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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Atkinson

The Case for Creating Space for Grieving and Dialog at Work

My LinkedIn feed has been pretty quiet about the protests erupting across the globe in reaction to the tragic murder of George Floyd; one of a many unarmed black men killed by a police officer in recent years. Why? Some will argue it is political, and LinkedIn conversations are limited to business. Others are simply too scared to share their thoughts about the protests out of fear of being judged or offending someone. For similar reasons, employers tend to keep conversations of all types of social unrest out of the workplace. These employers create a work life and personal life divide that they are loath to cross.


We must do better.


Let’s first recognize the work life – personal life divide had been rapidly declining; and then COVID-19 blew it up completely. Before COVID-19, Millennials had already established that the best workplaces are a source of meaningful community and shared values. With the pandemic, work and personal life are now deeply integrated every day around the globe. So, employers need to develop a new set skill set – engaging with employees as human beings.


As human beings, employees have feelings; and today many of us are grieving, angry, depressed, scared, or some other emotion that makes it impossible to be totally present at work. Pretending this isn’t so, doesn’t make it go away; it makes it fester. A better response is to create a safe space for employees to share and process together.


When I was Chief People Officer at AppNexus, after the Orlando shootings our Latino and LGTBQ communities were clearly hurting. Some asked if the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee would organize an event where employees of all backgrounds could talk about the shooting. It was with some trepidation that we agreed to do it. What if someone said something offensive? What if someone broke down emotionally? Was it really the company’s responsibility to address the situation? After all, none of our employees had been directly impacted.


The "what ifs" were scary, but we solicited the help of a grief counselor and held the event. The discussion and act of coming together was incredibly powerful. Employees discussed their anger, fear and heartbreak -- and also their hope that something good could come from this tragic event. While the pain was long-lasting, for many having the open discussion was a big step in beginning to move past it.


The event became the first of what we called “Open Forums,” a format which we used for other forms of social unrest such as Brexit or the Paris terror attack. We learned that creating space for healthy discussion necessitates a few guidelines:

  • Set the tone from the top that the discussion is valued and safe. Having senior leaders share openly in the discussion can help set the tone.

  • Start by agreeing on rules, reinforcing a safe space and have participants verbally agree to follow them (e.g. listen to others, keep an open mind and maintain confidentiality).

  • Don’t feel like you need to control or manage the discussion. Let employees talk freely.

  • Don’t feel like there needs to be a next step. The conversation itself may be the only needed step.

My main take away from that experience is that ignoring social unrest and human pain in the workplace is counterproductive. It is better to lean into it. In an increasingly turbulent world, the strongest organizations will have a culture and approach where teams feel safe to talk about difficult, real-world issues in a respectful, empathetic way.


This not only helps individuals process their pain and be more productive, it creates an organization where employees feel safe to bring their best, most authentic self to work. That isn’t just good for individuals, it is good for business.



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This blog post is an edited version of a post I co-authored in entrepreneur.com.

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