This weekend, an 18-year-old White man drove multiple hours to a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and opened fired using an automatic rifle with the n-word painted across the barrel. Of the 13 people shot, 11 were Black. Ten of them died.
If you started work on Monday by jumping right into status reports or a review of the week ahead, you missed a critical opportunity to be there for your employees.
Your people are desperate for safety, both physical and psychological.
On some level, we can all identify with the fear associated with the prospect of a mass shooting. Hearing about situations like this brings us face to face with our own mortality. And there are far too many in this country.
But there is an even deeper chill that you experience when you learn that the attack was targeted, and that it happened as a result of someone's loathing for you and everyone who looks like you.
For your Black colleagues, the logic goes like this: If a man is willing to pick up a gun and kill 10 complete strangers out of race-fueled hatred, is it really that much of a stretch to assume that there are people in our own workplaces, some of whom we see every day, who also harbor a similar type of resentment? Maybe they would never point a gun at me, but would they leave me off of a meeting invite? Pass me up for a promotion? Talk badly about me to others? Skip my strengths and focus my review around my weaknesses?
The conventional wisdom in moments like this is to condemn the act, reinforce your company's values, and then listen to your employees from the impacted communities.
A bit of counsel on the first two points:
Companies typically trend toward statements that "condemn all acts of hatred" or declare that your company has "zero tolerance for intolerance." Resist that urge. It's not only right, but also critical to address the adversity faced by people of color in this country head on. Don't be vague. White supremacy is wrong, and it is specific. Call it what it is or it will never go away.
And there's a trick to the listening part too. As I said in Business Insider after the murder of George Floyd, now is a time to create space for ideas from your colleagues of color, but not pressure:
Your minority colleagues are exactly that in the workplace -- minorities. Since there are so few in any room, they are working double and triple time to make their perspectives heard. Help amplify those voices, but don't put pressure on them to have answers -- especially when it comes to diversity.
And don't forget that while it's important to listen to your impacted employees, listening that's not followed by action bears resemblance to the politicians who offer their "thoughts and prayers" but refuse to address the type of gun control legislation that would help prevent events like what happened in Buffalo in the future.
You can draw a straight line between how much your employees of color believe you support them and what relevant actions they see you take in your own company.
If you're still telling them that your company has a long way to go when it comes to diversity: They know.
If you have a "diversity council" or "inclusion task force" that simply advises human resources and diversity and inclusion professionals: You're still missing the mark.
Think about what is in your control, and don't just tell, but show your employees that you are serious about their safety, support, and success.
Is it offering time off work for the sake of well-being? Free counseling for those who need someone to speak to? Maybe it's the combination of creating an ombudsman-like program that allows employees to raise concerns surrounding race in the workplace anonymously and then taking tangible and immediate action to address the concerns that are raised.
Whatever it is, do it decisively, but without expecting praise. Remember that the work you are doing is not a favor for anyone, but it's a small step toward creating a more even playing field for everyone. If you do it well, over time, your colleagues will feel safer and more valued in your workplace, making them that much more likely to stay.
This work is hard. But it's the job of leadership, and it's worth it.