As recently as February, it was easy to think that what happened in the “outside world” was not relevant to the business world. That’s no longer true. Lines between work, home and community are blurred because our homes are our workplaces and our workplaces are in our homes.

Even essential workers who work on-site for the most part go home at the end of their shift and stay there. Even as cities and states begin to open up, people will still spend most of their time inside for now.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, people are dealing with stress, anxiety and displaced anger. Many can’t handle the ambiguity of this pandemic and seek to blame people from different groups for the current situation. As a result, we are seeing a qualitative escalation of racist verbal and physical attacks against black, Latinx, Asian and Jewish people.

People being attacked are your employees, co-workers, customers, clients or neighbors. One of them might be you or one of your friends. They are traumatized and afraid to step out of their homes for fear of being a victim of the people seeking to blame those who don’t look like them for the current crisis.

When people are afraid, they can’t get their work done. They can’t be creative and productive if they don’t feel safe. These attacks impact the whole organization.

I recently spoke with Brandon, a CEO who told me that one of his Thai employees was harassed on the street by someone who kept screaming at her to stop spreading COVID-19. He said, “Anh was so shook up when she got back home, we had to find someone to finish a report she was writing for a client. What can I do to help her?” I told Brandon, “You have to learn to be an ally if you really want to help Anh and other employees. You have to be proactive. Anh and other employees need to know that you support them, that you do take these attacks seriously.”

What is an ally?

An ally is someone willing to take action in support of another person in order to remove external barriers that impede that person from fully contributing their skills, talents, and achieving success in the workplace and/or community. The key word is action.

Leaders in organizations have a responsibility to create work cultures where everyone can feel safe, feel part of the organization, and feel like they can do their best work. The culture doesn’t just apply to the actual workplace. That culture is defined by how people work together, how they treat each other and how they interact whether on virtual platforms or in-person.

5 ways leaders can be allies

1. Be informed about attacks against different groups, whether it’s verbal, physical or destruction of property.

Take each incident seriously and understand its potential impact on your colleagues, employees, customers and clients. If you find yourself trivializing, or saying that “it can’t happen here,” stop that thought process. It’s not about you, and how you would react. It’s about people who are from the group that has been victimized. Believe that they are afraid and that their need for security, safety and support has been compromised.

2. When an incident occurs in the community, check in by phone or a personal email with people who are most impacted.

You can tell them that you are aware of the incident, that you know they may be impacted and say:

  • “Thinking of you”
  • “How are you doing”
  • “How can I and the organization be of support?”

An African American colleague, Raymond, told me that shortly after he watched the very upsetting video of the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, his manager called him to talk about a project.

The manager could tell that something was wrong and asked him about it. When Raymond told him, the manager put off the project discussion and instead took time to listen and engage in deep dialogue. Raymond said how much he appreciated the conversation and the support voiced by his manager.

3. Set up “virtual” dialogues to talk about these incidents. Invite small groups of employees to share their reactions and feelings, and then discuss ways to make people feel safe and do their best work together.

4. Create a digital platform for people to share their thoughts, ideas and start discussions at any time. Include a way for people to ask for concrete actions of support when they feel worried or fearful of getting attacked on the street.

5. Don’t wait for a crisis to show support. Get to know your employees right now. The more they feel connected and the more concern and empathy you show, the more comfortable they’ll feel about sharing their feelings and what they need to do to feel safe working in your organization.

Also, many of the people who perpetuate hate work in organizations. They take that hate with them, bully people who are different, and support exclusion and discrimination.

Leaders who are allies let it be known that they don’t tolerate that kind of behavior, root out perpetrators of hate and help them leave the organization.

We can all be leaders to spread inclusion, and kindness and help everyone do their best work and feel safe and supported.