The Derek Chauvin Verdict Is 'Guilty.' But Your Black Employees Are Still Not Okay.
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Yesterday afternoon, the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial reached a verdict. The Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd last summer has been convicted for murder. When it became clear that justice would be served, much of the country breathed a collective sigh of relief. And of course, this was the preferred outcome for the Black community. But many of us woke up yesterday afraid to hope that this would be the case, and this shows that the work is still not done. Employers need to recognize this. Don’t assume your Black employees are okay just because a verdict of ‘guilty’ was read. While we can count this as a small win and a step towards police accountability, the truth is that until there’s systemic change we’ll continue to experience trauma over and over because Black people continue to be murdered in America.
For the last three weeks, the Derek Chauvin trial and the upcoming anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — compounded with the recent death of Daunte Wright at the hands of Minnesota police — have been retraumatizing Black Americans. These events have triggered painful memories of our own lived experiences, causing even more stress. These triggers are so painful because encounters with law enforcement are not unique to a few Black Americans; they are extremely common in the Black community. These stressors don’t go away when an employee enters the workplace or joins a Zoom call. They are with us constantly and will continue to be even though a verdict has been reached.
A few weeks ago, a video of Caron Nazario began to circulate, which showed the army second lieutenant in uniform being pepper sprayed by police for no apparent reason. I, like many Black Americans, was immediately triggered by the video.
I am a Black woman, a Harvard law school graduate, and CEO of a tech company. I have raised millions in venture capital. I have also been pepper sprayed by the police, twice.
Both times I was pepper sprayed were at gatherings where the police showed up and started indiscriminately pepper spraying us. There were no fights breaking out, no loud music, no behaviors happening that I can fathom having warranted pepper spray. Someone simply wanted us to go home. One afternoon a few years ago, when my son was a toddler and my daughter was an infant in the backseat of our car, my husband and I were stopped by the police. When the officer approached our vehicle, he was visibly shaking. His trembling hands were placed over his gun, ready to draw his weapon at a moment’s notice. There is nothing more terrifying for a parent than realizing this could be the moment your babies watch you be killed, or worse, be killed themselves. I will never escape that feeling of complete helplessness and my heart aches for the mothers who’ve lost children this way.
Recalling painful memories is not unique to me. This is what most Black Americans are experiencing right now and wondering when they or someone they love could be next. In the absence of real reform at the policy or government level, I am calling for companies and business leaders to step in and provide support for their Black employees during this traumatic time. Here are some meaningful ways to do so.
Acknowledge and create a safe space for Black employees.
Even though the Chauvin verdict is "guilty," the fact that there was even doubt about how it would go speaks to the trauma and uncertainty that Black people endure all the time. Your Black employees all have lived experiences that they do not necessarily want to openly talk about. Leadership can and should send a simple message to employees, acknowledging the pain they likely feel and letting them know the resources available to support them.
Provide mental health support and resources.
Mental health triggers are everywhere for Black employees. Murders in the news, conversations with our friends, and tough conversations about safety with our children are a few. According to researchers at Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Massachusetts General Hospital, “police killings of unarmed Black Americans have adverse effects on mental health among Black American adults in the general population,” including stress, depression, and difficulties with emotions that manifested in “poor mental health days.” Business leaders must recognize that being triggered goes beyond having a bad moment. For someone with a history of trauma, it’s as if they are experiencing the trauma all over again.
Support can be offered in a formal way through HR benefits, although companies should not rely on Black Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to do this work. They should bring in racial trauma specialists to help support employees. Even small businesses can provide stipends for mental health apps like Talkspace or BetterHelp so employees can talk to someone about what they are experiencing.
Black employees and DEI leaders are overburdened and can’t fix this alone. Executive leaders need to step in and equip every level of manager and employee with appropriate resources. Company culture starts at the top, and we will not see real change unless executives commit to doing the work. Executives should proactively encourage managers to engage their teams and offer support. Support can be as simple as asking, “What can I do for you right now?”
People managers should learn to embrace discomfort. Say the thing you don’t know how to say. You may not be comfortable talking about these issues, but it's essential for all leaders to communicate the resources available to your Black employees during these difficult times. For example, managers can simply say, “I can’t fully understand what you must be going through right now, but I want to be here for you. Here is what’s available to help,” and then list the resources available. This is also a good way to gauge if the resources your company is offering are the right ones. Perhaps someone doesn’t want to talk about it and simply needs some time off to process the trauma that has been retriggered, even with the favorable verdict.
Don’t assume. Ask, and listen.
Lastly, Black employees must continue to seek out resources, even when we are tired and weary. It is absolutely not our responsibility to educate the masses on racism and allyship. But we do need to give feedback when our allies and employers offer resources to help. Tell them if it meets your needs. Let them know if they are unintentionally making things worse, and then normalize using mental health resources so that other Black employees will be encouraged to use them as well.
The bottom line is until Black employees are given the proper resources and provided with safe spaces to deal with chronic trauma, the workplace will continue to be one draining trigger after another. For America and all of us to live up to our ideals, it will require change at a systemic level. If companies decide to embark on getting this right, true belonging, and the outcomes that come with that feeling, will finally break the chains of generational trauma. Then, and only then, will we all live and work in the land of the free.