Several weeks ago as I was shopping in my local grocery store, I reached the check-out counter and started exchanging pleasantries with the two young men checking out my groceries and bagging them. Suddenly, we all heard it—three loud pops echoing through the store, happening in succession.
It was just a few seconds, but it felt like the longest pause of my life. All three of us whipped around in the direction of the noise that was coming from the exit door of the store. In that moment, we realized that our greatest fear wasn’t happening right in front of us. The sound we heard was a grocery store patron overwhelmed with dozens of birthday balloons trying to push through the sliding doors and the balloons popping as the door closed. It was not the sound of a gun.
As the three of us looked back at each other and exchanged deep sighs, I realized something we all shared: trauma. We had been very aware of the recent news stories that saw mass shootings in grocery stores and other public venues across the country. With each of us being Black, we also recognized that we had a potential target on our backs due to the rise of these attacks being racially motivated. We all shared the consistent and what seems like a never-ending cycle of trauma, hate, and violence that seems to have become a constant companion in our lives, particularly as people of color.
I didn’t tell this story to anyone until recently, after the Buffalo, NY grocery store shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people at the hands of a man who specifically sought to target a Black community. And I shared it with a colleague at work.
More and more, our places of business have recognized the need for compassionate empathy and safe spaces to engage about what’s going on in the world around us. Long gone are the days where employees are expected to “check their feelings at the door “— instead, we are bringing our feelings, and our traumas, with us to work. This is especially true since the pandemic and remote work has blurred the line between our home and our work life.
People, particularly people of color, are openly discussing their growing concerns for their safety in the workplace—which means that connecting with allies in the workplace has never been more important. But how do allies (managers and colleagues alike) make meaningful connections with their colleagues of color in a way that promotes feelings of safety and support and not feelings of burden? Here are four suggestions to build that bridge.
Educate yourself before you engage.
Making sure you are aware and well-informed about what’s happening in society before you reach out to your colleagues of color is crucial. Coming from a place of knowledge on any subject opens the door for authentic dialogue as it can help set a more empathetic tone. It’s also a clear effort in exhibiting allied behavior. There are a number of ways to get informed these days, including via news alerts from your preferred news source, Instagram, Twitter, etc. so that you’re not tuning into your morning Zoom call unaware of what’s going on in the world.
Staying informed puts you in a place to truly understand what’s affecting your colleagues of color and not burdening them with questions for your own understanding, but coming from a place of genuine support when you do decide to reach out.
Respect the boundaries of each relationship.
Oftentimes, we don’t have a full-spectrum view of our personal vs. professional relationships with our colleagues. Personal friendships extend outside of the workplace into personal relationships that find you and your colleagues spending time with each other outside of work. This could include dinners together, maybe even play dates with children or attending activities or social events together on the weekend. Other relationships are strictly professional and hierarchical. Meaning, you only interact at work or at work events or you’re in a scenario where you are a superior engaging in work with a subordinate or a peer-to-peer work relationship.
Checking in at times like these requires a nuanced understanding of which rung of the relationship ladder you’re on and acting accordingly. For example, if you are a manager and you’d like to connect with a direct report of yours who is a person of color regarding a difficult news topic and you want to check on their mental state, do so with caution and in a broad way. Saying something like, “Hey! I know there is a lot going on here at work, but I also recognize what’s happening outside of work right now. I want to make sure you’re ok and want you to know that if you need or want to talk about it, I’m happy to listen. If not, that’s ok too. If you need time or space, it’s available. Just let me know.” And leave it at that. Be prepared for a potential flood of emotion, a solemn response, or nothing at all. Responses can run the gamut, but you reaching out to make a connection and make space for your employee will be remembered and will likely be appreciated. Moving forward, you’ve opened a door that will allow you to build a stronger bond and create a safe space for your employee to share if they ever chose to do so.
Personal friends can connect differently and more intimately than professional colleagues. Know which relationship you’re in before you reach out to your colleagues of color.
Follow the natural lines of your communication.
Reaching out to your colleagues of color in times like this can be a very sensitive act, but it works best when you communicate with those that you know well through the mode of communication that you typically communicate. Nothing is worse than getting a heartfelt, empathetic text from a colleague that you don’t even have their number in your phone. You could be met with a, “Thank you, but who is this?”. Awkward!
If you’ve been texting with them recently, text them. If you haven’t talked to them in months, but follow each other on social media and often comment on their Insta, send them a DM. If you only talk via Slack at work, do a quick, “Hey! Just checking on you..” via Slack. Don’t overdo it and don’t push it. If it feels right, reach out, but if it feels like the gap is too wide, it’s ok to wait to see if a natural moment arises to talk.
Understand the nuances.
Not all people of color are a monolith. That’s it. That’s the tweet. But seriously, no one group of people thinks or reacts the same way to what’s happening to people who look like them in the world. And more importantly, we all don’t feel the same way about things that happen in society to people who look like us or who are a part of our community. Refine your approach before you approach and, frankly, be ready for what you might hear. You might find that your outrage and empathy are met with disconnection and denial or, you might find your desire to check-in turns into a heavy emotional outpouring that leaves you both bewildered.
With that said, as a leader speaking to leaders, I often say acknowledgment is always appropriate. It demonstrates empathy, connection, and care. So, again, if it feels right, do it. I also advise you to connect with your cultural informants— or find them and bring them into your circle if you haven’t already —to help advise you on how to move forward in times like these to address the concerns of employees of color and create safe and brave spaces. These are heavy times we are living in and workplaces have become a place where colleagues unpack work drama and societal trauma all at the same time. Make space for that and connect meaningfully, particularly with your colleagues of color. All the effort and care is appreciated.
Ashley Kincade is the SVP and Head of Culture at Trade School, an Atlanta-based ad agency and full-service production studio.