The United States, already reeling from a pandemic and record unemployment, finds itself in a civil rights uprising that has swept the nation.
The death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers—an event caught on video—has unleashed a national outcry for justice.
Many organizations have made public statements; others are reluctant to wade into racial issues. Some have issued internal statements, but not all.
What should your organization do? If you’re grappling with the answer, you’re not alone.
This is uncharted territory for many organizations that don’t typically issue statements—internally or externally—related to national issues if they don’t directly affect their industry or employees.
New York City-based Con Edison is one of those brands.
“I’ve never seen us get involved in an issue like this before,” says Ann Cameron, director of creative services for Con Ed.
On Monday morning, Con Ed CEO John McAvoy emailed a statement to employees, opening with the death of George Floyd and how it has exposed the hurt and pain of racism for African Americans and all communities. It ended, “Let’s not tolerate intolerance.”
The message, which was “very direct and situation focused,” reinforced the company’s values, Cameron says. “Our leaders wanted to convey concern and empathy for our employees during these extraordinarily stressful times.”
Silence speaks volumes
Unlike other issues that have entered the national discourse, the jarring circumstances of Floyd’s death mean not saying something in the current environment is saying something.
“Silence sends a message—and the wrong one,” says Jim Ylisela, co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group.
Even though you may not be ready to specify what actions your organization might take—be it internally or through public donations to support Black Lives Matter, for instance—it’s important to get something out early, Ylisela says.
As in any crisis, your employees are the first audience you must address.
“As a child, my grandmother offered some wise advice to me, ‘You should always take care of home first,’” says Lisa Bond Brewer, director of external affairs and communications at Emergent Holdings. “I use that advice in my career as a communications professional, because in this case ‘home’ represents employees.”
On Monday, company leaders sent employees a message of support and encouragement grounded in its corporate values.
The key to an “internal, then external” communications strategy, Brewer says, is to prevent surprising your employees.
“You never want one of your internal stakeholders to read about something you have done in the morning paper or hear about it first from a supervisor in their office,” she says. “They are part of your team; make sure they feel like it and know it.”
Bluegrass Care Navigators also addressed this issue on Monday in an email from the CEO to all employees.
“As a hospice provider, our daily work reflects the value of every individual, and every life,” says Amy Doane, vice president of marketing. “The senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (here in Kentucky) stand in the face of several of our core values—and that is what our CEO shared with our team.”
Bluegrass employs almost 700 who live and work across a large geographic area of Kentucky spanning rural and urban communities. About two-thirds of its employees are clinical team members who serve patients in their residence, the hospital or long-term care facilities.
Tapping multiple sources
Who’s the right person at your company to address Floyd’s death and the ongoing protests? Employees want to hear from their leader, but you should consider having other employees join them to address these issues so it’s not one-way communication.
On Wednesday, Emergent Holdings held an hour-long webinar on racial inclusion featuring a panel of leaders, including the two executives who are sponsors of its African American Employee Resource Networks. All managers were invited, and 573 out of 600 attended. “They were able to pose questions to the panel and get answers,” Brewer says.
Some organizations might consider acknowledging the elephant in the room—that a lot of leaders issuing statements are white, Ylisela says.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz did so in a news conference by saying he hasn’t had the experiences that African Americans have:
And I will not patronize you as a white man without living those lived experiences of how very difficult that is. But I’m asking you to help us, help us use humane ways to get the streets to a place where we can restore the justice.”
“That issue has to be, in some ways, confronted, so that it’s not all top-down from leadership that is typically white,” Ylisela says. Get other people involved in the messaging—internally or externally.
Give employees a voice
Issuing a statement shouldn’t be a final pronouncement, but rather the beginning of an ongoing conversation.
“There may be people who need to vent, so managers become very important,” Ylisela says. “If there are racial tensions, people need some kind of an outlet, and you want it to be a civil one.”
Employee Resource Network (ERN) groups, HR, or group discussions are important outlets so “it’s not just the leaders telling everybody what we want to do,” Ylisela says.
Con Ed’s Blacks United in Leadership & Development (BUILD) group is running three hour-long sessions this week to bring employees together to discuss the personal impact of race in America, Cameron says. All three sessions booked immediately; a fourth session was added based on the overwhelming demand.
At Amazon, late last week its affinity groups, including the Black Employee Network, took the lead in sharing links for where to donate, what to read and what videos to watch. It also reminded the staff about its Ethics Hotline and its Employee Assistance Program, which offers a free, confidential counseling and referral service available 24/7 by telephone.
The headline on those messages: We See You.
“The employees, as part of these resource groups, were saying: Don’t forget we have this employee resource center; we have health benefits,” says Kristin Graham, principal of culture and communications at Amazon. “It’s the employees advocating for us to take care of one another and saying, ‘Be aware of your colleagues, and look after them. It’s OK to not be OK,’” Graham says. “That was very empowering.”
For organizations that don’t have ERN groups, you can remind employees about health benefits, including mental health coverage, and consider offering flexibility if employees need to step away from work if they’re feeling overwhelmed or want time to participate in local civil rights activities.
The comms team at Bluegrass Care Navigators reminded employees of social distancing if they choose to get involved in protests or the like.
“As a healthcare provider facing the challenges of a pandemic, we were compelled to guide our employees as they considered their own social justice actions,” Doane says. “That guidance included the key hallmarks of reducing the risk of infection during COVID-19—wearing a mask, social distancing, and exceptional hand hygiene.”
A heartfelt message is a starting point, but it’s not enough.
“People also want to know, ‘Now what?’” Ylisela says. Will anything change? Is there anything I can do?
On the internal side, consider creating an task force and gathering people to say, “Let’s hold the mirror up to ourselves and see where we can do better.” Externally, you might join with other civic leaders in taking relevant and meaningful action.
Another option for some organizations is to match donations to align actions with words.
If this is a route your organization wants to take, have a short list of 501(c)(3) organizations to which your company may consider donating, or making an initial donation and matching those of employees.
If you’re still unsure what to say or do, take time to put together a plan, which probably will have many elements, not all of which have to be done at the same time.
“Something like this happens, and we move into reactive mode,” Ylisela says.
Yes, you have to do something, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. Making a statement that reinforces your values is hard to argue with.
“There are universal values that everybody embraces—love conquers hate,” Ylisela says. “That’s not controversial. That is something that all organizations can embrace—that we have to treat each other the right way and be kind to one other and understand each other’s unique experiences.”