On March 23, 2012, then-President Barack Obama made a statement about the killing of an unarmed, 17-year-old Black teenager, Travyon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin,” he said. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.” Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of Apple, shed tears during a moment of silence at a developer conference in 2016 to honor the 49 victims of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In 2019, Latinx individuals in the U.S. described feeling “hunted” after 22 people, almost all of whom were immigrants of Latinx descent, were killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
These and other highly publicized deaths also led us, with our own respective Black, Indian, and immigrant identities, to become consumed by negative emotions that occur in the face of such tragedies: sadness, anger, and despair. Yet, we also felt threatened — like we were just one traffic stop or grocery store visit away from being harmed ourselves.
This experience was curious because these events did not directly happen to us or within our own immediate communities. However, they remained at the forefront of our minds for hours and sometimes days after the events, even altering how we navigated our day-to-day lives. This lingering feeling led us to ask, “Why?”
What Are “Mega-Threats”?
This question led us to study the topic — to define the types of events that might trigger this feeling of threat and examine how it might affect individuals in the workplace.
In our research, we first proposed that societal events, which we term mega-threats, have a unique effect on observers who share an identity with victim(s) involved in the event. Mega-threats have three main characteristics:
- They are negative
- They receive intense media attention
- They are intrinsically linked to the victim(s) identities’ (their race, gender, sexuality, immigrant status, etc.) or one of the prominent narratives discussed in the media or on social media is that the victim(s) was harmed because of their social identity.
In our more recent research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, we show that because mega-threats are identity-related — or because people believe victims were harmed because of their identity — other individuals in society who share this harmed identity become vicarious victims of the event. In other words, becoming aware of a negative, often fatal, event that happened to someone because of their marginalized identity — and being confronted with the news story through an endless media cycle — leads other group members to wonder, “Am I next?”
We find that this sentiment of a looming identity-based attack triggers a particular type of threat that we call embodied threat. We refer to this threat as embodied because, like the quote from former President Obama or the sentiments of Latinx community members, individuals who share identity with event victims often feel as if they themselves are physically closer to experiencing harm in a similar manner. In this research, we also explain that this experience of embodied threat, which is associated with a host of negative threat-related thoughts and emotions, does not easily dissipate or end when employees enter their workspaces. Instead, employees carry this negativity with them as they go about their workday, requiring them to actively manage embodied threat at work.
Why Should Organizations Care About Mega-Threats?
The bottom line to our most recent paper is simple: Organizations should care about mega-threats because these events lead employees to avoid or withdraw from their work tasks and their colleagues in the days after the event.
Race is a fundamental feature that permeates organizational environments, leading racial minority employees to feel compelled to conform to the norms of white organizational cultures. Indeed, management research has consistently found that racial minority employees often adjust their hair, speech, and overall outward appearance to fit in at work. Similarly, racial minority employees also tend to suppress or hide their authentic reactions to mega-threats in the workplace. But suppression is an exhausting act that ultimately prompts employees to withdraw from or avoid investing additional energy into their work tasks and work relationships.
We tested these hypotheses about the impact of mega-threats on employees in the workplace across two studies. In the first study, we recruited 187 Asian employees and 145 white employees living in the U.S. to report on their experiences at work in the days after the Atlanta area spa shootings in 2021, where six women of Asian descent were fatally shot. We found that Asian employees experienced greater embodied threat in the days after this event and actively hid or suppressed this threat at work, which in turn led to higher avoidance of work tasks and colleagues. These avoidant behaviors included things like letting their minds wander, letting others complete their work tasks, and avoiding interacting with coworkers.
In a second study, we recruited a diverse sample of 710 employees in the U.S. to complete an initial phase-one survey. In this survey, employees responded to a series of questions designed to assess their social identities (race, gender, etc.), their typical suppression of authentic emotions and thoughts at work, and their average engagement in avoidant work behaviors. Importantly, we found that the employees reported engaging in similar levels of avoidant work behaviors in this phase, regardless of their race, gender, or other social identities’.
Then in phase two of the study, during the week after two mega-threats — the police killing of Atatiana Jefferson and the announcement of the verdict in the trial of the police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean — we followed up with a subset of Black employees and white employees from our phase-one survey. In this phase, we found that Black (versus white) employees experienced significantly higher embodied threat that they then felt compelled to suppress at work, which ultimately led to more avoidance of both work tasks and social interactions with work colleagues. In other words, Black employees withdrew at work after these two mega-threats, while white employees did not.
Finally, in phase three, we again surveyed the same Black and white employees in the days after one of the most highly publicized mega-threats to occur this decade — the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 — and found the same negative effects of this event on Black employees’ work behaviors.
Four Lessons for Organizations
Taken together, the results of our research provide important insights into the often-overlooked influence that mega-threats can have on employees. So, what can managers and organizations do to better support employees in the wake of these events?
Cultivate a culture of “identity-related” psychological safety.
The results of phase two of our study provide an important avenue to reduce the negative effects of mega-threats on employees’ work behaviors. In this phase, we posed a simple open-ended question to our participants: “Have you felt comfortable discussing the event at work?” We found that many of our participants, both Black and white, did not feel safe discussing mega-threats at work because they were worried about suffering negative consequences, like alienating their colleagues or making them feel uncomfortable. However, we found that when the Black employees in our sample felt comfortable discussing the event at work, they no longer had to suppress their reactions to the event. This largely prevented the event from negatively affecting their work behaviors.
This finding highlights the importance of cultivating what we refer to as “identity-based” psychological safety. This type of safety occurs when managers create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing both positive and negative events and/or experiences that are associated with their identities. Although it may seem like organizations are talking about diversity more than ever before, employees still might not feel comfortable discussing negative experiences that are associated with their identities, such as personal instances when they have been racially profiled or were the victim of discrimination. Thus, managers need to focus on cultivating a culture of real inclusion, where discussions about race and other forms of difference are commonplace.
Encourage rest and recovery in the face of mega-threats.
Even as research continues to show that employees bring their emotional baggage into their workspace, many organizations and managers believe that employees’ professional work lives should remain unaffected by their personal lives. One way to reduce the negative effects of mega-threats on employees is to acknowledge the traumatic nature of these societal events for those who share an identity with the victim(s). More than releasing statements condemning these mega-threats, organizations need to create policies that allow employees the flexibility to rest and recover in their wake, which will also ensure that an organization’s actions match their words.
Create and empower employee affinity networks.
After a mega-threat, employees from a particular identity group who are underrepresented within an organization may feel as if they are the only employee experiencing a threat or reeling from the event. Employee affinity networks, such as networks for Black, LGBTQ+, or women employees, may allow people to develop a support network within their organization, which they can then rely on for social support after a mega-threat. An added bonus of developing and empowering these employee networks is that they may provide useful insights that can help organizations better understand the needs of employees from different marginalized identity groups.
Encourage “relational bridging.”
Finally, organizations and managers should encourage their employees to engage in relational bridging across identities. This occurs when employees focus on cultivating relationships at work that surfaces, rather than ignores, their differences. For example, Bank of America began a series called “Courageous Conversations” that brings employees together to have discussions about race, gender, LGBTQ+ equality, and social justice more broadly. Calling these conversations “courageous” highlights that discussing these topics in the workplace often requires courage from both majority and minority group employees. Yet, having open and honest dialogue with colleagues before a mega-threat occurs can help employees feel comfortable authentically expressing their reactions to mega-threat events. This open dialogue may also encourage employees to engage in bold actions, like speaking up in order to improve the organization for marginalized employees.
Relational bridging can also have an impact from the top down. After the murder of George Floyd, for example, many Black executives felt compelled to share their own experiences of racism within their organizations. This type of sharing from top leaders within an organization could be an initial step toward cultivating a culture of identity-based psychological safety, or a culture where racial minority employees no longer feel compelled to suppress their experiences in the wake of a mega-threat.
. . .
Ultimately, it will take significant changes in organizational processes and cultures to eliminate the structures and practices that lead racial minorities to feel compelled to adapt or hide their reactions to mega-threats. Yet, for organizations to truly become equitable places where everyone is encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, they must begin to transform their daily environments into places where racial minorities can indeed be their authentic selves — even when they feel under threat.