The mass shooting in Buffalo last weekend, in which 10 people were murdered by a gunman targeting Black shoppers at a supermarket, gave new urgency to a question that’s come up far too many times in recent memory: What can managers do to support traumatized employees, especially employees of color, in the wake of hate crimes and racist violence?
We reached out to Angelica Leigh, an assistant professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who studies diversity and emotions in the workplace. Leigh recently co-authored a paper examining the effect of “mega-threats,” or widely publicized instances of marginalized groups suffering violence or harassment, on workers of color. Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity:
To start off, can you explain what a mega-threat is?
We define mega-threats as negative, large-scale, identity-relevant, or diversity-related societal events.
The definition has three parts to it: The first is large-scale. When we talk about large-scale, we're really just talking about the amount of attention that an event gets. So it's not the same as a personal occurrence that happens to just you, or something that would maybe happen in a community or a small neighborhood. These are the events that make the news and end up being covered in both traditional media, on cable news or nightly news formats, and on social media. We focus on the events that really capture a news cycle or capture societal attention for at least a few days.
The second piece is that it's a negative event, in that an individual or group is attacked, threatened, or harmed. And that negativity goes hand in hand with the third piece of the definition, which is that it's identity-related. Either you yourself end up making this assumption that this victim was targeted because of their identity, or there are things about the event or the reporting that would highlight the fact that these victims were targeted because of their identity.
When I'm talking about this, I tend to use differences in mass shootings, unfortunately, as a way to say what a mega-threat would be, versus a negative mega event. Mass shootings are happening with terrible frequency these days, but I normally compare and contrast the shooting that happened in Dayton, Ohio, [in 2019] with the one that happened in El Paso, Texas, within the same weekend. If you think about these two events, they both received significant media attention. So they were large-scale. They both were negative in that victims tragically lost their lives, and there were others that were wounded.
But when you think about the Dayton shooting, this mass shooter indiscriminately was shooting in an area where there were a lot of people hanging out at bars at night. And so it didn't really seem like he was specifically targeting anyone for any real reason, except to shoot, to kill. Versus in El Paso, there were [identity-related] aspects of the event, like the fact that the shooter drove to El Paso to be closer to the border so that he ostensibly could potentially shoot more people of Mexican descent. He had things on his Facebook page that really showed that he was anti-immigrant. And so we would say that that was a mega-threat.
Unfortunately, the events in Buffalo this last weekend are eerily similar to the event that happened in El Paso, Texas, a couple years ago. The shooter is described as driving 200 miles from his home to go to this predominantly Black community, to go to the only supermarket in that predominantly Black community, to have written things on Facebook and a manifesto that had racist rhetoric in it. And so those details about the event are really what make it a mega-threat that could be potentially threatening to any individuals who are also members of this group that was targeted.
And then how does that mega-threat make its way into what you describe in the paper as “embodied threat”?
We conceptualized embodied threat as this assessment of an increased likelihood of you personally experiencing violence or harm because of your identity group membership. It’s this feeling that you are unsafe, or that as you are going about your daily life running errands and going to work, the same violence that befell the victims in the event could also happen to you, because those victims were targeted by their identity that you share.
When you look at the world, and the fact that race-based violence is a part of society and happens quite frequently—as a racial minority in this country, if you're really paying attention, you could potentially always be in this state of worrying whether you're going to end up being the victim of increased violence or be attacked or threatened or harassed because of who you are and what you look like. But if you really attended to that, you wouldn't be able to go about your day normally and live a normal happy life. And so when these mega-threats happen, when you see that someone who looks like you was targeted in this way, it really brings that threat to the surface—this idea that you could be targeted just simply because of what you look like and who you are. And now once again, you have to grapple with this threat as you try to go about your daily life.
What does that do, psychologically?
Similar to other threat experiences you may have in your life, when you encounter something negative, you have anxiety and fear and stress. And you also have really negative thoughts of worrying about whether this could happen to you, and being more vigilant and attentive to your surroundings.
The reason why we argue that this impacts employees when they're at work is that the source of this threat isn't something that's concretely in front of you, that you can escape and then be okay. If you encountered a bear while you were camping, the bear is there, it's in front of you, it's a threat. And then once you're able to remove yourself from that situation, that threat should theoretically disappear. But in this case, when you have this psychological threat, you're worried about your safety, you're worried about your community, you're worried about your friends and family and whether this could happen to you or to them.
This is something that remains alive, and it's so negative that it's hard for people to be able to push it down and go to work. It’s something that you carry with you, even as you are entering your workspace, or physically going into work.
So what does that look like? How does carrying this threat affect how people show up in a workplace context?
Think of an average employee who gets on their phone in the morning and they're reading about this event. They go on their Facebook or their Twitter feed, and they're seeing a lot of their friends reacting to this event and talking about this event. So this negativity, these emotions, these negative thoughts are alive. And then you enter your workspace.
Because this event is identity-related, there's also this interesting thing that happens when you get to work. It's not always readily apparent that you can tell people about how you're feeling. Maybe you're not comfortable enough, or you never had a conversation where you talked about race. Maybe you're working in an environment where you're in the minority, and so there aren’t a lot of people around you that you think would share your experience. Or maybe even if you are in an environment where other people are sharing this experience, it's just something that seems like it's non-work related, or something that people are unsure whether they should bring up in the work context.
So you end up having these negative emotions, you're on your social media, you're scrolling, you're seeing people talk about racism and white supremacy and the dangerous consequences of it. And then you run into a colleague in the morning, and the question is like, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And you're struck with this moment where you end up having to pause. Do you say to this person, ‘I'm actually not doing well. It's not a normal day for me. I have all these negative emotions and thoughts, and I'm worried about whether I and my family members are going to be targeted in the same way as what happens to those victims in Buffalo’? Or do you just decide to say, ‘I'm fine, how are you?’
In our paper, what we find is that oftentimes in that moment at work, instead of being able to be honest about how they're feeling and how they're doing, people end up having to put on this face of, ‘I'm doing fine, it's just another day in the world for me.’ This threat-suppression process ends up happening, where instead of showing those negative emotions and those negative thoughts, you are suppressing those negative emotions and those thoughts. And so not only are you expending resources because you have these negative emotions and thoughts, and that takes up more psychological resources or more energy than just kind of being in a normal, steady state; you're also suppressing those emotions and trying to show that you're okay.
The downstream consequence of this is that as you're expending all this energy to suppress these emotions, you end up withdrawing from your work. We all have a limited amount of energy to invest in our work, our home lives, et cetera. And so if you're investing some of that energy in suppressing these negative emotions, then there's less energy for you to then invest into your work tasks.
People also end up withdrawing from their work colleagues. Back to that scenario where instead of telling this colleague, ‘I'm not doing well today, I'm really, concerned that white supremacy is on the rise and that I could be the target of something like this,’ you say, ‘I'm fine.’ You don't then want to continue this long conversation with this colleague. It's like, ‘All right, see you later. Goodbye.’ And so you end up withdrawing and not connecting socially with your colleagues as well.
Can you say more about what that withdrawal looks like? If I’m a manager and I want to keep a pulse on how my employees are doing in the wake of events like the Buffalo shooting, what are some things that I should be looking out for that might signify that they need more support?
You may still be working on your work tasks, but you're maybe not doing them as well. Maybe working slower on things, or you're in a meeting and you're speaking up less and you're not contributing to the conversation, or you're letting your mind wander. And instead of working on a report or something that you're supposed to be working on, you're scrolling on social media, becoming invested in the conversations that are happening online where people are really grappling with the event and talking about it.
We're all on social media at some point during the day, if you have the autonomy to do that, but you may only go on Instagram for like a couple minutes to like a few photos and get your fix. But those cases where you're really feeling withdrawn from your work, and you're not really having the energy to invest in your tasks, are when you'll find people spending more time on social media and things like that throughout the day.
What are some things that managers or company leaders can do to create a space where employees don't feel like they need to suppress that threat?
In our paper, we argue that one of the most important things that managers can do is create this space where there's psychological safety around identity-based discussions.
As we were trying to figure out what it was that organizations or managers could do to interrupt this negative process, we looked at a lot of different potential organizational features. We looked at whether there were more racial minorities in a workplace versus less. We looked at whether people said that their workplace was more inclusive versus less inclusive. And one of the most interesting things to me about this project is that we were finding, in the wake of these events with real employees who were grappling with the consequences, those features of the organization weren't really that important.
I asked them survey questions about the climate of inclusion in their workplace. How much is there a celebration of differences? Are you included in decision-making? Are you feeling like you belong at your organization? You know, an employee could say, ‘Yes, strongly agree’ to all of those things, but in the wake of an event could still say, ‘No, I don't feel comfortable. I still engage in this threat suppression process, which then consumes my energy and doesn't give me energy to invest in my work tasks.’ And so what we found is that it was more this proximal psychological feeling that employees could actually have a conversation about this, and that there was safety in their workplace to have conversations about identity.
[To measure that,] we asked employees this open ended question of, ‘Have you felt comfortable talking about these experiences at work? Why or why not?’ And we got a variety of responses from people. Some were saying, ‘Yes, we had a discussion, it was honest and people shared their negative emotions about it. Some people said things like, ‘We talked about it, there were maybe some conflicting views, but it's okay and we were able to talk about it.’ But there were others who said, ‘No, I don't think we should be bringing up events like this at work,’ or ‘No, I can't afford to alienate myself from my work colleagues by bringing up a topic or talking about something that would make people uncomfortable.’ This idea of making people uncomfortable really stuck out. There were a lot of people who simply didn't bring it up, because they were like, ‘No, I didn't really want to make people uncomfortable.’ But in not making others uncomfortable, what they were doing was suppressing their emotions and then having this negative withdrawal experience.
So my advice to managers would be to really examine whether you've created an environment in your teams and with your employees where you are having identity-based discussions, where you're not ignoring the fact that you are different from your work colleagues, but instead you're talking about those differences and they're being highlighted in conversations before an event happens. And so when this event happens, your employees can say, ‘When my manager asked me how I was doing, I told them, I'm not doing well. Did you see the news? It's really unfortunate what's happening in the world.’ And they were able to really expel that threat.
Sure, managers could check in with their employees right after an event happens and send them an email or a text, or have a short conversation with them where they ask them, ‘How are you doing? Is there anything that you need that I can support you with?’ That's one way to do it, but I actually think a more effective way to do this is to create this environment before these events really take place. And so in the coming weeks, managers could be doing things like having conversations with their employees about aspects of their lives that are connected to their identities.
We no longer live in workplaces where we don't talk about the things we do in life. People talk about, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ Or we talk about sports or the weather or whatever. When you think about those conversations, people tend to focus on things that are similar or safe topics. And so even when I'm telling you what I did this weekend, I may say, ‘Oh, I watched the game,’ or something like that, but I might not mention the fact that I went to a church function at my predominantly Black Baptist church in my community that I'm super active in. That may never come up in my conversation with my manager. But if I don't feel comfortable telling you about these things that I do in my off time, or things that are connected to my identity, then how am I going to feel comfortable telling you when things are bad?
And so it's getting away from saying ‘We celebrate differences,’ to really integrating those differences in our conversations, in the workplace, in what we do. We talk about, you know, the Diwali celebration that our Indian colleagues are doing. We talk about celebrations and things around Juneteenth, or other historically Black things that we do in our off time. And so then I've built this environment where these people have recognized my full humanity and of the fact that I'm Black. And what that means is that there are things that I do in my life that are connected to that Black identity. So I can say that I have these emotions and these thoughts that are also connected to my Black identity.
Outside of the context of calendar events or other things to pin these identity conversations on, what can managers do in daily life to make sure that those conversations are happening and employees are comfortable having them? Is it about modeling?
Modeling is a big thing, and highlighting the things that make you unique. So some things that you may participate in or do, whether it's in work or outside of work, that are unique to your identity and who you are. Being open to saying, ‘You know, I might not understand what you're going through, but I definitely get that this could be a really challenging time for you. I'm here. My door is open. If you ever want to have a conversation about this or you want to chat.’ Just opening the door to allow for people to really share more of their unique talents and really feelings and experiences in the world.
One thing to keep in mind is that these things are always easier said than done. When I go back to my data, for both Black respondents and white respondents, in the wake of a shooting of two Black civilians at the hands of police, for both groups there was this sentiment that you could make people uncomfortable. So for the Black participants, it was, ‘I didn't want to make people uncomfortable by bringing up this negative thing when everybody else seems to be in this positive headspace. I didn't really want to highlight this identity or this experience that other people weren't having.’ In the wake of police shootings, there is a bit more of a sentiment of, ‘I could bring this up and my colleagues could say something that feels insensitive, or feels like it's not the time to really talk about.’
On the white participant side, there were a lot of responses where people said things like, ‘I wanted to bring it up. I thought about bringing it up. I almost brought it up, but then I worried maybe I was bringing this thing up and this person that I'm talking to didn't even hear about the event, or they weren't thinking about it.’ And so they didn't bring it up.
We all kind of operate in this realm where you're worried about making people uncomfortable. And so as a manager, [especially] if you're a white manager thinking about whether you should approach your Black employees after the shooting in Buffalo, you might come to the conclusion of, ‘I should check on my employees,’ but realize that when you go to do that, there naturally may be some feelings of, ‘I don't know if I should do this. Am I going to make them uncomfortable? Is this going to turn out the way that it should?’ And you might be able to overcome that and say something, and then this person maybe says, ‘No, I'm okay. I don't really want to talk about it.’ And you decide to never bring it up again.
Because these are conversations that we don't typically have, that are not the norm in organizations and in the world today, particularly across racial groups, know that when you go to first enact these things, it's going to feel uncomfortable. You're not gonna be sure whether you should bring it up, and you're going to have to muster the energy to go against that natural inclination.
But the more that you do it, the more that you'll likely get evidence that it actually doesn't make people that uncomfortable to bring this thing up. And even if you make people a little uncomfortable, it's okay. There are things that make people uncomfortable all the time. The price of not bringing it up when your employees feel like you should have, or that no one is really understanding their experiences—it's much greater than the cost of, ‘Oh, I just brought this thing up and it made someone momentarily uncomfortable.’
How should managers think about walking that line, of really communicating that this is an okay space to talk about uncomfortable things without talking about them in a way that feels performative?
The important thing is realizing that it's really up to your employee whether they walk through that door or not, in terms of talking to you about it or not. So to keep in mind that the first time you do this, you may not unlock this really deep conversation with your employee where you talk about race in America and the dangerous consequences of racism. The first time you do this, you may get a response of, ‘Yes, that was really sad, but you know,’ or nothing really at all. And that's okay. The important part is that you open the door. That employee is now aware of the fact that you recognize that they are a member of this group, and that they may be suffering because of this event.
I'd also say that you should be continually opening this door even in times when things aren't bad. Going back to this idea of integrating differences into conversations and the workplace more generally, you lay the foundation so that you're more likely, when things are bad, to have your employees want to walk through that door. So it's a continual process. And so for managers, you really have to be really committed to creating this space that goes against most of what we do and know in society, which is that we don't talk about race at work and really with people that are different than us more generally.
We've talked about what managers can do in their relationship with their reports, but is there anything that managers can do to cultivate that same sense of safety between employees on the team?
It goes back to creating this space where there's a broader culture in your team of really grappling with everyone's full humanity. Being able to share not just opinions related specifically to work tasks, but who you are outside of work and the things that are important to you more generally. Having those spaces where employees are actually having those conversations with each other cultivates this environment in the team where the first time I have a conversation with my coworker that acknowledges the fact that we're in different racial groups isn't right after the Buffalo shooting.
I would think of the strategies that you use in the team setting as really just building on what you've done one on one. Create space so that your employees are talking as a team once a week or twice a month and sharing issues that they're having, both with work tasks and important things coming up outside of work, and having opportunities to really connect and bond. Both informal gatherings of the team, but also formally saying, ‘We as a team are going to get together and have this time once a month for 30 minutes to really check in with each other and get to know each other, and talk to each other more about who we are and the things that are important to us.’
It’s about finding these times that allow you to periodically, with some frequency, have people get to know each other—frequent enough that they're able to connect and start to really build up a relationship, but not so frequent that it feels forced, or it feels like you're taking away from work tasks.
It sounds like it's really a question of consistency.
The consistency is probably the biggest thing, particularly if you're in an environment where it could feel performative. We're in organizations now where there's a lot more attention to racism and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there's less guidance of what the specific solutions should be to foster these climates.
Realize that you need to consistently be talking about these things and creating this type of environment, and then remain committed to that for a length of time, in the same way you would remain committed to implementing a new operating procedure in your team or implementing a new way of reporting. Implementing this space, of people being able to be who they are and acknowledged for who they are and talking about who they are, needs that same kind of attention, detail, and planning as everything else you plan out and do at work.
Are there any added challenges to this that come with remote and hybrid working?
The biggest challenge is that those just create environments where there is less informal talking. So when you join a Zoom meeting and you get a group of people together, know that there's normally less chit chat than would happen if you had gotten together in person for a team meeting. And depending on the size, if you're in a Zoom room of 10 people, then it really becomes even more difficult to really feel like you're connecting one-on-one with people.
So it is much harder in the Zoom environment, but I would say that the same strategies of being consistent and really thoughtful about how you're doing it apply. You can't just leave your office door open, so now you actually need to set aside time to schedule a meeting with your employees to check in with them, or schedule time on the team meeting to go into breakout rooms or things like that, where you're a little more structured with it because you're remote.
Could something like Slack be a useful tool in cultivating psychological safety? Or is this something that really needs to stem from, if not face to face, then video or phone conversations?
I think Slack could assist you once you've already established the relationships in richer communication channels. Slack is very similar to any other social-media environment, where it becomes about more short messages that can be taken out of context, where people are trying to really infer what you mean. They're not able to have the signals of your body language and your tone of voice and things like that, that add more information to what you're trying to communicate.
So it's much harder to establish a relationship, to really establish close bonds with people, in a group chat on Slack. But once those bonds are there, then a Slack channel could be used as a tool where you're able to communicate a little more quickly. But I would say that the first thing should be to develop the consistency in more rich communication channels.
What if those conversations haven’t been happening all along? What can managers be doing right now to support employees who might be feeling traumatized?
The thing would be to start the long-term process. There's no better time to start it than now.