Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLabor UnionsSuccess Stories

Managers can’t ignore the Roe v. Wade memo leak. Here’s the best way to address it with staff

May 4, 2022, 9:36 PM UTC

On Monday night, Politico reported on a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that, if made official, would overturn Roe v. Wade. The news left many Americans struggling to process how such a decision could impact their lives.

Despite the many emotions people were processing on Tuesday morning, most of them still had to get up and go to work. And while businesses across the U.S. have been slow to issue a response, many managers have wondered how they themselves are supposed to approach this kind of news with their colleagues and direct reports, as well as support team members who might be feeling overwhelmed.

While some may argue that abortion rights are a political lightning rod, managers cannot ignore the emotional toll of recent events, say John Baird and Edward Sullivan, executive coaches at VELOCITY and co-authors of Leading with the Heart: 5 Conversations That Unlock Creativity, Purpose and Results.

“The important thing is making space for a range of emotional needs and letting people know that whatever they are feeling is okay,” Baird and Sullivan tell Fortune.

“World events can have a huge impact on employees, resulting in not only personal angst but disengagement from work and possibly even a desire to search for opportunities to work on issues that align with their own values,” says Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consulting firm.

Still, these conversations can be difficult if a manager isn’t prepared. With the world changing at a fast and furious pace, here’s some advice on how to address your team when news headlines make it difficult to focus on the to-do list.

Speak on the emotional toll of events

The old custom of business being apolitical does not apply to the issue of abortion, McPherson argues. 

“The issue of repealing abortion rights for women isn’t simply a political position—it impacts access to safe health care for women across the United States,” she says. “In addition to the obviously dire consequences to the women themselves, if women’s choices are compromised, they are likely to be forced into situations that will further impact their physical and emotional wellbeing; thereby, decreasing their ability to perform well at work.” 

Employees now expect to hear from their employer when big news events take place. Millennials and Gen Z workers overwhelmingly report a desire to work for mission-driven companies that match their beliefs. Staying on the sidelines for fear of alienating workers could hurt companies in the long run, McPherson says.

“Managers who can properly recognize the risks women are facing and address these issues head-on will, in the long term, rally a more supportive network of employees than those who don’t,” says McPherson, “This is an issue that affects everyone involved and, whatever side of it you stand on, you have to recognize emotional and physical health are at stake for many people.”

Managers don’t need to be overtly political, but Baird and Sullivan agree that they must recognize the emotional toll that employees experience when there are big events in the news. 

“The American workforce is as politically diverse as it is culturally and ethnically diverse, and while most offices are not the places to spearhead political rallies, employees are more than cogs in a machine, and the emotional needs that arise during these turbulent times should be acknowledged and understood,” they say. 

Baird and Sullivan say that managers should be empathetic and lenient in response to requests for time off or if they find their teams are less productive, as workers process events. 

But while managers cannot afford to be silent on issues, that doesn’t mean they need to bring their opinions to the office. Rather, they must respond to their workers’ needs, say Baird and Sullivan. “Though some younger employees often bring their activism to work, managers should not feel pressured to bring theirs in order to address their needs or respond in a caring and informed way.”

Use company policy to demonstrate you care

Companies should demonstrate their commitment to uplifting their employees through policy, says Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. “Employees really want to see action, in addition to assurance,” says Farrell. 

“Corporations have the power to change the context of the decision, providing for paid leave, subsidized childcare, retirement benefits, equal pay for equal work. All of these broader policies improve the stance of workers who will likely have to spend more money to get the same reproductive health care that they did a year ago.”

McPherson recommends leaders look at the list of actions for employers to take in response to reproductive health bans as developed by the Don’t Ban Equality coalition. The first step is to reduce the impact of the restrictions through better benefits, the second is to engage in policy on a state and federal level, and the third is to make workforce, equity, and ESG commitments. 

The guide isn’t a one-size-fits-all option. McPherson argues flexibility is essential when addressing employees’ socioemotional needs.

“What’s offered should align with a company’s core values,” says McPherson. “Whether that’s access to counseling, offering time off for health care, or advocacy work, companies should find ways to accommodate and address their employees’ emotional and physical needs, especially now. With flexibility, it can really impact an employee to have the time to take care of themselves and feel valued in a company structure.” 

Connect one-on-one

Individuals who aren’t top executives also have the power to make employees feel heard, even if they aren’t always the ones making company decisions. A mid-level manager’s strongest asset is being a representative for employees, says Farrell.

“Mid-level managers have always had extraordinary power, both to defend their employees, but also to influence corporate culture,” she says. Managers should listen to their workers and report any anxiety or concerns to the executive team. Farrell likens it to being a spokesperson.

CEOs and managers shouldn’t wait for their employees to come to them with their troubles. “They should invite any employee who has a specific concern to speak to their managers and be expressive about that. Because oftentimes workers don’t think there’s an open door policy unless someone invites them,” says Farell. 

Now more than ever, CEOs are being encouraged, if not expected, to lead and connect through demonstrating their humanity and empathy. And companies carry unprecedented political influence, “It’s interesting to see corporate America may become the last frontier for reproductive health care rights because it holds so much power and sway with electeds.”

The desire to be heard is connected to employee performance, and McPherson emphasizes the importance of leaders modeling the behavior. 

“We can lead best by setting an example for our employees—reaching out and connecting one on one, having an open-door policy for our employees to express their concerns, and offering time for mental health days,” she says. “Employees don’t perform best when they feel overlooked or their emotional wellbeing isn’t recognized, addressed, and merited.”

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.