How to Lead with Compassion and Inclusivity

Today’s organizations are faced with new communication challenges. When it comes to addressing traumatic world events, today’s employees expect to be heard and understood. They want their employer to acknowledge the impact that these events can have on them, both inside and outside of the workplace.

In this interview, Tarsha McCormick, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at ThoughtWorks, shares a few ways that companies and leaders can and should support their employees in times of trauma.

Insights: Hi Tarsha! To start off, what exactly is it that you do at ThoughtWorks?

Tarsha: I am in charge of setting the strategic vision and all the work around making ThoughtWorks the most diverse and inclusive company in the IT industry. That really means taking a holistic approach and being proactive in looking at how we are communicating to our employees, what our benefits and policies look like, what training/education offerings we provide, as well as our recruiting practices - how and where we're sourcing. I am also looking at the growth and development of diverse leaders, as well as making sure that we are sharing lessons learned and knowledge that we've acquired along the way and really advocating for change in the industry.

How to Lead with Compassion and Inclusivity

Insights: The title of your panel at SXSW is called 'Leading Through World Trauma'. One thing that is coming up nowadays is that employees are demanding that companies respond to traumatic events in the world—whether it's the recent immigration ban, or what the panel specifically addresses: the police shootings of black people in the United States. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like?

Tarsha: So this is an interesting panel, and I think it's very timely given the current social climate and everything that has been going on in the world, especially within the last year or so. To your point, employees really want to know that their employer understands and supports them. They also want their employer to acknowledge the impact that these traumatic events can have on them both inside and outside of the workplace. It is hard not to bring your whole self to work, and check your emotional baggage at the door as if nothing is bothering you.     
There are a few ways companies can and should support their employees. In addition to making internal and public statements, employers can also show support by:
  • Making sure that employees understand the resources that are available to them for self-care.
  • Providing employees the opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment. If you have to bring in an outside facilitator to achieve this, by all means do so. The goal should be to provide a safe environment for people to express themselves and learn at the same time. 
  • Sharing how people can get involved to help impact change - whether that’s through protests, donations, volunteering, etc. The activism component or the 'call to action' is a great way to show support.  
Insights: There's certainly an unspoken rule about workplaces, that you shouldn't talk about politics at work. How do those two things square up with each other: bringing your whole self to work, but also responding to what are often very politicized actions?

Tarsha: Gone are the days of not bringing politics into the workplace. We need to be respectful of each other's opinions, but at the same time, if there are situations that are causing our employees grief and impacting them at work, I believe we should find a way to discuss it. As an example, It is hard to ignore the impact that the number of deadly shootings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials have on members of the African American community. I know the impact that it has had on me, and I know others are having a difficult time dealing with it as well. You start to question how much more you can take. How long is this going to continue to happen? Are you and your loved ones safe? Will they be next?  
People come to work and sometimes they're not able to focus due to what is going on outside of the workplace. If you think about the Pulse nightclub shooting, people lost friends, family members, and loved ones. Grieving and emotionally distraught employees cannot always check those emotions at the door when walking into work, and organizations need to be mindful of that. Organizations should speak with their employees about appropriate ways to be supportive, and work on crafting solutions together.  

Insights: So in terms of that idea of crafting solutions together, we've been talking primarily about employees. This is obviously a critical part. Going back to your panel, the theme is around 'Leading Through World Trauma'. What is the role of leaders at companies through these difficult times?

Tarsha: One of the big roles of leaders is to acknowledge that things are happening. And going back to  the notion of “you can't just drop that baggage off at the door”. You’d be doing a huge disservice to your employees as well as the organization, if you don't acknowledge that there are injustices and events happening in the world that are impacting your employees. Acknowledge the situation, provide a space where people can share and learn from each other, make sure your employees know the resources available to them, and provide ways to get involved. Of all these, acknowledging the situation is key.

Insights: Why then do you think some companies ignore these incidents?

Tarsha: There are a variety of reasons why a company may chose to ignore an incident or not make a public statement. Sometimes they are not familiar with the topic and are uncomfortable speaking out, or the incident is considered too political, and commenting may cause a financial impact. Organizations should be mindful of this and consider the risks before making a public statement. However, organizations can still craft an internal message to simply acknowledge the situation. For example, "We know there are some things going on the world that may be impacting you. We may not understand it or have the solutions, but let's work together to figure it out and support each other."

Insights: It's interesting that what we're talking about most of the time is essentially a response to one particular incident. What are some guidelines for companies to work through this over a longer term period?

Tarsha: So guidelines for a response?

Insights: Not necessarily a response but, when we're talking about things - for instance, police killings of black people. That’s not a one-off thing; seemingly this is long-term trend, unfortunately. My question is, how can companies not necessarily respond to each police shooting, but address that kind of ongoing trauma for their employees?

Tarsha: You make a good point because, it's not necessarily about the individual things that are happening. It's about the systemic problems. A lot of it goes back to education. Some of it goes to fear, and I think it's important to figure out ways to break down some barriers that exist. You can start to do that in your organization by creating safe spaces for people to have conversations and learn from each other. And then, if you couple that with ways that employees can get involved outside of your organization, those two hand-in-hand will go a long way.

Tarsha McCormick will be speaking on March 10, 2017 at this year’s SXSW on True Inclusion: Leading Through World Trauma.