How to Be an Ally to Colleagues After Violence Against Their Community
High-profile, harmful, and often violent events targeting marginalized members of the community – also known as mega-threats – occur all too frequently in the United States. In the last few months alone there has been a shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, two mass shootings in California against people of Asian descent, anti-Semitic rhetoric has continued to escalate and a black man named Tire Nichols has been killed at the hands of Memphis cops.
It can be difficult to know what, if anything, to say to your peers belonging to the marginalized identity groups these events target. Indeed, dominant group employees (e.g., white or cisgender workers) often find conversations about these events difficult, sensitive, and risky. You can resort to silence to avoid potential discomfort or to avoid saying the wrong thing.
However, if you say nothing at all to a colleague who is experiencing the vicarious trauma of a mega-threat, it will likely affect the colleague’s well-being, their work engagement, and potentially the interpersonal relationships between colleagues. Silence can convey that the threatened aspect of their identity is not valued or important in the workplace.
For guidance on how to help marginalized colleagues in the midst of a mega-threat, our collective expertise points us to research into allies at work – individuals who advance the interests of marginalized groups – and their instrumental role in providing support. How exactly can employees effectively support their colleagues in the event of mega-threats?
We address this question in three parts that align directly with the three key components of coalition: self-education, social support, and advocacy. Although we offer a number of specific suggestions based on this alliance framework, we encourage you to view these as a useful set of tools and to recognize that the time and place for each will depend on situational and interpersonal factors, such as closeness to a partner , excluded colleague or the reporting relationship to this person.
In general, when it comes to educating yourself about racism, prejudice, and systemic oppression, long-term, proactive self-education strategies such as extensive reading, journaling, and self-reflection are crucial. In fact, these can facilitate important, necessary, and productive conversations about ethnicity at work—and increase willingness to help colleagues in the wake of future mega-threats.
However, in parallel with long-term self-education, it’s important to think about short-term, topical ways for employees to self-educate in the immediate wake of a mega-threat.
Understand what a Mega Threat is and why it differs from other difficult events.
As high-profile societal events targeting members of a marginalized group (or the group itself), recognize that mega-threats devalue the identity of the target audience, threaten psychological and physical safety, and tend to victimize marginalized group members through uninterrupted media coverage. Then identify the unique characteristics of that specific instance that might catch the eye of colleagues belonging to the affected group. For example, threats of violence that have become public knowledge can be interpreted and experienced differently than a mass shooting in which several members of a fringe group were deliberately killed.
Leverage news from multiple, credible sources.
It’s especially important to look for articles, podcasts, and video reels (to name a few) created by members of marginalized communities to get your own perspective before engaging your colleague in a conversation about the mega-threat. This may include reading comments written by members of the affected identity group, such as those written by Asian and Asian-American journalists and academics after January 21St Filming in Monterey Park.
Recognize that mega-threats have an impact beyond geographic location.
Today, news is shared rapidly and widely across a range of technology platforms. This means that no matter how distant the event is from your workplace, the embodied threat — where people who share the same identity as the event’s victims feel they are getting closer to similar harm — is your marginalized peers inevitably very close.
Consider your own limitations.
No matter how much self-education you engage in, there are nuances in the experience of minority identity that can only be fully appreciated as a member of the group involved. Use conversations with marginalized employees as an opportunity to actively listen and learn. Avoid statements like “I completely understand” or “I know how you feel”.
The hurtful and dehumanizing nature of megathreats means that marginalized peers are likely to feel particularly devalued as vicarious victims. We find that one of the best ways to provide support during such collectively traumatic experiences is to remind them how much they are respected – both as an inherently valued member of society and as a uniquely valued employee. In the service of this, there are important considerations that should be at the forefront.
Reinforce colleagues’ belonging to the workplace.
A mega-threat directly targets aspects of self-image and self-esteem. Communicate explicitly to your colleague that they are inherently valued and that the organization is a better place to work because of who they are. For example: “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Recognize that colleagues may have different support needs.
For example, a Black worker faced with another case in which a Black civilian was killed by police may need different support than a worker identifying as LGBTQ+ following a shooting aimed at members of his community. While one colleague may welcome the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, another may prefer the distraction of focusing on work. However, it is also important to realize that the same colleague’s desire to discuss the event can change from one day to the next, or even within a single working day.
Don’t just ask, “Are you okay?
This probably has an obvious answer, so it might not be as helpful for a question as it’s intended. Instead, tell your co-worker that you’ve been thinking of them in light of the recent mega-threat. And as others have suggested, it makes more sense to ask your grieving colleagues, “How are you? Today?” acknowledging that experience is likely to vary from day to day.
Identify ways to help in the moment.
Given the far-reaching impact mega-threats are having on the psychological and physiological well-being of marginalized individuals, find ways to offer immediate, instrumental support that allows them to prioritize their health amid the work-related responsibilities that lie ahead. For example, ask, “What’s the hardest thing you have this week that I could take care of for you?” or “How can I make this week easier for you?”
In developing their mega-threat theory, one of us (Angelica Leigh) and her colleague Shimul Melwani emphasize the importance of intentionally violating organizational norms to uplift and represent minority members, such as the Word to take action when others are silent. This should be a regular if not daily effort – both within the organization and in the wider community.
However, after a mega-threat, an ally can use the heightened awareness of systemic discrimination as a springboard to advocate for members of minorities and be a voice for much-needed change.
Organize or participate in community events.
This could include town halls or other forums aimed at educating individuals about the insidious nature of systemic discrimination and developing actionable steps that employees, leaders and organizations can take.
Take advantage of platforms created during specific Heritage Month events.
For example, Black History Month or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month not only provide an opportunity to learn about the history, culture and contributions of marginalized identity groups, but also give you the time and place to advocate for the interests of marginalized workers.
Join an Employee Resource Group (ERG).
Find a group whose interests you would like to advance in the organization when allies are eligible for membership. Make a long-term commitment to this, precisely because reducing discrimination is a long-term process. Remaining an engaged member of an ERG can also help you build closer relationships with your peers who are members of identity groups different from your own. This established relationship can make it easier for you to provide social support to these colleagues when dealing with a mega-threat.
Realize the value of mental wellness days.
These are especially important in the case of mega-threats, and developing a culture that encourages such days can be of great help to affected employees. If possible, give a co-worker a virtual option for a meeting, let people work from home with their video cameras turned off, or give them a day off to acknowledge the emotional work that comes with a day in the office after a mega-threat.
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Although reaching out to a fellow sufferer can be awkward, it can make a huge difference for that person while also promoting inclusion and belonging to organizations over the long term. We encourage employees to upskill, reach out to colleagues—rather than avoid them—and use these moments to advocate for an upward trend.