Between the health crisis of COVID-19 and the uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd, organizational managers and leaders have had two recent defining opportunities to respond when it really mattered. We’ve been impressed by some and disappointed by others, so we’ve compiled some tools that we’ve seen great leaders use in navigating these events.
We’ve divided this into ten internal responses and ten external responses. If you focus too much on one or the other, your response will feel lopsided or inauthentic.
10 Internal Responses
As the national outcry following George Floyd’s murder intensified, many leaders turned to an existing cross-functional team such as a DEI (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion) Committee to ask “What should our response be”? This is most helpful when that input is gathered from across an organization, includes both managers and staff, and pays special attention to those most impacted.
Form a committee
While an immediate response is powerful and necessary, it becomes superficial without ongoing action. If you don’t already have a committee dedicated to this topic, consider assembling one thoughtfully and be transparent about the process. Make sure it’s open to everyone and has strong executive sponsorship. This is the vehicle that will create organizational changes weeks and months after the dust settles. For example, we’ve seen employee engagement being re-envisioned for remote work culture, as well as white-ally and civil action committees.
Acknowledge in email
Employees want to know whether this crisis is even on the company’s radar. A strong internal email is a great way to show that it is. The key here is speed and power — since it needs less polish than an external statement, say what you mean and get it out fast. It’s fine to tell folks that you’re still developing the steps to respond. This email isn’t about answers, it’s about showing you care. Just be prepared to follow up with ongoing communication and commitment.
Share out resources
Ask a volunteer to request and compile a short list of TED Talks, articles, and other educational or support tools. This can help raise the awareness level across the organization — level-setting — so that there’s less disconnect between those who are following closely and those who are not.
Host a town hall
Schedule a one-hour town hall led by a respected company leader. Depending on the crisis, this could include the following focuses: announcements, Q&A, or open forum. The structure should be thoughtfully prepared in advance with an agenda that’s been vetted. If you do a forum, make sure you set ground rules, such as “raise your hand using the chat”, “let others speak once before you speak again” and “this is a safe space to share vulnerably”. Depending on the organization or structure of the convening, consider disallowing anonymous questions or comments to avoid questionable language (Recently Appointed LinkedIn CEO Apologizes After Employees Make ‘Disturbing And Racist’ Comments At Internal Meeting).
Solicit stories from staff
There’s nothing more powerful than stories. Turn your weekly team meeting into a chance for your employees to share their own stories. Invite them to distill their story into a haiku, then give time to everyone to read theirs aloud and share some exposition afterwards. Finally, leave time at the end for folks to affirm one another. Be warned — this can be a powerful, emotional and exhausting experience. Please handle with care and be prepared to lead this session from a vulnerable leadership space
Host a speaker
Guest speakers can do three things — bring in outside knowledge, import diverse perspectives or demographics, and signal priorities. Don’t be coy about what you’re hoping to gain from the session, and make sure you validate their speaking skills through referrals or by inviting them into a smaller group first.
Buy an ebook for everyone
Many organizations are buying or reimbursing “How to Be an Antiracist”, which is sold out in print but very available in ebook and audiobook format. Set an internal deadline that leads into a conversation or retreat. Or, break the book club discussions into smaller chunks over multiple months providing opportunities for processing. This is another way to raise the floor and ceiling of discussion and create a shared jumping off point for action.
Revise your retreat plans
Most companies have annual or semi-annual retreats. Dedicate a significant portion of your next one to the aftermath of this crisis. Do the groundwork beforehand so that the retreat can serve as a launching point to real action rather than a brainstorm session. Invest in an outside expert to facilitate if you have the budget. If you address the elephants in the room head-on, you’ll be much more effective with your collective time.
Following a family death, hardworking employees will often downplay or deny their need to take time off when a family member dies until their manager or HR sits them down and tells them directly: “Go. Grieve. We will take care of things here.” Bereavement is a powerful and instantly recognizable idea, it doesn’t take away from their employee’s paid-time-off bank, and is a trigger that incites their colleagues to rally around the employee. Offer bereavement to the employees most impacted by the crisis in question, and let their team know that they will be using bereavement. If you already offer flexibility for employees or bereavement, do not assume that employees will remember the policy in the handbook. Be proactive about flagging that it’s available and contextualize it.
10 External Responses
There is no telling what individuals within other organizations are experiencing at any given moment. Checking in with folks you work with at other organizations — whether clients, partners, or customers — to see how they’re doing can go a long way. Be compassionate and kind.
Release a statement
An internal email is great for your staff, but an external statement shows your customers and other stakeholders that you’re thinking about this and indicates where you stand. Use a video if you’re nervous about saying the wrong thing. In these instances, silence is deafening.
Write an article
A statement will dissipate, but an article will persist. Take some time to articulate your organization’s perspective, and make it specific to your existing mission, purpose and industry. Make it a call to action to your peers, rather than a more general statement of support.
Update your hold music
Let your customers know that you are recognizing and addressing this issue, and make it the first message in your hold music. If you aren’t yet integrating messaging into your hold music, subscribe to a service that can get you going quickly such as Easy On Hold.
Change your voicemail
If the crisis is affecting your response time, either through reduced staffing or increased volume, let your customers know. If you’re taking positive action, such as supporting a Day of Action, be upfront with your customers. You’ll likely get some push back, but you’ll be upfront about your values.
Adjust your email signatures
During COVID-19, many employees changed their generic sign off to something more relevant, such as “Stay safe” or “Hope you are well”. This little change lets your customers and partners know that you recognize their reality. If the crisis is localized, such as a hurricane or flood, it’s helpful to adjust this for those customers and clients in the affected area.
Change your logo
A logo says a thousand words. During COVID-19, many companies updated their logo to promote social distancing. During Pride Month, many companies show a rainbow flag. Avoid ‘rainbow washing’ or other inauthentic measures by ensuing a logo change is the tip of the iceberg. McDonald’s and other brands are making ‘social distancing’ logos.
Attend a protest
Actions speak louder than words. Go attend a protest, or go stand side-by-side with an employee who is attending. That is a moment that will not be forgotten.
Close your company
Protesting as an individual says a lot about your personal values, but closing down your company for a day of action sends a powerful message about your organization’s values. Be on the lookout for a local or national strike or relevant holiday, and let your team know that you will be shutting down phones and cancelling meetings in solidarity and to allow employees who want to participate a way to do so without leaving their colleagues high and dry. Pay your employees who participate in volunteer work or direct action by expanding their holiday time. Here’s a running list of all the big companies observing Juneteenth this year
Form a partnership
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, it can often be counterproductive and arrogant. Instead, focus your efforts on supporting and amplifying the work of organizations who have been in the trenches for years. During a pandemic or disaster, partner with a local or national emergency response organization. To support the Black Lives Matter movement, partner with local or national BIPOC-led businesses and nonprofits. You can amplify your impact by forming or joining an industry-wide partnership to address the issue with your competitors. The key is to recognize the expertise and power you bring to the table while simultaneously recognizing the expertise and power of your new partners.
At Culture Bites, we believe that powerfully inclusive teams leads to corporate and social change. We are proud to be leaders in organizations that are responding forcefully in these moments of truth. If you’ve witnessed other effective responses, please let us know in the comments.