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How Should Companies Respond When Black People Are Killed Traumatically?

It’s May 2020 in the middle of a global health crisis, the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Black employees not only have to witness members of their family and community die at disproportionate rates due to the coronavirus, but they are also made brutally aware of the disparities that exist just from being Black.

While you’re expecting your Black employees to show up and be their best for work, they are at home with a constant barrage of media. One week they see images of white people sunbathing in parks without regard to social distancing policies, and police officers kindly hand them masks and mouth “Be safe.” Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the image is starkly different: Black people stepping out onto their streets, being put into chokeholds, and getting arrested for not complying with the same social distancing policies white people were allowed to disregard.

The next week, your same Black employees watched video footage of a young Black man jogging in Georgia while being followed by two white men who thought he looked like someone involved in a neighborhood burglary. These two white men grabbed their guns, got in their truck, and proceeded to shoot and kill Ahmaud Arbery. There were no consequences for these men at the time of the killing. Action was only taken two months later when video footage caused an outrage on social media. That same week there were other senseless killings of Black bodies – yet your employee still showed up as their best.

Now, you’re probably getting ready to plan and implement return-to-work procedures as the quarantine begins to lift across different states in the country. As if all of this wasn't enough, your Black employees again watch video footage of another Black man being crushed into the concrete with a white police officer’s knee plunged into his neck. Your employee puts the volume up on their device in time to hear George Floyd crying out “Please, I can’t breathe.” Moments later, your employee watches the life leave George’s face as he lies motionless on the ground.

Now, what do you? As an organization that prides itself on being committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, how do you respond? How do you support your Black employees coping with the deluge of trauma - from losing community, family and friends to Covid-19, while continually watching the dehumanization of Black bodies?

Let me first say, that NO RESPONSE IS A RESPONSE. I’m reminded of MLK’s quote: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Silence and business as usual is not the appropriate reaction here. Your silence in response to these situations could very well convey a message of apathy to what your employees are facing.

It’s not enough for leaders to just send out a company-wide email acknowledging what has happened. Instead, it is critical that you focus on actions that best support your Black employees who are constantly traumatized and re-traumatized by these events.

No matter where you currently are as an organization, this will inevitably be difficult. That doesn’t mean you should back out. In fact, it is the organizations that chose to lean-in that will prove themselves to be true proponents of equity during these especially trying times. Here are some suggested courses of action organizational leaders can take when events such as these killings of Black bodies continue to happen.

Immediate Action Steps

  • Create space for your Black employees by hosting a forum or circle. The space should be created for us, by us, so consider having Black leaders or employees facilitate the discussion. Consider investing into training and tools that will help facilitate these difficult conversations to avoid re-traumatizing your teams.

  • Empower your Black employees to take a mental health day if/when needed. They should not be made to feel as if their jobs will be in jeopardy for doing so. Having Black leaders model this can encourage a sense of psychological safety.

  • Do not put the burden on Black employees and expect them to placate the white fragility that may exist. It is not their job to educate white colleagues and make them feel comfortable around these issues. Managing the allyship of non-Black employees who want to support should happen without Black employees being the ones to lead the charge. You can later invest the time and resources to manage allies separately.

Long- Term Considerations

  • Put together a task force or committee who will be dedicated to figuring out how to best support Black employees specifically (not POC) when these racist events occur because you can be certain that they will surely happen again.

  • Establish community partnerships with external Black groups and organizations that are strategically set up to be a resource to your employees. Examples include organizations like the Foundation of Freedom (FOF), an organization that finds creative and innovative ways of curating community for members of the African diaspora and addressing social justice issues. Inviting groups like FOF will allow your employees to connect and collaborate with other Black professionals who share in their trauma and learn effective ways to address the issues at hand.

What are some actions your company has taken to support its Black employees when these traumatic events occur? What other ideas for action have you thought about?


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