There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, but psychologists tell Moneyish ways to address tragic events with grace and professionalism.
The morning after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, many Americans were struggling to comprehend what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night even as they were commuting to work, which raises a tricky question: How should you discuss national tragedies on the job?
While business etiquette generally calls for keeping current events and politics out of the workplace, national tragedies on the scale of the Las Vegas shooting, or the recent devastation wreaked by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, cannot be ignored.
“The enormity of this loss shakes all of us and our sense of safety and security, so it’s important to recognize people’s days are not going to flow smoothly and naturally today,” psychologist Dr. Daniel J. Mosley, a volunteer with the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health services for 20 years, told Moneyish. “And employers need to find a way to recognize the tragedy, and to recognize that it’s normal for employees to display a range of emotions.”
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Joseph Grenny, the author of “Crucial Conversations” and cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate leadership development company, told Moneyish that going to work can help employees work through their fear, grief and anger following a catastrophic event if the work environment is sensitive to everyone’s needs.
“Work can offer three things at a time like this: Validation for what people are feeling, and helping them recognize they’re not alone as they process this; an opportunity for distraction by focusing on your work; and the chance to take action,” he said. “But anything you do needs to be invitational, and not mandatory, because people need to process this in different ways.”
Here are some suggestions for addressing tragic events sensitively with your coworkers.
Acknowledge the tragedy. Leaders should address what happened with their staff. A personable email is more efficient for companies with hundreds of employees – plus, it gives workers a chance to privately digest the news. A smaller staff may call for actual face time. But addressing workers over a loudspeaker or pulling a large team into a conference room gets awkward, especially for people who just want to work through the tragedy. “You do need to acknowledge it as a leader,” Brandon M. Smith, The Workplace Therapist, told Moneyish. “If you don’t, people feel like it’s either a disconnected workplace or a disconnected boss.”
Be personable. If you’re sending an email, “it needs to be genuine,” added Smith. “Don’t have corporate communications write it for you.” He suggested something like, “I was looking at the news, and these things were going through my head and heart, and if everyone is feeling this way, I want to let you know you’re not alone, and here are some things we can do.”
But don’t discuss it in front of customers. For those working in sales or service, it’s one thing to respond when a customer brings up a mass tragedy – but don’t go out of your way to broach the subject with them. “A lot of customers come into a store looking for distraction, so I wouldn’t recommend provoking that discussion,” said Grenny.
Don’t fixate on it. Sending one email out is fine or giving one speech is fine, along with occasional updates moving forward on ways the company plans to help, or addressing the safety of colleagues and branches in affected areas. But don’t blast employees with emails updating the body count. And turn off TV news streaming violent images over and over. “You’re just pumping negativity into the workplace, that you as a leader now have to fight against,” said Smith.
Give employees an outlet. Direct workers who are seriously struggling or crying at their desks to their manager or HR rep if they can’t focus, or give them leave to take a sick or personal day. Make a conference room available at 4 p.m. for those who do want to meet to discuss what happened. Start a GoFundMe page to raise donations for victims, or plan a work event to put together care packages or discuss ways to help. “One of the worst things during a time like this is feeling powerless, so taking action increases our sense of efficacy,” said Grenny.
Take a moment of silence. The Nasdaq, New York Stock Exchange and other prominent U.S. stock exchanges held a moment of silence for victims of the mass shooting on Monday morning. “[That] is perfectly appropriate; it allows people who are religious to pray, and people that aren’t to just have a moment to honor those lives that have been lost,” said Smith. Offering to lead everyone in prayer may turn off those who aren’t religious, or who follow a different faith from those leading the prayer, however.
Don’t politicize it. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the issues about mental illness, gun rights, whatever, and that’s not helpful in the immediate aftermath,” said Dr. Mosley. “We will have plenty of time to analyze this in the future, but right now, we need to recognize this is a national event that impacts all of us, and it’s better to be listening to our friends and office mates who are shaken up, and to give them our support.”
Let people grieve in their own way. You may be unable to stop talking about the tragedy, but perhaps your colleague just wants to keep making sales like nothing happened. Both impulses are normal. “Just because someone is avoiding talking about it, or shows no emotion, does not mean they are insensitive or cold or callous,” said Dr. Mosley. “There is no one formula that fits all of us in terms of how we cope with this.”
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