So here we are again. I had planned to write something else. Hoped to write about something else. Now I find myself writing about this. Still in the throws of George Floyd and another shooting happens. As I write this Jacob Blake is in critical condition after being shot by police 7 times in the back. While his children watched forth car. It sounds like he will survive though thank goodness. We could go into a lengthy discussion of policing and the history that entails - a very complicated history. We could get involved with the media’s response and the policies and politics that these situations inevitably bring up. All good topics. However, I want to focus this on what to do as an ally.
This isn’t the first time this happened. A tragedy gripping the national psyche. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Travon Martin. The Pulse Nightclub. The Tree of Life Synagogue. Christchurch Mosque. Sandy Hook. Emmanuel AME. Rodney King. So how do you react? Especially at the office.
There is no right answer. You have to know your office and your culture and who you are being an ally to. Remember you are being an ally to people. People grieve differently. You have to gauge your audience. I have missed that. Immediately sending out a blast email expressing my outrage and that I was “There for you”. Slightly tone deaf. More than slightly. I was checking a box. And being public about it. Self serving. I meant what I said but on reflection it was really more about me making myself feel good - and showing everyone how wonderful I was.
So after some advice and friendly feedback, I instead I try to do several things when these tragedies occur. First I learn about the situation. These days that involves watching the video. I don’t go overboard and try and learn the detailed background of everyone involved but I do make sure I know the basics. For the Tree of Life shooting I watched to understand how the incident occurred. When the gunman came in and roughly what happened. What was the police response? What are the local leaders saying? I want to be reasonably informed. So I can help. This isn’t prepping for debate class. The point is not to refute anyone. To prove why it happened. It is just to make sure I have a fact base to understand and help.
Next I reach out. Individually. No fanfare. Just a quick word. A note. Nothing big. Generally a quick “hey how are you? Hope everything is OK”. That’s it. I know its not. I just want to open a potential dialogue. Generally an email or text - the medium allows someone to respond in their own time. Not feel jumped by a phone call. Folks are emotionally compromised so I try to let them have space. I may not get a response and that’s OK. No one has to talk. But if I do get a response I see if they need anything. I take the approach respectfully. Tactfully. At least I try. And I listen. I generally learn a lot. About people and the situation. Sometimes surprising things.
After the Tree of Life shooting I learned that although our office was in New York City several teammates had relatives who attended the synagogue - located in Pittsburgh. They described their anxious moments in trying to get a hold of loved ones and their relief when the found out they had actually not been at services that day. I also learned from others about the reactions at their synagogues. Coming out of the service to a police presence. Having to explain things to their children. Worried about copycats. Even if they were not directly impacted it meant many people coming into work with worries and having lost sleep.
As a manager I also try to take the corporate reaction into account. If there is one. Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there is. When there is one it helps managers a great deal. As a manager you know where the corporation stands and you can react off that. You can build off that response. It gives you language to use and the sense of what the corporation will approve of in terms of support. Can I give people time off? Let a deadline slip? Are there services the corporation can offer? When the corporation does not… well. You feel quite adrift as a manager. You don’t know what you can or cannot say or do.
Two things I do regardless of the corporate response involve ERGs and benefits. With respect to ERGs I reach out to people involved in the ERG that aligns with the group impacted. For George Floyd the African American ERG. I reach out to the individual leaders. Not blast emails. I ask what do the ERG members need right now. I don’t necessarily expect an answer. But I make sure they know the offer is open and to let me know when they figure it out. Sometimes it is something as simple as they need a conference room. Maybe permission to set up a zoom for members to talk. I also follow-up later. Follow-up is important.
Benefits are also key. People forget there are employee assistance programs that can pay for counseling and mental health services. Sometimes these can help people. I just remind people that these benefits exist. I do not recommend they use them or say someone should seek counseling. They are benefits the company pays for so people should be aware of them.
I should also say the one thing I don’t do. I don’t try to explain and justify things. I hear it in the media the whole time. Trying to put the blame on the person who died. You are there to give comfort not engage in a political debate. No one who is grieving wants to hear why its someone’s fault that they died. They will hear all that in the media.
Today’s media means you can never get away from it. Imagine being impacted by an event and having to live it again and again and again. Twitter. TV. Instagram. Sports channels. 24 hour news cycles. When 9/11 happened children had issues with all the replays of the towers falling. They thought buildings across the US were being blown up. As an ally I try to understand that omnipresence and give people a respite if I can.
As an ally I think the whole point is to help. To give comfort. To be an ally is to be about someone else. To help them thru a difficult time. An emotional time.
I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation - but I hope that someday the events will stop happening that necessitate this particular subject. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
All the best, Dave