Today’s leadership is in the position of inheriting problems with origins beyond their immediate professional environment. There has been a steady stream of flashpoint issues. Significant cultural events do not stay outside the workplace. Tragic and painful events and inflammatory topics can disrupt workplaces in both obvious and subtle ways. However, difficult circumstances like these present organizations with the opportunity to demonstrate greater sensitivity to staff and colleagues which can enhance inclusion in the workplace.

Acknowledge and address fear & vulnerability

Violence and hate speech stirs up strong emotions. Individuals who have been victimized in the past — or have a close relationship with someone who has — can experience the almost weekly violence in the news as reminders of feelings of personal injustice and reinforcement that they may still be vulnerable – and sometimes there is no accountability for perpetrators. This deep-seated sense of fear and vulnerability can take a private toll on staff. Organizations must anticipate this silent suffering and take proactive measures to counteract its effects.

Your organization can help employees by clearly re-stating your commitment to a safe workforce in these situations. Such efforts have to be visible, unwavering, and genuine. Reinforce your philosophy around creating an inclusive, equitable, diverse, and welcoming workplace. Reiterate detailed policies regarding accountability. Use this as an opportunity to articulate the value your organization places on all staff members.

Practice empathy

Leadership must take the time to understand the perspective of affected employees. Fear, vigilance, and woundedness are all antithetical to the feeling of inclusion. These emotions become de facto roadblocks to a sense of security. Without a secure foundation, employees operate at a diminished capacity.

Preoccupied employees are well aware that they must perform a tricky balancing act. If they admit they have been less productive due to distraction, they might be seen as not pulling their weight. They fear their complaints might fall on deaf ears or elicit an adverse reaction (“No one likes a complainer, right?”). These added pressures operate on top of the initial stressor, compounding the intensity of the distraction.

Healthy company culture begins at the top. Examine your reaction. Does leadership default to ignoring, dismissing, or minimizing the impact of events? Are employees encouraged to “move past it” without sincere acknowledgment of their experience or perspective? If so, it’s time to examine the leadership culture at your organization and take proactive steps to establish greater empathy and inclusion in the workplace.

Resist a kneejerk reaction

It’s tempting for an organization to want to sweep painful issues under the rug to quickly re-balance the workplace. However, this would be a serious mistake. Studies show that during interactions between high-powered groups and vulnerable groups, each has different needs. The high-powered group wants to right the ship and get everything back to running smoothly as quickly as possible; it wants to maintain harmony. However, people who feel vulnerable want their voice to be heard and to be part of the solution; they want respect, and they want change.

Therefore, an organization should not simply present a solution and try to move on. Instituting a radical shift then telling employees to “just trust us” can result in negative consequences and can, in fact reduce levels of trust. Organizations must take a deliberative approach that demonstrates that their response originates from a place of deeper understanding.

Engage neutral external partners

When trying to establish more inclusive policies, an independent assessment can help. Outside of the influence of office politics or other agenda, a third-party assessor can reveal underlying problems and help develop effective solutions quickly. An unbiased climate assessment holds up an accurate mirror of the organization. Often through this process, individuals finally receive the validation they have been seeking. It is comforting to discover they are not alone in their feelings and perceptions. An outside D&I partner has one goal in mind: to get the facts. Only from a fact-based foundation can an organization enact change without appearing as lip service to employees.

Leadership must make peace with the idea that the workplace is embedded in society and is affected by what occurs in that larger context. Employees are never fully insulated from the fallout of critical social issues. Therefore, establishing policies to foster inclusion in the workplace should be done as a proactive measure, not a reaction after the fact. Suppose authentic inclusivity is established in advance and nurtured along the way, when disruptive social issues arise. In that case, the organization is well prepared to respond in an effective manner, so everyone can move forward with greater confidence.