What to Say When War Breaks Out

Leaders are struggling to find the right words this week.  

As yet another deeply concerning war breaks out, many employees are once again distracted and upset: clicking on news sites during the workday, texting friends, and worrying about loved ones. Should such a highly charged topic be addressed in the workplace?

Experts agree that leaders need to recognize how stressed and distracted many workers are, especially after the upheaval of the last few years. “If leaders don’t address this they risk employee disengagement”—which is correlated with underperformance, turnover, and reputational brand damage, says John Ashburn, senior manager for assessment services at Korn Ferry,

This latest outbreak of war, in the Middle East, comes on the tail of the ongoing battle in Ukraine, political strains in the US, and the pandemic. Employee engagement, at only 32%, is already at its lowest point since 2005, according to Gallup data. “Employees aren’t sure leadership cares about them,” says Ashburn, who notes that younger employees can find this particularly problematic.

The question is what, exactly, to say. Experts point out that companies rarely provide management training for such situations. “It’s important for firms to be empathetic to and protective of their people,” says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics at Korn Ferry. 

Psychologists say that leaders can’t go wrong if they show empathy and facilitate donations to corporate philanthropy for a neutral charity that is supporting a variety of victims, such as a children’s or medical charity. That last step is key, says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry: “It gives a positive focus.”

Good leadership around a war creates an environment in which teammates feel supported physically, mentally, and emotionally, says Dennis Deans, vice president of global human resources at Korn Ferry. “Folks just want to know that there are empathetic leaders who are supporting them as they work.”


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