How to Create an Emotionally Supportive Workplace for Employees of Color

Tech Inclusion 2016 Conference

While we would all like to think that we have seen the last of racially charged killings, such as the on-camera slaying of Philando Castile, the reality is that such incidents have been occurring for a long time and are unlikely to disappear before concerted national effort is expended to end them. What is new is that such events are now being caught on camera, which greatly increases the likelihood such effort will be expended.

The Role of Video

Just as the TV news showing policemen releasing attack dogs on peaceful Black protesters changed the national sentiment on the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, so too the newly pervasive eye of the nation on police action is confronting those who would otherwise have no awareness of systemic racial abuse in our nation, nor interest in developing such an awareness.

Though it would be easy to relegate the significance of these currents to political or legal spheres, the reality is that the business sphere is very much impacted as well. It also has a major role to play that is uniquely its own.

According to Shabnam Javdani, Asst. Professor of applied psychology and counseling at NYU Steinhardt, “… video footage that documents violence and lower relative safety for members of a group to which you belong can be a heavy psychological burden that builds — especially if social injustices against your group continue to escalate.”

The Secondary Trauma of “Business as Usual”

While some staff may take a “business as usual” attitude the day following a racially charged killing making the national news or dominating social media, this is not possible for employees who identify with the person slain. The fear, anger, and sadness that is likely to arise doesn’t just disappear simply because it is ignored.

In fact, the worst possible response to such trauma being experienced by some staff is to ignore it and expect them to act as if they are unaffected.

What to Do?

So what does a responsible employer with a diverse workforce do to successfully meet the challenge of the situation? The response of Square, Inc. to two recent (July 2016) racially charged killings presents an exceptional example of what doing it right looks like.

  1. They issued a public statement (see image) in solidarity with those directly affected and expressing their stance on racial injustice in general.
  2. They supported employee initiated “die-ins” at all their offices, during which any employee, regardless of ethnic heritage, could lie on the ground without moving to stimulate reflection on those who have died. (see images Square posted on social media)
  3. Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) staff immediately implemented crisis management support.

“DIE-IN” AT SQUARE, INC.

Being supportive of employee initiated efforts to respond can be particularly effective. In her article on the July shootings, Carita Marrow writes, “… colleague Ashlei Stevens and I collaborated around the idea of convening our colleagues together in an act of solidarity. Our recommendation was fully supported by our CEO and all business unit leadership. Our CEO crafted an internal memo encouraging employees to express their grief and frustration through the power of community. We invited all organizations within our building…. We gathered, cried, voiced and expressed our grief and frustration.”

Individuals acting across different companies and from among diverse ethnic identities also provide an example of effective responses.

SQUARE INC. STATEMENT RELEASED PUBLICLY

Lea Yu was one of the main coordinators for Letters for Black Lives, a crowd-sourced project that first involved Asian-Americans in writing a group letter to their immigrant parents explaining why the Black Lives Matter movement was important to them, and urging their parents to support it. The project has since been translated into 30 languages, with participants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

According to Yu, the project served the important role of giving people outside the directly affected community a chance to take action and make a difference by speaking out within their own sphere of influence. Though the volunteers worked at many different corporations, collectively they “shifted the understanding of what people in Silicon Valley can do.”

Gloria Kimbwala of Square San Francisco shared how the response at her company not only meant a great deal to her personally, but also allowed her to find “allies” in other communities who care about racial issues.

“DIE-IN” AT ANOTHER SQUARE OFFICE

Kimbwala posited another vital component of the corporate role in such incidents, “We look at not only the employees, but our customers are also affected by these horrific acts…. When companies realize that this affects their staff and affects their clients, taking no action sends a big message to the broader audience as well… Your customers are people and there are things that affect them every day, and you cannot create great products unless you have them in mind.”

What was uniform from all those interviewed for this article was that the most important thing a company could do is to simply have a plan of response and carry it out. Just acknowledging that something significant has happened and merits a response goes a long way toward supporting the most vulnerable staff at such times.

Specific actions that can also be taken “the day after” include:

  • Providing an opportunity for staff to safely express emotions
  • Allowing staff from the same ethnic group as the victim to take a “mental health day,” or if they do come in to work, allowing them to lighten their workload for the day without penalty
  • Official company statements of support, both internal and publicly released
  • Fostering discussion across ethnic groups with an understanding that while all involved may be sad, some are more sad than others
  • Generally taking immediate action to promote engagement around what has happened

By making plans in advance, you can greatly increase the chances that your diverse workforce will feel supported and avoid the build up of PTSD that can result from cumulative unaddressed traumas.

Indigo Ocean Dutton, MA is a Community Leader at Conscious Professionals of Color which provides lunch-and-learn trainings to employees of color at San Francisco Bay Area companies, as well as creating therapeutic “Deep Community” events to support professionals of color at large.

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