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How Should Organizations Respond to Tragedy?


by Stephany Below, SIOP Communications Manager

After Orlando Nightclub Attack, SIOP Experts Discuss Diversity and Workplace Violence

By Stephany Below, Communications Manager

In the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001, the recent mass shooting at Pulse nightclub highlighted important concerns surrounding terrorism.

The fact that the shooter specifically targeted a gay nightclub during Latino night adds LGBT and diversity concerns into the ever-complicated issue—and leaves many organizations wondering how, if at all, they should respond.

On June 12, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a terrorist attack inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The attack has been considered a hate crime, as Mateen, a 29-year-old American security guard, is thought to have targeted the club due to his anti-LGBT stance.  It was the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history. Pulse was also hosting Latin Night and most of the victims were Hispanic. After a three-hour standoff, Mateen was shot and killed by Orlando police, ending his rampage. However, the horror has not necessarily ended for those who were victimized or those who were called to helped end the attack.

It’s fairly straightforward after events like these for organizations to take steps to address and prevent workplace violence, but how should employers respond to tragedies specifically involving members of the LGBT and minority communities?

Katina Sawyer, chair of SIOP’s LGBT Committee and assistant professor at Villanova University, said it’s important to remember that the Pulse nightclub is a workplace.

“There were people there who have to return there to work in the wake of this tragedy,” she said. “There were also people there who were responding to the event as part of their career—police officers, first responders, etc. They will have the tragedy emblazoned in their minds as they move forward and continue to do their jobs each day. Finally, the families of victims and those who were there but were not fatally wounded also have to return to life and work.”

Sawyer said organizations that encounter violence like this—whether the violence occurs on their property or involves their employees elsewhere—should be aware of the impact such violence can have on employees and the organization as a whole.

“All of these workplaces will have to be considerate of the grieving process and the psychological and emotional exhaustion that employees may be feeling in response to these horrifying events,” she said. “Further, diversity and inclusion efforts may be more important now than ever. Taking a stand on this issue by specifically providing support for the LGBT and Latino communities during this time will further cement organizations' commitment to ensuring that true inclusivity and support.”

Organizations should certainly acknowledge when events like this happen, explained Kisha Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

“It is unfortunately becoming too common to hear about the loss of lives, from mass shootings to issues involving race and the police," Jones said. "In not showing a clear sign of support, compassion, and concern, employees from the affected groups may feel that they are not valued.”

Organizations can take specific actions after events like the attack at Pulse.

“Employers should always address these issues,” Sawyer said. “It takes courage to speak out against injustice, and it takes time to heal wounds. But, organizations should be prepared to offer their full support to communities that live and work within and among their company's walls and to realize that it may take time for the grieving process to unfold. Standing with LGBT and Latino employees in times of tragedy sends an important message to employees, and to the world, that the company is loyal to the people who work hard to make it successful every day.” 

At a basic level, employers should have non-discrimination policies on the books for LGBT populations, even though they aren't required by law, Sawyer advised. However, creating a culture of inclusion requires more than just a policy.

“It means that leaders role model inclusivity for their direct reports by making decisions in fair and equitable ways, by treating everyone with dignity and respect, and by actively addressing bias and harassment when it arises,” Sawyer explained.

Organizations should also create safe spaces for employees to discuss these events if they choose to do so, Jones advised. 

“They are bringing their feelings—sadness, grief, anger—about these occurrences with them to work, or may even be hearing about them while at work,” Jones explained. “Yes, the employees are there to do their jobs, but we are all human and need time to process incidents like these.”

Jones suggested encouraging other employees to support members from affected groups. 

“Even if it’s just asking them how they are doing, it can be important in contributing to a climate of inclusion,” she said. “In addition, providing resources such as employee assistance programs would also be helpful to assist them in maintaining their emotional wellbeing.”

Organizations can also leverage employee resource groups, which can serve as wonderful resources when grappling with how to best move forward in the face of unexpected, negative events.

“Truly listening to the voices of LGBT and Latino employees at this time is key,” Sawyer added.
Incorporating their feedback into the approach that the organization takes to address this tragedy is the best way to increase feelings of belongingness and inclusion, particularly in tenuous times, she added.

The support shown by organizations to their employees after events such as these should not differ based on whether the events affect racial/ethnic minorities, LGBT individuals, or both groups, Jones added. Neither should the ongoing support involved in creating inclusive climates for diverse groups of employees. 

“What may be more complicated is how discussions of these events occur, whether they are initiated by organizational leaders or happen amongst groups of employees, depending on how open the conversations are about what’s contributing to the occurrence of these events and what should be done to keep them from happening in the future,” Jones said.

This is why it’s essential for organizations to have training and resources on diversity that considers the unique experiences of the different groups, so people can work together and support each other, Jones explained.

“I believe that organizations have a real responsibility to step up and provide active support to communities affected by this tragedy, even indirectly,” Sawyer added. “That means that LGBT and Latino populations may take the forefront at this time because they may be in need of the greatest level of support and care as they work through the aftermath of this tragedy. However, it is also paramount to have a consistent ethic surrounding diversity and inclusion, so that organizations aren't seen as ‘riding a bandwagon’ but not really practicing what they preach. So, this may also be a good time for organizations to take stock of how they are supporting these communities on an ongoing basis, not just in times of need.” 

Editor's Note: Story edited 7/26/2016 to include quotes and information from Kisha Jones.