There were no equal-opportunity hiring policies, as we know them now, in corporate America when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, was murdered by grown men for allegedly saying, “Bye, baby,” to a white woman in the Jim Crow South. No one could react via Facebook on their smartphone to the publication of photos of the disfigured remains of Emmett—images that aroused the moral conscience of a nation.
I don’t think most HR professionals anticipated the necessity of a plan for dealing with traumatized employees then, especially black ones. I expect good leaders—who by my definition would be able to make a connection between traumatic events and the need for empathy for employees—would sense the need to respond.
On July 7, I saw Philando Castile die on my phone on my way into the office.
Imagine what coming to an office might be like for a black father and employee like me—after witnessing the death of another young black male (with a child in the back seat of the car) by someone who is supposed to serve and protect. Consider the mental exercises occurring in the employee’s mind.
I mentally put myself in the car and tried to think through whether I should reach for my son as I die—or would my final dying act traumatize him, so maybe I should hide my injuries and die in silence? I also wondered if I would even see it coming, given that Castile was shot while complying with an officer’s request.
Imagine being the black woman who witnessed the loss of her child’s father and then was detained. Was live-streaming the incident a way to ensure she wasn’t killed as well, or documenting the injustice, or both? How courageous was it for her to reach for anything in that situation?
Normal office pleasantries like being greeted with smiles or people just going along their day like nothing significant happened took a bizarre “Twilight Zone-esque” twist. I and a lot of my black friends found the silence of colleagues and friends deafening.
Black America was mourning and trying to figure out how to get through the day. It was a national funeral without the formalities of a service. We understand we had meetings and work must continue, but we didn’t have the privilege to just go on with our day. Colleagues and friends who dared to empathize with a kind word or basic acknowledgement of the incident became allies that day and the days that followed.
Organizations have to deal with how social media and smartphones bring the ability to learn about tragedies like the Castile shootings, or the Orlando and Dallas shootings sometimes in very graphic ways that impact employees. An equal-opportunity employer who values diversity understands his or her employees.
As a leader, I can feel enough empathy for the LGBT community and for police officers and to vocalize my concern and support for different groups while still proclaiming black lives matter.
Black lives should matter to equal-opportunity employers because indifference to the needs of employees has malicious, hostile and damaging implications. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not making a legal argument—it is more an argument about being a decent human being.
Black employees learned about their company’s culture and values on July 7. The important issue to note is irrespective of how company leaders responded, still black lives matter.•
Wolley is a lecturer at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.