Dealing with Public Tragedy at Work

Earlier this week, less than five miles from my business, a small Christian school was attacked, and six souls were lost. The tragedy played out on national and local television networks. As each eerie detail was released, sadness covered the city of Nashville.

It was a tragedy that has played out hundreds of times across the United States. Yet, it is different when it’s your hometown and people you know worked at the school, had kids that attended that school or were friends with the teachers.

This morning I had a group coaching session with leaders from various non-profits in Middle Tennessee. As I prepared, I wondered how I should handle the school shooting. Should I ignore it and focus on the material at hand? Or should I bring it up and discuss it? As a coach, I was taught to let my coachee lead the way.

I didn’t know what to do.

As a leader, it is a critical question to ask ourselves, “What is the best way for us to handle a public tragedy at work?”

Spoiler Alert: It Depends.

  • It will depend on the vicinity. Is it close enough to impact employees personally?
  • It will depend on the magnitude. Is the scale large enough that it will be on everyone’s mind?
  • It will depend on your staff. When they learn about it, how will they respond to it?
  • It will depend on relatability. Could your stakeholders easily envision themselves being in that same scenario?
  • It will depend on the connectedness of the incident. Is it being shared on social media? Is it discussed on television and radio?

What I think is that it can’t be ignored.

When I was growing up, my grandfather would tell me that if it didn’t happen at work, we don’t talk about it at work. There was a clear line between work and outside of work. You don’t bring your personal problems to work.

But we do. Our worry about our financial situation doesn’t stay at home; it follows us to work like a small puppy begging for our attention. When we celebrate a life event, the joy carries over to our workplace.

So, what can we do?

Here are four actions you can take.  

  1. Be Empathetic. I remember there was violence in a workplace near where I was working. One of my senior managers was upset, visibly weeping, couldn’t focus on the job, and worried about her safety. When I explained that, statistically speaking, she was safer in the workplace than out driving in her car, she turned to me and said, “John, I feel unsafe.”

I opened my mouth to explain in detail why she shouldn’t feel unsafe but stopped myself. Who was I to tell her that what she was feeling was illogical? Luckily, I caught myself and asked, “What can I do to make you feel safer?”

  • Gather The Team: The second action is to bring people together and let them express their feelings if they choose. Start by expressing your feelings in the moment. Be careful about how you choose your words so as not to stir up controversy within the team. Hold a moment of silence if that feels right for you and your organization. Remind everyone that this will impact people differently, so be kind.

If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program, remind them that it is available if they need it. Set an example; if you use the EAP, let them know because it may encourage them to do the same.

  • Take Action: Gather your leadership team to discuss any actions that the company can take in response to the tragedy. It might be donating money to non-profits that serve the impacted families. It might be to increase your security protocols. It might be to give employees additional time off, and it might be to communicate about your EAP.
  • Coach Employees: As time passes, most employees will return to normal performance levels. Others may struggle. In the beginning, give them grace. We may not know how this event has impacted them. However, in time, you need to get them back on track and hold them accountable for their performance. Coach quietly and help them resume their normal level of work.

As we gathered for the group coaching session, I decided I would not ignore the public tragedy that had happened in our city. I started with a simple question, “How are you feeling based on the events for the last 24 hours?” The answers started slow but soon gained momentum. We learned of personal connections, filling out the story we had heard on the news. I didn’t push anyone to share, but most did.

We slowly segued into the session topic, managing our employees, even in hard times. There were many great conversations and learning on how to be better managers.

I’m glad I took the risk.

To be honest, I don’t know if it was the right decision or not, but I don’t think we could just ignore it. I would love to hear your feedback on how you will handle this if a public tragedy happens near your business.

John Thalheimer

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