Leading a Team Through a Social Justice Crisis

By Indeed Editorial Team

September 16, 2020

Many Canadians are currently navigating a time of uncertainty as we continue to care for the health of ourselves and our loved ones and experience a heightened awareness of the long-standing impact of systemic racism. In addition to concerns surrounding the current news cycle, many people are experiencing challenges with unemployment, looking for work, stay-at-home orders, childcare, and more. If you are a HR manager, you may not fully understand how to best support your teams who may be struggling to balance these unique work and home life challenges right now.

While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all answer to supporting your team at work, in this article we will provide several tips and ideas for how best to show up for your reports and have conversations with your team about allyship. We will also offer recommendations to help create an inclusive environment in which everyone feels heard, valued, and able to contribute in a meaningful way.

What to know about the current moment

Recent events and media coverage have highlighted many racial injustices the Black community have historically (and currently) faced in the US and around the world. It is helpful as a leader that you recognize, first and foremost, that some people on your team may not feel okay at this time.

What you can do

Because you know your team and organization best, it is important that you take a personalized approach to step into difficult situations with your employees. However, there are some steps you can take to help ensure your team feels heard and supported, including the following:

1. Reach out to affected employees one-on-one

When planning meeting times for your team, you might use the following conversation starters to address those on your team who may be dealing with challenges both at work and at home:

  • Are there any projects with which I can support or partner with you?

  • When are you planning on taking time off? I want you to prioritize your health and well being.

  • How frequently would it be helpful for me to check in?

  • I haven’t heard from or seen you in a while—just letting you know I’m here.

  • I want to acknowledge I am completely at a loss for words and struggling with how to help. I’ll check in with my peers for guidance and follow up with you promptly.

2. Use meetings to check in on your team

Before a meeting, you might find it helpful to check in with your team before getting into work-related topics, for example:

  • Is there anything anyone would like to discuss related to current events before we jump into business?

  • I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult time for many of our employees at the organization. If you need anything, please reach out.

  • Using the chat feature, I’d like everyone to send one word that describes how you are feeling.

3. Use email to acknowledge the state of things

It can be helpful to use forms of communication that work best for your team to send regular updates about your thoughts and how you’re taking steps to support your team. For example:

  • Acknowledge that you are aware of what’s happening in the lives of your team members and that you are available to listen.

  • Reinforce your organization’s values, specifically as it pertains to diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

  • Share and reiterate statements and messaging from your organization’s senior leadership team.

  • Share resources to foster education and allyship.

  • Introduce safe spaces you’ve created for ongoing conversations about race, such as regular office hours.

4. Create safe spaces for your team to discuss race

This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it is important to normalize conversations about race so you and your team can build a common language to understand each other’s experiences, differences, and views.

As a leader during a crisis, your team may be expecting you to initiate the conversation. It's important to understand that doing so may result in a response such as "Thank you, I’m not ready to talk." Verbally accept the response with validation and support, and take some time to observe your feelings about this response. If you feel upset or frustrated, ask yourself why those feelings might have come up.

When starting these conversations, you should first enforce the purpose of the discussion—to explore important issues, listen, and learn from each other. Set agreements in advance to encourage dialogue, mutual respect, and active listening.

You might also lead a self-reflection with your team so they can explore their personal experiences and biases. Some questions you can use include:

  • When were you first aware of your race?

  • What childhood experiences did you have with friends or adults who were different from you in some way?

  • Has anyone in your life helped you think about racial differences?

Allow people to share their experiences aloud. Prioritize listening and try to speak less so others can share. When a misunderstanding occurs, you might help mediate by offering clarifying questions, such as, "When you said ____, this is how I interpreted the statement. Am I understanding correctly?"

If your organization has scheduled company-wide learning opportunities, discussions, or speaking engagements, consider moving team meetings that conflict so your team can attend. Encourage attendance and discuss the events with your team.

Read more: How to Talk About Race, Gender and Social Issues at Work

5. Practise allyship

Confronting racial biases by taking meaningful action as an ally can play an important role in fostering an inclusive team culture. While doing so is a lifelong learning opportunity, here are a few ways to start:

  • Start by self-reflecting. Before you’re ready to speak up or take action, it may be helpful to take some time understanding your own ideas, biases, and ways of thinking. It is also important to learn – seek out resources such as books, podcasts, articles, or even counseling, if right for you, when starting the work of allyship.

  • Set an example. Speak up against and report remarks or behaviours that could be insensitive, derogatory, racist, or bigoted. For more, read our guide on How to Handle Microaggressions in the Workplace.

  • Stay informed. Follow the news cycle to understand what your employees may also be consuming and how it may be affecting them at work.

  • Be engaged. If your organization has an employee-led Employee Resource Group (or ERG), get involved to understand the ways you can help and strengthen support for your team. Encourage your team to get involved if you feel this would be a helpful activity.

6. Avoid common missteps

While making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, it is best that you do so quickly and apologize when necessary. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Avoid staying silent, which can feel comfortable if you are unsure about what to say or do. Instead, explain that it can be difficult to say the right things but that you are taking the time to take action and support the individuals on your team.

  • Don’t avoid feelings, which can be extremely helpful to both understand and communicate. Take some time to identify both your feelings and the feelings of others with Calm’s Feelings Wheel.

  • Avoid becoming defensive if you are questioned or challenged. Instead, ask clarifying questions and admit when you have made a mistake or need to learn more.

  • Avoid over-generalizing or assuming others’ situations, experiences, or feelings.

  • Avoid and discourage blaming or belittling statements during conversations. Participants do not need to agree or find an antidote to racism.

  • When possible, avoid moving on to work too quickly, which can feel difficult for some during times like these. Emphasize the need to rest and take time off to relax, recharge, and heal.

While every individual is different with various needs, priorities, feelings, and response mechanisms, prioritizing open communication and transparency is key when leading through a crisis. Take time to reflect on the feelings coming up not only for you, but also for the members on your team. Doing so will help you understand the right actions to take to make your team feel heard, respected, and supported.

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