The news that a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd is already sparking a wide range of reactions, from celebration and relief that Chauvin is being held accountable, to grief, anxiety, and anger over Floyd’s death and continued police violence against Black people.
Black Americans in particular are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions right now. In the coming days, it will be crucial for managers and employers to support their Black employees by acknowledging that.
“A lot of times we aren’t sure what to say, so we just back away and don’t say anything,” says social psychologist Evelyn Carter, the director of training and people development at the diversity and inclusion firm Paradigm Strategy. Company leaders need to fight that instinct, acknowledging the historic verdict and its effect on Black people. “If you try to pretend like it’s not happening, you run the risk of sending a message to Black folks that says, I don’t care about how this is impacting you.”
Carter recommends that managers be quick to bring up the news, using language that extends compassion to employees while leaving room for the variety of reactions that they may have to the verdict. One possible version she offers: “I recognize that there are many thoughts, feelings, and experiences that this might bring up, so I am open to whatever I need to do to support you. For Black people in particular, my door is open … If you want to talk with me, if you need accommodations, I’m here.”
Avoid an overly celebratory tone, per advice from social justice activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who posted a reminder on Twitter about the language we use to discuss a guilty verdict. “Even if there is accountability, for one murder, for one officer, on one day… That ain’t justice. Justice is a living George & the abolition of a system intent on harm.”
Another crucial piece of advice to managers: Don’t expect business as usual in the wake of the verdict, even though the not-guilty finding many were fearing did not materialize. “Many people are just not going to be up to working [after the verdict] or making deadlines,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University who researches anxiety among Black people and race-related stress.
Leaders should figure out ways to let Black employees know that they can take time off without seeming to mandate it—whereas one person may want to take a personal day, another might want to throw themselves into work. Consider their individual personalities and do your best to figure out what gestures of support might be most meaningful.
In the wake of Floyd’s death last summer, many organizations held company-wide meetings on the topic of racial justice. One lesson to emerge from this period is that unstructured conversations have potential to go awry, as was the case with a LinkedIn town hall that turned into an opportunity for some white employees to make dismissive remarks about the problem of racial inequality and police violence.
The best way to avoid such scenarios, Carter says, is to “be very thoughtful about what the end goal is” before setting up any group discussions. Without structure and an agenda, “what you can end up doing is throwing people to a room, having a conversation folks aren’t ready for, and doing more harm.”
Companies should consider setting up multiple forums for employees to process the verdict, suggests Neal-Barnett. First and foremost, she says, it’s “vitally important” that companies provide conversational spaces specifically for Black employees, where they can feel safe in sharing their thoughts and feelings with one another without having to navigate white people’s reactions. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Neal-Barnett also recommends that employers “bring in a skilled expert in racial trauma to help them process what they are experiencing and feeling.”
She adds that it may be useful to have DEI facilitators hold separate conversations both for other non-white employees (such as Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos), and for white employees. “We can’t build allyship, we can’t address bias, unless we understand how people are viewing [racism],” Neal-Barnett says.
A good facilitator can lead the conversation so that white employees openly share their views, then help them think through their responses more deeply from an anti-racist perspective. In any case, it’s important not to put the burden of anti-racist education on Black employees, or to force Black people into conversations in which there’s a risk of their colleagues saying ignorant or inadvertently harmful things.
Writing in Quartz in 2020, author Nadia Owusu offered four questions that company leaders can ask themselves in the service of anti-racism, starting with: “How have our programs, products, and services left out or harmed communities of color in the past?”
No matter what goals companies have already set for themselves in the pursuit of racial equality, the Chauvin verdict is an opportune time to revisit that question, and to remember that there remains a lot of work ahead in dismantling racism. As Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison said in his remarks Tuesday, “The work of our generation is to say goodbye to old practices that don’t serve us anymore.”
Internal and external messaging will be crucial in this moment, but “[s]tatements are worthless without action,” Neal-Barnett says. The words should be accompanied, she says, by “a commitment to racial justice and a commitment to understanding that racism is a public health crisis, and making steps to reduce that.”