How HR can foster conversation after national tragedies

Facilitating dialogue can help leaders empathize with marginalized employees, sources say.
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Photo Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: Getty Images

· 5 min read

In 2017, as the dust of a historically polarizing presidential campaign began to settle, Tamica Sears was working in HR at a media organization in Arizona. The company’s workforce, having heard the divisive rhetoric by then President Donald Trump, needed an emotional outlet, she explained to HR Brew.

Sears said that employees feared that it was becoming “okay to be openly sexist, racist, and homophobic,” and many in the organization felt they needed a venue to process the emotional fallout of the election. “That’s where things started to really take off…people needed to be able to have those conversations and have a safe space to have those conversations,” she said.

Forums for candid discussions about social issues have become increasingly acceptable in the workplace, industry sources told HR Brew, as employees experience political polarization and witness traumatic events like mass shootings, hate crimes, and police murders via newscasts and social media feeds during the workday. Organizations, both virtual and physical, have provided fertile and necessary avenues for workers to empathize with their peers and process grief, sources said.

“You spend more time at work than you do at home. If you are at work for eight to 10 hours a day [feeling] miserable—that’s a horrible life,” Sears argued. Discussions like these are valued by US employees, 68% of whom would consider leaving their jobs for a company that takes a stronger stance on social issues, according to a 2021 Gartner survey.

But there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for providing support in the wake of tragedy or trauma, Reggie Willis, chief diversity officer at Ally Bank, told HR Brew. It hinges on meatier questions that, he said, may take time to answer, like, “How do we create some community here? How do we create some empathy as an organization?”

Don’t bring your whole self. In recent years, some organizations have tried to abide by a mantra of openness, imploring employees to bring their “whole selves” to work. It’s a loosely defined concept, but adheres to principles of authenticity, humility, and empathy, according to Mike Robbins in the book Bring Your Whole Self to Work.

Career coaches and management consultants have offered various approaches to doing so, but. the well-intentioned idea may fall apart when accounting for individual worker needs and nuances, especially when they’re grappling with feelings sparked by traumatic societal events, Natasha Desjardins, a consultant and former HR manager in public media, told HR Brew. “It is a fun-to-say and well-meaning sentence that causes a lot of harm, especially for people who are of historically marginalized backgrounds,” she said.

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Further, those in HR may not instinctively know how to relate to someone wrestling with shock, grief, or marginalization. “Most organizations and HR practitioners are not properly trained to truly meet people at their place of need,” argued Desjardins. A lot of the time the problem is compounded, Desjardins said, when management is shouldering unprocessed grief of their own.

Because of that, organizations can let employees spearhead discussions based on what they’re feeling. For Willis, that creates a “sense of awareness that we’re not tone-deaf as a corporation, we do see what’s going on.”

Meet folks where they are. While “whole self” rhetoric might miss the mark, talking can help forge mutual understanding and exhibit care and empathy on behalf of leadership, sources said. Ally, for example, holds what it calls “Let’s Talk About It” meetings following tragic news events for anyone who wants to attend. The bank has held these meetings on an as-needed basis, as determined by employees, since the 2016 police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. In its most recent session, employees discussed the January killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis Police. “It’s really just about people understanding that this is a space where we’re going to assume positive intent. It’s safe to convey what you’re feeling. This wasn’t necessarily a space for debate, or a space for someone’s narrative,” Willis said.

It is about cultivating understanding between employees. “That consistent and repeated image of Black men being mistreated. How does that then work in the psyche of a Black man when he is just living his life?” Willis asked. Similar questions were raised during the Stop Asian Hate movement in 2021, and in response to proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation around the country.

Desjardins explained how certain events can cause deep fear for marginalized employees: “We saw what happened, we saw the images, but it’s also the randomness of it, meaning that it can happen to anyone at any point of time.”

Safe spaces. Sessions like these can’t solve everything, especially when they aim to tackle wide-reaching social problems, but they can help leadership understand their employees better, Willis said. If anything, these conversations forge a deeper “awareness of how [trauma] shows up with our employees.”

HR leaders striving to create a safe space should encourage ERGs to provide that sanctuary, sources agreed. “Oftentimes, the best recourse for organizations during those times is to give those employees space,” Desjardins said.—SB

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.