On January 6, the world watched as a group of mostly white men and women stormed the U.S. Capitol building. They were armed with weapons, including machete knives, guns, and pipe bombs. A gallows with a noose was built and it was later revealed the group intended to hang the vice president and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The inadequate response from law enforcement drew immediate criticism. Footage showed procedural lapses in the handling of the rioters, which allowed the breach to occur and put Congress members and the Capitol staff in grave danger. Immediate comparisons were made to the vastly different response to the Black Lives Matter protests from the summer of 2020, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. During those prior events, the Capitol police were much more present, and, by using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other shows of force, they did not allow protesters to breach the barricades at the front of the building.
In the aftermath, many expressed shock and sadness, claiming the insurrectionists didn’t represent “my America.” Meanwhile, Black people and other people of color expressed hurt and anger, noting this terroristic action as being reminiscent of America’s reaction to advancements toward equity, justice, and enfranchisement of people in this country who have been historically marginalized.
Businesses that had issued statements in the summer committing to increased diversity and anti-racist efforts struggled with how to respond. There is still much fear in business of getting involved in “political issues” and the potential impact it will have on their customer and client retention. “Organizations have to decide what side of history they want to be on,” says Janine Dennis, CEO of Talent Think Innovations. “You can continue to perpetuate our issues by aiding and abetting these vigilantes of freedom . . . [or] you can help to eradicate some of our issues as a country by taking a strong stance and making it clear that your company in no way condones such acts and behavior.”
As we continue to experience the aftermath of these events, it’s important for organizations committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion to take four actions:
Denounce the acts of sedition at the Capitol
While this seems like an obvious step, many organizations struggle with the idea of having to issue a statement denouncing violent and supremacist actions each time events occur. It feels redundant and can be daunting to draw more negative attention from customers and clients who oppose the stance or who believe commerce and governmental/political affairs should be kept separate. But that shouldn’t stop companies from communicating their views clearly. “What many organizations don’t realize is that while they’re playing safe, neutrality communicates a position that your employees hear loudly,” says Charlie Pleasant, founder and CEO of Pleasant Coaching and Consulting, who serves as a crisis counselor to organizations after traumatic events.
For organizations that have expressed commitment to improved DEI—especially anti-racism efforts—neutrality is akin to endorsement of the behavior. “Be mindful of the message that inaction sends to employees and your work culture,” says Pleasant.
Review protocols and policies for your company
“No employer needs a ‘you can’t get involved in an insurrection’ policy,” says Kate Bischoff, employment attorney and owner of tHRive Law & Consulting. Instead, companies should rely on the policies they already have, such as the anti-harassment policy and the standards of conduct.
“If you don’t have a policy regarding outside activities and conduct, it may be time to discuss this,” says Dennis. This will create the space the organization needs to address any public scrutiny or backlash that may occur when a decision has to be made about an employee who participated in such events. “There is an argument to be made for First Amendment protections, but . . . engaging in an insurrection against our democracy will likely mean your [employment will be] terminated,” says Bischoff. This holds for both public and private employers.
It may also make sense for the company to review its protocols for visitors and for lockdown arising from threats of violence in the workplace. Many of the staff at the Capitol expressed being unprepared on what to do when the violence erupted. While it’s horrible that we have to practice what we will do when terrorized in our workplaces, reinforcing these protocols periodically saves lives.
Create a process for reporting coworkers who participated at the Capitol
“Make sure you have a safe and non-retaliatory process for employees to report coworkers they identify as being a part of those attacks or who are creating a hostile work environment via rhetoric or behavior tied to the attacks,” says Dennis. “[Any investigation] will need to be done with respect to local, state, and national legislation regarding free speech and other protected forms of expression. Legal counsel should be an active partner in this review,” says human resources consultant Victorio Milian.
Milian also recommends reviewing overall job performance for anyone believed to have participated in the attack on the Capitol or expressed support of this behavior in the workplace. “Specifically check if they’ve engaged in any form of harassment, discrimination, or other potentially unethical or illegal behavior. This is especially important if the employee is or were in a leadership role [where they] make employment decisions such as hiring, terminations, promotions, salary changes, etc.” It is possible this person’s views have shown up in their work, through other complaints and microaggressive behaviors. If that is determined to be the case after an investigation, separation may also be warranted.
Provide support for employees who are struggling
“The Capitol insurrection is just one more traumatic event in a series of traumatic events,” says Dennis. “Every leader should be making themselves available for anyone who needs to speak about what occurred. The best way to support employees who are expressing continued concern is to be empathetic and flexible.”
Pleasant cautions that employees may also express a desire to not discuss these events. “Do not assume that your employees have the mental and/or emotional capacity to engage in direct and ongoing conversations about it,” Pleasant says. “The impact of [January 6] has landed differently for people.”
Milan says it’s important for HR departments and leaders to make employees aware of all available resources. “This will take many forms, both on an individual, as well as organizational level. Examples include: sending a statement highlighting resources (such as an employee assistance program) that employees can tap into; having proactive conversations with various stakeholders to assess employee morale; providing toolkits to line managers that give them strategies to work with upset employees; holding a town hall to give staff a forum for airing their feelings, as well as offering ideas to address any workplace concerns.”
“Normalize rest as productive and necessary,” says Pleasant. “Encourage your employees to take their PTO without feeling guilty and/or incentivize additional time off for wellness care of their choosing that doesn’t require them to tap into their personal time off.” Dennis encourages partnering with local mental health counselors, therapists, and wellness companies to offer your employees ways to cope with what they had to witness. “Equally, this is a time to center your BIPOC employees, who may be feeling more upset than their white counterparts as they essentially witnessed white privilege and supremacy in a way that is numbing and confronting,” says Dennis.
What to do if your company isn’t acting
Should your organization not yet have taken any action, it is still possible for you as an individual to move forward on these recommendations to the extent that you have the authority and influence. This may be as simple as adjusting the work schedules in your department to accommodate those needing time away to recover. It may also include reaching out to another leader or your HR department to share some of these recommendations, as they may not have thought of them yet.
Pleasant also recommends a poignant question for self-reflection: What can I do to take care of myself that doesn’t require anyone to do or be anything different? “This question shifts our perspective from looking to our external environment to take care of us to tapping into our own personal knowledge and power to make the best decisions based on what works for them.” Examining our own answer to this question creates space for us to see the resources and options that are available to us. This helps us to focus on healing and moving forward rather than staying stuck in the negativity and endless news cycle.
Perhaps the most important thing individuals can do if their organization is unwilling to support its employees struggling with these events is to seek employment elsewhere. As we continue to move through the pandemic, the racial unrest, and the threats to our democracy, working in a place that supports employee wellness, and that fully understands how to navigate the intersection between business, policy, and politics, will become more critical than ever.
Sarah Morgan is the chief excellence officer of BuzzARooney LLC, a consulting boutique that helps startups and small businesses create inclusive, equitable workplace cultures. She is also the creator and host of the Leading in Color podcast. Connect with Sarah through her website at www.BuzzARooneyLLC.com.