How Racially-Charged Incidents Across the U.S. Affect Black Employees

Threatening events can cause workers to become less engaged and feel isolated

June 24, 2020
Behavioral Science, Diversity


Professionals often change gears when they start their day, shifting into work mode and setting aside their personal and social lives.

However, significant events in an employee’s life can make it difficult to compartmentalize their personal lives while they’re working.

For Black employees, incidents such as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and other events underscored by racism can create threat and anxiety that intrude on all parts of their lives, including their engagement and productivity at work, according to research by Angelica Leigh, an assistant professor in management and organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Leigh began researching the impact of these race-related events after her own experiences after the 2016 deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men shot in separate incidents after being confronted by police. Video of Castile’s traffic stop and death was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. 

“I was experiencing a lot of negative emotions and thoughts related to my identity as a black American and how that made me more vulnerable and my family more vulnerable,” Leigh said, describing the impetus for her research interests recently on LinkedIn Live (full video above). “I was really struck by these events and continued to be distracted from my work tasks for days on end. And what really struck me about this experience is that when I entered my workplace, it seemed like the other people around me were able to continue on with their lives as if business was as usual. And yet I found myself consumed with these negative thoughts and feelings and emotions.”  

When people observe others being threatened because of their social identity, race, gender, ethnicity or religion, they infer they could be targeted with the same type of violence, Leigh’s research shows.

“It leads other people in that group to experience threat, and that threat remains alive for a while,” Leigh said. In her research, she refers to these events as ‘mega-threats’. One example of a mega-threat is a mass shooting that targets a racial or ethnic group, such as a 2019 shooting at Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 people. The shooter told authorities he was targeting Mexicans and has been charged with hate crimes.

“This really is something that remains alive when people enter the workplace or they go to work,” Leigh said. 

In her research on mega-threats, Leigh conducted a survey of white and Black professionals who had generally high levels of productivity and engagement at work and felt connected to at least a few colleagues or had friends at work. She surveyed the same participants again after two incidents in which Black people, Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, were each inside their own homes when killed by a white police officer.

Black participants in the second survey reported that they were less engaged at work and even actively avoiding some colleagues. These effects were the result of what Leigh calls ‘identity labor’.

“It’s this process where racial minorities in particular tend to have to cover their emotions and their thoughts about their race and other experiences that they may be having because these are simply things that we don't openly talk about in organizations,” Leigh said. ”So instead of being able to talk about these events and talking about their own experiences, maybe with police brutality, they have to cover up their emotions, and it leads to these negative downstream consequences of lower engagement and social connections with their colleagues.”

As part of this research, Leigh and a co-author also explored ways to prevent minorities from feeling isolated or as though they must disguise their personal discomfort and devastation about events affecting their racial and ethnic communities.

This includes creating an environment in which employees feel like they can be open about the impact these events have had. This can pave the way for more discussion about concerns employees have about race and equality at work, as well, Leigh said. Leigh hopes to expand this work to see measure how threats affect other minorities and marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community.

“These events that managers and leaders may typically ignore have important consequences for racial minorities at work, and it can really lead to a lower sense of belonging and engagement in the workplace,” Leigh said. “Therefore, it’s something that organizations need to continue to grapple with – how can they make environments more inclusive so that we can all talk about these types of things in our workplaces more.”

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