Repercussions from the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday are still being felt. At least five people died in connection to the insurrection, and on Monday, House Democrats introduced an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump for being “a threat to national security, democracy, and the Constitution.”
Repercussions from that day may be following you to your job, too. Days and weeks after the event, you and others may be haunted by the horror of what you witnessed and experienced. Even if someone wasn’t physically present at the Capitol, they could be experiencing trauma vicariously with symptoms like headaches, withdrawal, hypervigilance and anger, all while at their desk. That’s how trauma works: Memories from that day can spill over into the present at the most innocuous suggestion. And just because someone looks OK on the outside does not mean they are OK.
Acknowledging this trauma and ongoing anxiety is the first step of processing and addressing this grief. Here’s how employees can show care to each other right now while respecting each other’s boundaries:
Don’t pretend it’s business as usual. That’s the worst move possible.
Specificity matters. Don’t be vague when acknowledging the Capitol assault at work. The reality is that anyone who watched the insurrection watched domestic terrorism in action. The mostly white mob that breached the Capitol hung nooses, carried Confederate flags and used white supremacist symbols during the riot.
In other words, don’t do this:
Feminist career strategist Cynthia Pong said the biggest mistake managers could make would be “to act as if nothing happened last week ― or to act as if it was a form of rightful protest, or call it anything other than what it was: a violent insurrection and attack on the Capitol by a white supremacist mob.“
People in the workplace may keep silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing or offending their colleagues. But that would be another mistake, particularly if you’re a boss.
A leader’s job includes being able to take risks and get uncomfortable, said licensed psychologist and executive coach Richard Orbé-Austin. “Part of the risk-taking is being able to make a statement that is clear and not vague that with an incident that happened last week, it was truly terrible,” he said. “As a manager, you can talk about your own feelings around it, and then be able to say, ‘Should you want to further discuss it or explore it, definitely know that I’m here to support you, and the organization is here,’ and provide resources.”
Make sure that time off is one of those resources.
“Know that your Black employees are most likely exhausted and would like time more than anything else to process, so enabling and encouraging them to take time as needed is essential,” said people relations consultant Keni Dominguez.
If managers clearly condemn the violent insurrection without demanding a conversation about it, other employees won’t feel forced into a traumatic talk they may not want to have, but they also know the door is open should they want to talk in the future. Not pushing is good advice for bosses, but it applies to colleagues, too: Let your fellow employee lead the conversation.
Before you talk, consider your relationship. Don’t single out employees of color.
If you are reaching out to colleagues to check in on how they’re feeling, consider your prior relationship with them. Is this your first time ever reaching out?
“What I found after the murder of George Floyd is that a lot of employees of color felt like either their colleagues remained silent... or white colleagues, or white people they knew from long ago, were coming out of the woodwork, saying, ‘How are you?’ and [they were] not necessarily feeling like it was sincere,” Orbé-Austin said.
Instead of reaching out to employees you have never talked with before, redirect this energy toward public statements and concrete actions toward dismantling white supremacy.
If you do talk, don’t say you know how the other person feels or lead with assumptions.
Being a good listener means not spinning or directing how the conversation should go.
Case in point: Don’t tell your fellow employees that you can’t believe that this is happening. “I know that for many people, they are shocked at the things that happened in the Capitol. But for most BIPOC individuals, we were not surprised,” said Reshawna Chapple, a Talkspace therapist and associate professor of social work at the University of Central Florida. “BIPOC individuals realized that had those been Black or brown people, they would have been met with violence and/or killed before even reaching the steps of the Capitol.”
If you’re a manager, “get feedback from your employees to see what type of resources they would like access to during this time,” rather than making assumptions, Dominguez said. “Create opportunities for small breakout sessions to provide space and time for people who want to express their feelings in a more private setting.”
Make sure there is no obligation to respond to your check-in.
If you do check in, give your colleagues the time to not respond if they don’t want to. “Don’t call them out at meetings or put them on the spot,” Dominguez said.
“Another big no-no is putting more burden on Black employees and other employees of color to take the lead in whatever efforts the organization is making to address the violent insurrection, white supremacist coup attempt of last week,” Pong said.
Understand that believing everyone can just “move on” after a racially traumatic event is white privilege.
Not every employee is experiencing the Capitol assault the same way. Recognize that racial trauma disproportionately affects Black people. One 2018 study found that following police killings of unarmed Black Americans in their state, Black people were more likely to report poorer mental health one to two months after the killing, while white people in the study reported no adverse mental health effects.
If you’re not Black, be mindful of how these racial traumas, which have been occurring long before the Capitol assault, play out at work. “Being able to be mindful that you as a white person don’t necessarily have the same reactions or burdens that people of color carry, and being able to admit to that, is the first part of being able to move forward to help every employee in your organization,” Orbé-Austin said.
Pong said to respect the boundaries of Black employees who don’t want to talk more about the insurrection at work. But do consider your privilege if it’s easy for you to go back to business as usual. “If it’s white employees or other employees of color thinking we need to ‘move on,’ it sounds to me like those folks could use some anti-oppression self-education or organization-supported training,” Pong said. “It’s a function of the privilege that non-Black employees have in white supremacy culture that allows them to believe that we can ‘move on.’“
Not moving on means moving beyond words of solidarity to action, and recognizing any complicit role you may have in upholding white supremacy.
“What we saw on full display last week was violent white supremacy in the form of domestic terrorism. All white people have directly benefited from white supremacy culture, because it’s embedded into our educational institutions, financial systems, government, workplace. It’s ubiquitous,” Dominguez said. “The takeaway here is to hold a lens to your organization, team, and examine all the ways you may have kept these systems in place and how you can actively help to dismantle those systems.”
If you work with attack sympathizers, find support with a colleague who gets it or look outside your organization.
Although some employees are able to have honest dialogues with their co-workers, the reality is that you can’t always choose who you work with. You may be working among those who sympathize with the mob or who minimize what happened by saying it was “not that bad.”
If you don’t work in a space in which you are psychologically safe enough to be honest about the trauma you are experiencing, it’s still important to find an ally you can talk about it with. “Oftentimes, unfortunately, people may just retreat inward and not talk to anyone, and that’s not helpful,” Orbé-Austin said.
Orbé-Austin said that ideally you should find one colleague within your organization you have enough of an affinity for that you can talk through your feelings with them. If that’s not an option, find support outside of work with mentors or different industry groups where you can find like-minded people.
“Feeling that they don’t have to be isolated I think is critical,” Orbé-Austin said of people in these situations. “And being able to empower themselves enough to say, ‘I need support, I need to talk to people who recognize what I’m going through and appreciate it, and so I’m going to look for that if I can’t find it in my place of employment.’”