Highly publicized, harmful, and often violent events that target marginalized community members — also called mega-threats — occur far too frequently in the United States. In the last few months alone, a shooting occurred at an LGBTQ+ night club in Colorado Springs, two mass shootings took place in California that targeted people of Asian descent, antisemitic rhetoric continued to rise, and a Black man named Tyre Nichols was killed at the hands of Memphis police officers.
It can be difficult to know what — if anything — to say to your colleagues who belong to the marginalized identity groups targeted in these events. In fact, dominant group employees (for example, white or cisgender workers) often perceive conversations about these events as difficult, sensitive, and high-risk. They may resort to silence to escape any potential discomfort or to avoid saying the wrong thing.
However, saying nothing at all to a colleague experiencing the vicarious trauma of a mega-threat is likely to damage the colleague’s well-being, work engagement, and potentially the interpersonal relationships between coworkers. Silence can convey that the threatened aspect of their identity is not valued or important in the workplace.
For guidance on how to be helpful to marginalized colleagues in the midst of a mega-threat, our collective expertise points us to research on allies at work — individuals who advance the interests of marginalized groups — and their instrumental role in providing support. How exactly can employees effectively support their colleagues during mega-threats?
We address this question in three parts that directly align with the three key components of allyship: self-education, social support, and advocacy. Although we offer an array of specific suggestions based on this allyship framework, we encourage you to see these as a useful collection of tools, recognizing that the time and place for each one will be shaped by situational and interpersonal factors, like the closeness with the marginalized colleague or the reporting relationship with that person.
In general, when it comes to educating oneself about racism, bias, and systemic oppression, long-term, proactive self-education strategies like extensive reading, journaling, and self-reflection are critical. Indeed, these may facilitate important, necessary, and productive conversations about race at work — and increase readiness to help colleagues in the wake of future mega-threats.
Parallel to long-term self-education, however, it is important to consider short-term, in-the-moment ways that employees can self-educate immediately following a mega-threat.
Understand what a mega-threat is and why it is unique from other difficult events.
As highly publicized societal events that target members of a marginalized group (or the group itself), recognize that mega-threats devalue the identity of the targeted group, jeopardize psychological and physical safety, and have a tendency to victimize marginalized group members through incessant media coverage. Then, identify the unique features of this specific instance that might stand out to colleagues who belong to the affected group. For example, highly publicized threats of violence may be interpreted and experienced differently than a mass shooting where multiple members of a marginalized group were targeted and killed.
Consume news from multiple, credible sources.
It is especially critical to seek out articles, podcasts, and video reels (to name a few) created by members of marginalized communities to enable your own perspective-taking prior to engaging your colleague in a conversation about the mega-threat. This may include reading op-eds written by members of the targeted identity group, like those that were written by Asian and Asian American journalists and scholars in the wake of the January 21st Monterey Park shooting.
Recognize that the effects of mega-threats extend beyond geographic location.
Today, news is rapidly and widely shared across an array of tech platforms. This means that no matter how far the event is from your workplace, the embodied threat — where individuals who share identity with event victims feel like they’re closer to experiencing similar harm — inevitably hits very close to home for your marginalized colleagues.
Consider your own limitations.
As much self-education as you engage in, there are nuances to the minority identity experience that can only be fully appreciated as a member of the affected group. Use conversations with marginalized employees as an opportunity to engage in active listening and further your learning. Avoid statements such as “I completely understand” or “I know how you feel.”
The violating and dehumanizing nature of mega-threats means that marginalized colleagues, as vicarious victims, are likely to feel especially devalued. We find that one of the best ways to provide support during such collectively traumatic experiences is to remind them of how much they are respected — both as an inherently valued member of society and a uniquely valued coworker. In service of this, there are important considerations that should be front and center.
Reaffirm coworkers’ whole selves as belonging in the workplace.
A mega-threat directly takes aim at aspects of one’s self-definition and sense of worth. Explicitly communicate to your colleague that they are inherently valued and the organization is a better workplace because of who they are. For example, “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Recognize that colleagues may differ in their support needs.
For example, a Black employee who is grappling with yet another instance of a Black civilian being killed by the police may need different support than an employee who identifies as LGBTQ+ in the wake of a shooting that targets members of their community. In fact, while one colleague might welcome the opportunity to talk through their thoughts and emotions, another may prefer the distraction of focusing on work. Yet, it is also important to recognize the same colleague’s desire to discuss the event may change from one day to the next, or even within a single workday.
Don’t just ask, “Are you okay?”
This likely has an obvious answer and may therefore not be as helpful of a question as it is intended to be. Instead, tell your colleague that you have been thinking of them in light of the recent mega-threat. And, as others have suggested, it is more beneficial to ask your grieving colleagues, “How are you doing today?” to acknowledge that the experience likely varies day-to-day.
Identify ways to help in the moment.
Given the wide-reaching impact of mega-threats on marginalized individuals’ psychological and physiological well-being, find ways to offer immediate, instrumental support that allows them to prioritize their health amidst impending work-related responsibilities. For instance, ask, “What is the most taxing thing you have this week that I could take off your plate?” or “How can I make this week easier for you?”
In developing their theory of mega-threats, one of us (Angelica Leigh) and her colleague, Shimul Melwani, emphasize the importance of intentionally violating organizational norms in ways that elevate and advocate for minority group members, like speaking up when others might stay silent. This should be a regular, if not daily, effort — both within the organization and the broader community.
That said, in the aftermath of a mega-threat, an ally can use the increased attention around systemic discrimination as a springboard to advocate for minority group members and be a voice for much-needed change.
Organize or attend community events.
These could include town halls or other forums aimed at educating individuals about the insidious nature of systemic discrimination and developing actionable steps that employees, leaders, and organizations can undertake.
Leverage platforms created during specific heritage month events.
Black History Month or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, for example, not only offer an opportunity to learn about the histories, cultures, and contributions of marginalized identity groups but also give you a time and place to champion the interests of marginalized employees.
Join an employee resource group (ERG).
Find a group whose interests you would like to see advanced in the organization, if allies are eligible for membership. Stay committed to it over the long term, especially because reducing discrimination is a long-term process. Remaining a committed member of an ERG can also help you develop closer relationships with your colleagues who are members of identity groups that are different than your own. This established relationship may make it easier for you to provide social support to these colleagues when they are coping with a mega-threat.
Recognize the value of mental wellness days.
These are particularly important in the event of mega-threats, and developing a culture where such days are encouraged can greatly help affected employees. If possible, give a coworker a virtual option for a meeting, let people work from home with video cameras switched off, or provide a day off of work as recognition of the emotional labor that accompanies a day in the office following a mega-threat.
. . .
Although it can be uncomfortable to reach out to colleagues who are suffering, doing so can make a big difference for that person, while also advancing inclusion and belonging in organizations over the long term. We encourage employees to educate themselves, reach out to — rather than avoid — coworkers who are suffering following mega-threats, and draw on these moments to advocate for upward change.