In an era when companies are increasingly encouraging employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, ignoring major news events—and the emotional impact they can have on workers—is no longer an option.
Yet responding to such moments puts employers in a tricky position. They must be sensitive to the fact that workers won’t all have the same response to or opinions about, say, a school shooting or a controversial government policy. How to you acknowledge employees’ pain—without offending or alienating anyone?
At a Tuesday roundtable at Fortune’s CEO Initiative gathering in San Francisco, leaders discussed the steps they’re taking to answer this vexing and essential question.
At Salesforce, the company is experimenting with something it calls “Ohana circles,” said chief equality officer Tony Prophet. The idea is to invite employees to come together in the wake of traumatic events to “discuss and process” the news together, said Prophet, noting that the gatherings have one ironclad rule: no debates. The company has convened a handful of the circles so far, including after the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, and around the (now-ended) U.S. immigration policy of separating families at the border.
In some cases, a news event could have an outsize effect on one particular group of employees. Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm, cited the debate over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and the stress it put on her company’s transgender employees. “How are you supposed to focus on work when there’s a debate on social media about whether you’re allowed to exist or not?” she asked.
Some roundtable attendees noted that they’ve looked for targeted ways to reach out to those who might be struggling with a current event. One example: Using Employee Resource Group Slack channels to offer support to African-American employees in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Of course, few CEOs are in a position to speak out on every single issue. That makes it essential for leaders to think carefully about which events or policies they chose to address with employees—and which they do not, said Emerson. If a CEO opts to speak out on, say, women’s issues, but not an issue related to race, that sends a message to employees about what the company’s leadership cares about the most.