It’s a time of heightened anxiety. Protests continue across the United States after the death of George Floyd, yet another black American who died at the hands of police, amid the backdrop of a viral pandemic that has affected minority populations much more dramatically more than white people.
Workplaces and workers are strained from adapting to new constraints. And on top of all of that, the most recent events are adding a new layer of weight to black people.
Our black friends and co-workers are bearing this burden, whether they are displaying it or not. Amid a renewed focus on systemic racism, they’re also being solicited by well-meaning, but often misguided requests for education on how not to be racist, which translates into more demands on their time.
Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a firm that provides diversity and inclusion training said, for example, it was not the time to ask her black colleagues to do more.
“Our black folks are tapped out — they’re shouldering a lot emotionally right now,” Kim said. “I do feel tension asking black people to contribute more right now, when there is already so much out there they’ve put out.”
To be a better colleague or manager at this time, Kim says, “it's probably safe to just assume folks are exhausted and distraught.”
She recommends giving employees “explicit permission to rest and ensure they’re not penalized for it.”
Also, show your allyship by educating your own community and asking nonblack people to do more, Kim said. Don’t expect black coworkers to comfort you or educate you. That’s not for them to take on.
The key to bettering the workplace is to plan and be proactive, says organizational development consultant and trainer Kathy Obear.
Like Kim, Obear recommends a weekly check-in for people you manage or coworkers you are genuinely close to. It can be as simple as asking: “How are you doing? Given the pandemic, giving the national uprisings going on — how are you personally impacted and how can we support you?”
Don’t assume you know how they feel, and don’t act surprised about what’s going on.
Both Kim and Obear suggested redistributing workloads, if possible, relieving workers who may be more currently taxed by recent events.
Experts also agreed that in these times of multiple collective traumas, people will rightfully be more easily triggered and upset.
It’s extra important to be more aware during this time, because it’s harder to tell how people are doing over Zoom calls or Slack messages.
Obear, who is also the author of “ … But I’m Not Racist!” and “Turn the Tide: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace” encouraged managers and colleagues to pay attention to how people react on calls and in meetings, and for employees to proactively speak up about what may bother them — whether that’s a racist comment or microaggression.
It may be tough, but Obear suggests using language like, “I know you didn’t intend to, but what you just said kind of set me off. Could we just slow down?”
“There have to be people in every team who will notice the interaction, notice the triggering moment, and then have the skills to say, ‘Can we pause? I think there was just an impact. Probably wasn't intended, but for us to be an effective, productive team, what was your intention?” Obear said.
She suggests leaders pay attention to dynamics during meetings, appoint someone else to monitor reactions and if necessary, take the time to pause and say, “I saw four people shake their heads and cross your arms just now. My guess is what I just said had an impact I’m kind of clueless about, but I saw something. Can people share what the impact was or what I just did?”
The key is really observing room dynamics with an “equity lens,” Obear said.
“Because they could say, ‘Everybody’s getting interrupted. But the truth is when you really watch, most of the time it’s somebody with a privileged identity interrupting someone in the corresponding marginalized identity.”
Really paying attention to the interactions will result in a better workplace relationships, Obear said.
The reality is, you don’t have to wonder if the people you work with are negatively affected by current events.
“Stop wondering. They are,” Kim wrote in a Medium post. “It’s imperative for all people leaders to learn to hold space for their teams in political trauma. You never know who may be feeling completely distraught by what is happening in the world today.”