The first email arrived at 8:00am last Monday and was from a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “Are you available to assist our Black employees around the events of the last few days?”
By 10:00am, the tone of the emails had changed. “Our Black employees have demanded that senior management bring someone in to talk with them about their mental health.”
By noon, my inbox was full of similar requests and pleas. As I read through the emails, and held brief virtual meetings with HR and DEI leaders around the country, one thing became clear: Leaders were overwhelmed and at a loss as to how to help their Black employees.
Here’s what I told them, and what you might find useful as you try to navigate similar challenges at your company. First, it’s important to understand that when Black Americans watched the video of George Floyd being killed by a white police officer, we saw ourselves. In those eight minutes and 46 seconds, we were horrified, enraged, and anguished as a man who could have been our spouse, our brother, our son, our nephew, our cousin, or us was killed. Collectively, Black Americans were traumatized.
Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening incident. The unrelenting series of events Black Americans have witnessed before and after the killing of George Floyd is racial trauma.
At its core, racial trauma is racism. Racism takes three forms, each of which is a chronic stressor. Systemic racism is experienced when ideologies, institutions, and policies operate to produce racial and ethnic inequality. Interpersonal racism involves two or more people and can be manifested through bigotry, bias, prejudice, and microaggressions. Internalized racism is the acceptance of negative stereotypes and societal beliefs about one’s racial group.
Most Black Americans, regardless of education, socioeconomic status, or job title, experience one or more forms of racism every day. But with the placement of a knee on George Floyd’s neck, racism shifted from a chronic stressor to a trauma trigger.
Unfortunately, few, if any, HR and DEI leaders have the skills and training to address the needs of a racially traumatized workforce.
That’s why leaders must set aside the standard DEI or HR playbook in this unprecedented time. The go-to diversity corporate trainer who teaches stress management techniques will not suffice. Programming targeted towards all employees will be unsuccessful and result in charges that the senior management and the organization have little regard for the well-being of Black employees.
Instead, start by acknowledging that racism impacts Black staff emotionally, mentally, and physically. Understand that when Black employees tell you “We are exhausted,” “We are tired,” or “We are in no mood to interact with white people,” what is really being said is, “We are in distress, we are traumatized, and we need a safe space within this organization to come together as Black people.”
Provide Black employees with that safe place and bring in a skilled expert in racial trauma to help them process what they are experiencing and feeling. Senior management may have mixed feelings about creating a separate space, as doing so is not inclusive. When faced with this argument, it is important to underscore that the issue is not inclusion, but racial trauma. The time will come when you can bring all employees together to talk about racism, but now is not that time.
Some employees will want more than a safe space. If they request counseling, make sure your employee assistance program (EAP) has culturally competent therapists available. Whether the EAP is in-house or an external vendor, the counselors need the training and skills to work with Black clients. They must have a working understanding of racism, be comfortable working with people of the same or a different race, and understand the effects of racial trauma. If the resources you have available don’t meet this criteria, don’t refer your employees to them, because you will only be furthering the trauma. Instead, find a culturally competent counseling group, and contract with them to see your employees.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review