Business leadership in times of violence

(Adapted from my earlier Twitter thread.)

Photo credit: LA West Media

In the past few years, I’ve been in the position to lead inside companies while major events, all with racism at their core, have unfolded in the news. From the unrelenting videos of police violence against our Black neighbors, to the presence of actual Nazis in our midst, to the Muslim travel ban, to the images of Latinx children in detention camps, leading “business as usual” is not an option.

The reality inside most companies is that the people in the lead are not the ones most deeply affected. I cannot explain the feeling of walking into an office in the midst of these events and being asked with a smile “How was your weekend?” The real answer is “My weekend was a racist hellscape, thanks.” And the extra painful part is being around people who have the luxury of not paying attention, not fearing for their family’s safety, wondering why all the long faces.

So in quiet rooms, in private Slack channels, on Signal, we cry and support each other and check in with one another. When someone says “I just can’t today,” we send them home and rally around them so their jobs aren’t in jeopardy. We inquire about the safety of each other’s loved ones. We know who has family in prison, who is caring for undocumented siblings and parents, who has suffered themselves at the hands of a racist society.

I think about one of my favorite IT guys, a dark-skinned Muslim man, who only came to work in a suit on days when he had to fly. POC knew why, but others would make a big deal “Look at you all dressed up! You clean up really nicely!” We quietly supported him once it was safe.

With that, here are some words for people who find themselves leading inside companies and want to know what to do. In no particular order:

Understand what trauma looks like and how it shows up in your colleagues. It will look like distraction, low energy, people excusing themselves from meetings, tears, surprising outbursts of anger. Just expect it and think about how you’re going to deal when it happens.

Know who of your employees is affected by these issues. Now is a good time to put out a statement internally that starts with something like “We have all been shaken by these events and want to remind you of the resources you have available to you.” This should include legal advice.

Prepare a public statement that is not watered down with “thoughts and prayers.” Put a damn stake in the ground for your customers and employees. Everyone knows what corporate bullshit reads like and it is more damaging than an awkward but authentic statement.

Utilize your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). They know what’s up. Ask what they need, keep the channels of communication open. Set aside time and resources for them to gather and support each other.

Be honest about where your company is profiting from this madness. It’s time for your investors, shareholders + executives to face the fact that your product is supporting some part of the supply chains of mass incarceration, gun violence, and family separations. The information about your role in this is way more accessible than it was when IBM enabled Nazis. If you don’t own your place in history and remedy it first, someone else will be telling your story soon enough. Handle it, or your workers most definitely will.

Like so many of you, I have been gutted by the events of the past week. This violence inflicted on families is not new; it’s in the very founding of the United States. Through my own personal fears and exhaustion, I humbly offer this as a way to support the people with whom you spend most of your waking hours.