Rose Wysocki told a story that stunned me.
Wysocki is the produce manager at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. While she also tells the story of witnessing and surviving the terrorist’s attack at the supermarket on Saturday, May 14, that isn’t the story that knocked me off my feet. It’s the story she tells about events that preceded the shooting that left me at a loss and her wondering, “How did we miss this? What did we do wrong that we missed this?”
Wysocki, a white woman, was working in the supermarket when a customer approached and asked why she would be working at that supermarket where she didn’t look like she belonged. When she told him she loved her job at the store and the people she worked with, the customer responded with a racial slur before she disengaged. The man’s hate was clear. The fact that he would return a few weeks later to carry out a hate crime that left 10 of Wysocki’s beloved customers and co-workers dead had not been clear.
Why did this shake me so deeply? Because one of your employees might have told me this story.
I have heard the first part dozens of times over the past 18 months.
Like Wysocki, I do not know how to tell the difference between a rude, hateful member and a member who may commit a hate crime.
One of the first actions in our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Integration consulting engagements is conducting Voice of the Employee Focus Groups. These facilitated discussions are an opportunity to hear directly from employees about their experiences in the workplace. This direct, facilitated conversation is important: We hear things that help us identify trends, opportunities, and obstacles to inclusion that we might not ascertain from a one-way survey. One of the 15 questions we often ask is, “Have you ever experienced or witnessed harassment or discrimination at work?”
It often catches people off guard, and they are quick to answer, “No! That would never happen here.”
After a moment, invariably, someone says something like, “Does the way our members treat us count? Because we’ve got this member…” and other voices join in. Since mid-2020, we have heard that credit union employees are experiencing heightened member mistreatment. This is not simply a member frustrated because of a fee or a long hold time. These are members making disparaging comments about race, ethnicity, and gender. Members refusing to work with one employee because of her skin color, using racial slurs while talking to white employees about their co-workers, or verbally assaulting call center reps who speak in accented English. It leaves employees feeling disrespected, devalued, dehumanized, and yes, sometimes, unsafe.
In our debriefings, leaders are often not surprised about this feedback: They have heard from their employees and have followed procedures that have sometimes—but not always– even resulted in member expulsion. Some have asked members not to visit that branch anymore. Some have asked employees to avoid serving the member who has a problem with them. Some have not heard about the problems because employees feel so closely aligned with the mission of serving members that they will not make a formal complaint.
Compassion oozes from the leaders who listen to these stories. They bring us in because they want to provide an authentically inclusive environment where there is a high level of psychological safety. They acknowledge that while they cannot control every member’s behavior, the organization’s responsibility to employee well-being extends to member interactions. Together, we have explored with our clients the introduction of Member Codes of Conduct (and consequences for violating these), visible signage that celebrates diversity and inclusion, de-escalation and bystander training, Employee Assistance Programs with resources specific to racism and xenophobia, and even the right level of communication that maintains confidentiality and transparency to an employee who needs to understand the follow through after a complaint.
But how will we know if that is enough?
What can we do to make sure it isn’t us standing there stunned and wondering, “How did we miss this? What did we do wrong that we missed this?”