Creating Safe Harbors in Tragic Times

Amid all of today’s violence and hate crimes, companies need to set up listening spaces for employees and put inclusive playbooks into action, says Korn Ferry’s Andrés Tapia.

Andrés Tapia is a Korn Ferry senior client partner and one of the leaders in the firm’s global Diversity & Inclusion practice

On a plush and hushed C-suite floor, a group of executives at a Fortune 500 company gather to discuss how to be inclusive in times of societal polarization and hate crimes. The contemporary chronology in the United States is getting long. The massacres at the Pulse discotheque in Orlando, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; the deadly mayhem in Charlottesville; as well as the countless epithets hurled via graffiti, texts, and verbal abuse in public spaces have led to fear and even death of individuals who are African-American, Latino, Muslim, Jewish, and LGBT.

“How best to respond?” is the question around this executive table, as it is at many others. With furrowed brows and serious tones, they share, “We get the business case. We get why it’s important. We love the vast diversity of our talent. But what is it that we need to do differently?”

The leaders in the room are grave and concerned—and somewhat at a loss. A sincere question deserves a helpful and practical answer. First, the short of it: Provide listening spaces where employees can share what they are going through. It’s a solution that may sound simple, but can be easily ignored in this age of open office floor plans, and amid the endless multitasking and texting that fails to provide breathing room for workers.

Now the long of it: Leaders should provide a playbook for how to have constructive conversations across differences. The multiple diversity trainings they have sponsored must now be put into action.

Make an invitation. As we step back away from the incendiary headlines, tweets, and chyrons that amplify the voices of the extreme fringes, the majority of citizens and employees hunger for a way to bridge the divides rather than to widen them. Many would welcome an invitation to come to a space at work where they can share their fears and pain.

Make it clear that these are not places for debate or arriving at agreement. These are spaces for sharing how the events are affecting individuals personally. In this context, the goal of diversity and inclusion is not to get to full agreement across our many different ways of being, thinking, and doing; rather it is to get a better understanding of how our experiences in society and the workplace can be different from each other’s, and how that can be affecting our sense of belonging and engagement within an organization.

Emphasize empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand that “someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own,” says novelist Barbara Kingsolver. And while there is plenty of room to feel empathy for someone with whom you don’t agree, what should not be permissible is the devaluing of others based on who they are.

Have a skilled moderator. They will be able to ensure participants stay within the guidelines and spirit of the conversation, as well as ask the inquiring questions that invite sharing. Questions that work: How has the event affected you, your family, your community? How are you feeling right now? What do you hope for?

Lead by example. Leaders must get out in front of their people and talk from the heart about how they are experiencing these times and what they are doing personally to lower the tensions, as well as be a role model for how to be empathetic and have difficult conversations. But before they even talk, they would do well by coming in personally to those spaces they have sponsored and simply listen.

It is natural, of course, for leaders to feel they can’t do much at this moment to stop the violence and hatred in society. But there is much they can do to create a safe and accepting space within their organizations for those who are feeling they are someone’s target. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of time when inclusive leadership must step in and step up with a clarity of vision to unfreeze those in their charge, and to help them feel supported, have hope, and obtain guidance for how best to move forward.