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Black employees matter

Shimul Melwani and Angelica Leigh

Typically, you switch gears when you arrive at the office. You shift into your work persona, filtering aspects of your personal and social identities from your professional life.

But what happens when world events spill over into your workplace?

In a rare exploration of the influence of societal events on employees, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School researchers developed a model to understand how Black American employees respond at work to highly publicized instances of violence enacted against Black Americans by law enforcement.

Angelica Leigh (PhD ’20) and Shimul Melwani, associate professor of organizational behavior, share their work in “#BlackEmployeesMatter: Mega-Threats, Identity Fusion and Enacting Positive Deviance in Organizations” in the Academy of Management Review.

They examine how minority employees are affected by negative, diversity-related episodes that receive significant media attention – events that they characterize as “mega-threats.”

“Our model of mega-threats specifies why, when and how these events can galvanize minority employees and the organizations to which they belong,” says Leigh. “While it’s relevant for any minority employee coping with a mega-threat, we are shining a light on the unique experiences of Black employees because of the continuous events that affect them. Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, and five times more likely to be killed when they are unarmed.”

“Even when we were aren’t directly involved in major tragic events in our society, they can affect our emotions, our interactions, and how we act at work,” she says.

Everyone isn’t affected the same way, however. “Some view these major events as abstract, while they are very personal for others,” says Melwani. “Black Americans describe feeling injured, even personally targeted, when they hear news of unarmed Black Americans being shot by law enforcement or other authority figures.”

Most of us turn off our social identities at work, she says. “For minorities, the switching on/off process is particularly poignant because they are more likely to see their racial identities as misaligned with their professional environment, and might mask, ignore, or disregard their social identities at work.”

After a tragic societal event, minority employees experience negative emotions and ruminate about the event’s relevance to them. They activate their social identities at work, and seek out other minorities for emotional support, social validation and to make sense of the event. The result is a fusion of personal and organizational identities and a feeling of oneness as a group.

That identify fusion can be a catalyst, motivating minority employees to speak up on behalf of other minorities and build high-quality connections among them.

“Mega-threats can lead to  positive change within organizations when people speak up – instead of staying silent – and build relationships to improve the group’s social stature in the organization,” says Leigh. “This can foster a sense of inclusion, empowerment and belonging for minority employees.”

While mega-threats are negative, organizations can yield long-term benefits from them – but only if they provide the right environment.

“To successfully manage a diverse workforce, managers can’t afford to overlook or ignore the influence of external events on their employees,” says Melwani. “They don’t have to respond individually to every mega-threat as it occurs, but compassionate leaders must provide support that empowers employees to respond to them in positive ways.”

“Leader compassion, an inclusive environment, and high levels of organizational diversity can empower minority employees to act more audaciously and heighten the positive outcomes of mega-threats,” says Leigh.