Mourners light candles outside the Tops market in Buffalo.
Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
May 22, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

The mass shooting in Buffalo last weekend, in which 10 people were murdered by a gunman targeting Black shoppers at a supermarket, gave new urgency to a question that’s come up far too many times in recent memory: What can managers do to support traumatized employees, especially employees of color, in the wake of hate crimes and racist violence?

We reached out to Angelica Leigh, an assistant professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who studies diversity and emotions in the workplace. Leigh recently co-authored a paper examining the effect of “mega-threats,” or widely publicized instances of marginalized groups suffering violence or harassment, on workers of color. Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for space and clarity:

How do “mega-threats” affect how people show up in a workplace context?

When you see that someone who looks like you was targeted in this way, it really brings that threat to the surface. When you’re worried about your safety, you’re worried about your community, you’re worried about your friends and family and whether this could happen to you or to them—it’s hard for people to be able to push that down and then go to work. It’s something that you carry with you.

But because this event is identity-related, it’s not always readily apparent that you can show people how you’re feeling. You run into a colleague in the morning, and the question is like, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And you’re struck with this moment where you end up having to pause. Do you say to this person, ‘I’m actually not doing well, it’s not a normal day for me’? Or do you just decide to say, ‘I’m fine, how are you?’

Oftentimes people in that moment end up having to put on this face of, ‘I’m doing fine, it’s just another day in the world for me.’ We all have a limited amount of energy to invest in our work, our home lives, et cetera. And if you’re investing some of that energy in suppressing these negative emotions, then there’s less energy for you to then invest into your work. You may still be working on your tasks, but you’re maybe not doing them as well, or you’re working slower on things, or you’re in a meeting and you’re speaking up less.

What are some things that managers can do to make it so that employees don’t feel like they need to suppress those feelings?

As we were working on this paper, we looked at a lot of different potential organizational features that could impact this: whether there were more racial minorities in a workplace, whether people said that their workplace was more inclusive. And one of the most interesting things about this project is that we were finding, in the wake of these events, that those features of the organization weren’t really that important. It was much more this feeling that there was safety in the workplace to have conversations about identity.

My advice to managers would be to really examine whether you’ve created an environment in your teams and where you are having identity-based discussions. Where you’re talking about those differences and they’re being highlighted in conversations before an event happens, so when something happens, your employees can say, ‘Yes, when my manager asked me how I was doing, I told them I’m not doing well.’

In the coming weeks, managers could be having conversations with their employees about aspects of their lives that are connected to their identities. We say, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ and we talk about sports or the weather or whatever. When I’m telling you what I did this weekend, I may say, ‘Oh, I watched the game,’ or something like that, but I might not mention the fact that I went to a church function at my predominantly black Baptist church in my community that I’m super active in. But if I don’t feel comfortable telling you about these things that I do in my off time, or things that are connected to my identity, then how am I going to feel comfortable telling you when things are bad?

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Are there other specific, tactical things managers can do to build that psychological safety? Is it about modeling?

Modeling is a big thing, as a manager—really highlighting things that you may participate in, whether it’s at work or outside of work, that are unique to your identity. And saying, ‘I might not understand what you’re going through, but I definitely get that this could be a really challenging time for you. My door is open if you ever want to have a conversation about this.’ Just opening the door to allow for people to really share more of their feelings and experiences in the world.

Are there any added challenges to this that come with remote and hybrid working?

It is much harder, but I would say that the same strategies of being consistent and really thoughtful about how you’re doing it still apply. You can’t just leave your office door open, so now you actually need to set aside time to schedule a meeting with your employees to check in with them, or schedule time on the team meeting to go into breakout rooms, where you’re a little more structured with it because you’re remote.

I think Slack could assist you, once you’ve already established the relationships in richer communication channels. Slack is very similar to any other social-media environment, where it becomes much more about short messages that can be taken out of context. People don’t have the signals of your body language and your tone of voice to add more information to what you’re trying to communicate. Once those close bonds are there, Slack could be used as a tool, but I would say that the first thing should be to develop consistency in more rich communication channels.

We’ve talked about what managers can do in their relationship with their reports. Is there anything that managers can do to cultivate that same sense of safety between employees on the team?

I would think of the strategies that you use in the team setting as really just building on what you’ve done one on one. Make sure that you create opportunities to connect and bond. Informally, but also formally, saying, ‘We as a team are going to get together once a month for 30 minutes to really check in with each other, and talk to each other more about who we are and the things that are important to us.’ It cultivates this environment where the first time I have a conversation with my coworker that acknowledges the fact that we’re in different racial groups isn’t right after the Buffalo shooting.

What if those conversations haven’t been happening all along? What can managers be doing right now to support employees who might be feeling traumatized?

The thing would be to start the long-term process. There’s no better time to start it than now.

Read a full transcript of this conversation here.

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