami.

Politics in the workplace doesn't just casually pop up anymore. In many respects, it has consumed it. According to Harvard Business Review writer Rebecca Knight, companies themselves are now taking political stances. With the advent of social media, political grandstanding is more prevalent and even encouraged in the workplace in many places, than ever before.

The problem is obvious. Few things are as divisive as politics. With emotions often running at a fever pitch, you're bound to see tension and friction in the workplace. Once it starts to disrupt business and the flow of work, it's time to rethink your company's approach to political discourse on the boss's dime.

Establish a policy for politics in the workplace

You have a right to free speech, even in the workplace. Read that again. Because it's completely WRONG.

You don't have a right to free speech in most workplaces. A private employer can and usually does establish a set of rules for politics in the workplace. If you're an employer and you don't want to completely ban political discussion, you can still establish policies to prevent the display of political support in the office. The golden rule here is to stay neutral. Don't highlight a specific political view or party or candidate over another.

"Talking politics can be tricky, but, like many things it's an unavoidable part of the workplace. Hold strong, the presidential race will be over (soon), and everyone will be back to talking shop (at least until inauguration)," said Lynze Wardle Lenio, in her article for The Muse.

Handling complaints

This depends on your particular company's policy on politics. Does your company prohibit all conversations about politics? Can your employees talk politics on lunch breaks? If someone is in violation of your policy, the first action should be to confront them privately and remind them of the policy.

"If your policy is more lax, you might want to encourage the complainant to respectfully ask the person engaged in political talk to take their conversation somewhere else," said Macy Bayern of TechRepublic.

"Never discipline an employee for having a different political opinion from another employee. The discipline should only come within the framework of the company's policy," she continued. Are they making someone uncomfortable? Are they wasting company time? Creating workplace hostility? These are all grounds for serious reprimanding.

Handling harassment

Now we're venturing into more serious territory. It's one thing to have complaints about people talking about an election out in the open. It's another to have complaints that someone was attacked for their political beliefs. "You're the employer. You have a responsibility to keep your employees safe above all else. That means protecting them from bullying," Bayern expressed.

This is a situation where you should be more firm in your reprimanding. Although it's not illegal per se, since political leanings aren't a protected class, you still want to nip this in the bud before it compromises the integrity of the entire office. The last thing you want is for employee morale to dip because of bullying. If allowed to go unpunished, this could easily spill over into bullying because of race, sex or religion. Then you have a legal problem.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Startup founders seek answers to how PPP loan funds provide their companies security and support. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

What Houston startups need to know about PPP loans

Houston voices

Unless you've been vacationing on Mars for the past six months, you know that a $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was recently approved by Congress. Business owners are sifting through the fine print to see if they qualify for PPP loans for startups.

The stimulus package carries provisions that will surely assist startups and small business during our current state of national emergency. The most notable part of this legislation is known as the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"Under the PPP, startups can qualify to attain a forgivable loan of 2.5 times the average monthly payroll, with restrictions, of course," explained the vice president of communications for Zeni Inc., Emilie Pires.

Emilie Pires oversees Zeni, a company that helps startups manage financial affairs and helps clients apply for PPP loans.

The federal government has a history of lending to small businesses through the Small Business Administration. The PPP loan differs from past loans, however, because it can be forgiven, and because it doesn't require a personal guarantee.

"Loan forgiveness is the most notable aspect of the PPP. It is significant because if you comply with the requirements, the loan actually functions like more of a grant. It's non-dilutive capital from the federal government to keep your company alive," Pires continued.

Perks of PPP

According to Bloomberg business writer Sara McBride, not requiring a personal guarantee gives startup founders a much needed boost.

"If a loan requires a personal guarantee, the founder would likely be weighed down with heavy personal debt if the startup ended up failing. A loan like this is not very appealing, so it's a big deal that the PPP loan doesn't require a personal guarantee."

Here are the two requirements if you want the loan to be forgiven. Per Bloomberg:

1) You must spend the money within 24 weeks of receiving funds, and;

2) You must use the loan on payroll, rent, mortgage, interest, or utilities.

The affiliate rule

Here's where it gets a little dicey. First off, it's best to consult a lawyer regarding the specifics of the affiliate rule. The affiliate rule essentially states that, if you own multiple startups, you have to count all the employees of all your companies when determining if you qualify for the PPP loan, which requires you to have less than 500 employees total to qualify.

With that said, here is an interpretation given by tech industry venture capitalist and lawyer Ed Zimmerman: "You might be able to skate by the affiliate rule if no one who owns other companies has more than a 20 percent stake in your company, and if no one in your company has enough control to veto any actions from your board."

Qualifying for PPP

Zimmerman also lays out a three-question test that might help you determine if your venture capitalist-supported startup qualifies for a PPP loan. The three questions are:

1) Does your venture capitalist hold 50 percent of your company's equity?

2) Even aside from that, does at least one venture capitalist control the majority of the company's board?

3) Further, does any venture capitalist control large portions of protective provisions, allowing him or her to veto corporate action, giving this venture capitalist control of the startup?

According to Zimmerman, if your answer to any one of the above is yes, you should attain legal counsel. If you answered no to all three, that's great news for you (but should still seek out legal counsel).

It is worth noting that the CARES Act does offer a program for companies with up to 10,000 employees. But those rates will be higher and will come with much bigger caveats.

Again, it's best to consult a lawyer to decide if you qualify to avoid the affiliate rule.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Autonomous freight co. with Houston-Dallas pilot opens early access program

join the fleet

Texas has been a key testing area for autonomous freight technology for years, and one major player in the space has made its latest move to put the pedal to the metal on self-driving trucking.

Aurora Innovation (NASDAQ: AUR) announced a new program with Uber Freight. Premier Autonomy, which will provide "early access to over 1 billion of Aurora’s driverless miles to Uber Freight carriers through 2030," is launching to deploy autonomous freight vehicles on the Uber Freight network.

Uber Freight, an end-to-end logistics company managing over $18 billion of freight, is also reportedly going to be among Aurora's first customers for its Dallas-to-Houston freight route that anticipates driverless hauls beginning at the end of 2024.

“Uber Freight and Aurora see a tremendous opportunity to democratize autonomous trucks for carriers of all sizes, enabling them to drive more revenue, scale their fleets, and strengthen their bottom lines,” Lior Ron, founder and CEO of Uber Freight, says in a news release. “Autonomous trucks will make moving goods more efficient, and this industry-first program will help facilitate and accelerate the adoption of autonomous trucks with our carriers. We’re proud to work alongside the amazing team at Aurora to bring this technology into the hands of carriers and ultimately usher in a new era of logistics.”

The new program, a first for the industry, allows customers to purchase and begin implementing Aurora Driver, a self-driving system that can work with multiple vehicle types, including freight trucks and passenger vehicles. Aurora provides driver-as-a-service products for trucking and ride-hailing industries and has a slew of partners in addition to Uber and Uber Freight, including FedEx, Toyota, Volvo Trucks, Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and more.

“With Uber Freight, we can provide hundreds of carriers priority access to autonomous truck capacity that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Working with carriers of all sizes is one of the many ways we will transform the industry and see thousands of driverless trucks on the road,” Ossa Fisher, president of Aurora, says in the release. “It’s exciting and validating that companies like Uber Freight are reserving our long-term capacity for their customers. We all see collective value in this offering.”

With enrollment into the new Premier Autonomy Program, customers receive a subscription to the Aurora Driver for autonomous freight hauling, the opportunity to access over 1 billion driverless miles through 2030, and access to autonomous trucks via a planned, seamless integration of the Aurora Driver into the Uber Freight platform, according to the news release.

Since 2020, Uber Freight and Aurora have hauled millions of pounds of cargo through their pilot program that operated on the Dallas-Houston route.

Houston startup designs new platform for better navigating health care

patient portal

Taking control of your health can be a difficult path to walk on your own. A new startup, created by eight female Rice University students, is aimed at wading through the health care system.

The Healthcare Navigator is a platform that helps users to learn about not just treatment options, but also the financial bearings thereof.

“About 88 percent of Americans aren’t health literate,” founder and president Kayla Grimes says in a news release. “It’s very hard for them to navigate health care in the way to get the best benefit for it, so what our platform will do is essentially give them the tools and resources to confidently navigate the health care system. We also help with price transparency specifically.”

The multidisciplinary team includes women majoring in pre-med, computer science, medical humanities, art and business. According to Grimes (a rising senior business major), the seed for the idea’s success was planted two years ago when she was volunteering for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation.

“They told me, ‘If you do this right, this could actually change everything in health care,’” she remembers.

Now she and her team have an app, as well as an accessible website, composed of several features all meant to make it easier to save money — and users’ health. The features are:

  • Cost Compass, which compares procedure costs across local hospitals, enabling users to shop around and save money.
  • Care Genius AI, an AI chatbot that helps users to negotiate medical bills and answers health care system questions.
  • Patient Power Modules, which are interactive educational videos that make understanding the health care system easy and engaging.
  • Pocket Doc, which helps consumers find the best providers for them based on location, ratings and quality metrics.
  • Pulse Check Alert keeps users informed on important health care news and patient insights.
  • Care Manager streamlines users’ health care needs and goals in one convenient place.

Grimes says that she hopes that users will skip Google reviews and go straight to their Pocket Doc, which includes information on hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and freestanding emergency rooms.

“We have that in the system, so that you can actually see useful metrics instead of just going on Google reviews and reading their readmission rate — we’re going to explain what’s a good readmission rate and what’s a bad readmission rate,” she says. “That’s the whole point: We’re not just going to give you these metrics, we’re also going to give you some benchmarks, so you can make the decision for yourself.”

When dealing with your health, knowledge is certainly power, and Healthcare Navigator is bestowing a new kind of power on its users.

Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children