The biggest takeaways from Empathy’s DEI+B webinar

Published on Apr 28, 2023

On March 29, Empathy held our webinar “Improving DEI+B through bereavement care,” a conversation about how organizations can support the diversity of their workforces through their response to care and loss.

We were proud to host advocate expert Paurvi Bhatt, grief educator and DEI+B consultant Dr. Julie Shaw, and HR strategist Kim Blue as they discussed the ways in which cultures, traditions, and backgrounds impact an employee’s experience of loss, and how employers must understand this to provide truly meaningful bereavement care.

Here are three of the most important things we learned from the webinar:

1. What the bereaved need most is to feel seen and valued

The intersection of DEI+B with questions of grief and bereavement boils down to a crucial question: Do our policies make bereaved employees feel seen, heard, and valued? No matter what diversity and inclusion efforts you pursue, they are doomed to be ineffective unless they have this as their central goal. For bereaved people this means meeting them where they are, no matter their cultural background, so they can feel understood, valued, and supported.

As Julie Shaw put it: “Belonging is about three things: Do people feel seen? Do they feel valued? And do they feel heard?

“It’s the same thing in grief. When people are grieving, do they feel seen? Do they feel valued? Do they feel heard? That's what people need as they grieve. They need those three things. So that can be your simple checklist.”

One of the most important ways employers can accomplish this is by acknowledging that grief changes people—and that the way that an individual changes during grief is profoundly affected by their background and their cultural context. All of this feeds into diversity and inclusion efforts, as our focus should be on understanding the challenges, issues and needs of this new person whom the griever has become.

As Julie went on to point out, each bereaved person has multiple intersecting identities. You’re not just a first-generation immigrant or a person of color, you are a bereaved daughter, or a bereaved sister. Maybe you were a caretaker. How you grieve is affected by this specific intersectional identity, as it is by your family’s cultural traditions and beliefs, and your own relationship to those beliefs.

“It’s crucial to understand how this diversity of each individual is showing up, and how this intersectionality affects how they grieve and how they show up in the workplace and in life in general.”

2. Meaningful policies require better understanding and flexibility

A truly equitable, inclusive policy must take into account bereaved individuals’ real, lived experience and have the flexibility to accommodate the range of those experiences.

For example, bereavement policies have traditionally been exclusive to just immediate family members. These policies need to expand to incorporate a broader, more inclusive, and more modern understanding of who is classified as family. The traditional nuclear family unit no longer holds sway as much as it once did.

Kim Blue told us, “When leaders are creating or revamping bereavement policies, we should encourage them to remember that family is actually defined by a person’s lived experience. We need agility in our policies, to expand beyond immediate family, to say, if someone played a significant role in your life, had a level of impact, showed you love, demonstrated care, supported you on your life’s journey, that person is family, whether they are blood or not.”

In general, policies are recommended to be flexible and agile enough to account for various kinds of employee needs—whatever they need to return to work safely and be able to do their best work. Kim gave the example of making sure a policy can go into effect as quickly as employees might need:

“Depending on what your religion is, you may actually need to step away immediately, to accommodate rituals or practices that take place right away. If you need to do so within a 24-hour period, or even potentially shorter, especially if there's travel involved, how do our policies account for that?”

3. Creating a safe space for grief at your organization starts at the top

For a workplace to be inclusive and make every griever feel like they belong, it needs first to be a space where workers feel psychologically safe. Spaces where employees are made to feel unsafe—where they are pitted against each other for promotions, where they are encouraged to work grueling hours to curry favor, or where small errors are punished—can never be inclusive. In unsafe spaces, nobody feels able to speak up on their own behalf, and they rarely use the benefits that they are technically eligible for, fearing repercussions for taking them.

In Julie’s words: “Leaders should be asking whether people even feel safe enough to ask for help. Do they feel safe enough to voice their needs to HR, to their team leader, or a director, to say to them, ‘I'm going through a really challenging time right now, and this is what I need?’”

How to create such a safe space? Leaders have to lead by example. Paurvi Bhatt told the story of one such leader, who chose to take the opportunity, on the main stage of a huge internal meeting, to say that she was going to wrap up her keynote, because a flight was waiting for her so she could go take care of her mom out of state.

“She was amazing. Her boss, our CEO was sitting right there, and she said, ‘I'm leaving.’ That set the stage for so many of us, and we thanked her. It becomes a virtuous cycle of thanks, without which we can't create that sense of safety.”

Kim emphasized that point, saying, “As leaders, demonstrating this starts with us. We have to be the example. I wanted people to be able to see me as someone who sat right next to them, that the policy still applied to me as an employee. When we talk about openness, that's what leaders need to show: a little more vulnerability to talk about their needs.”

Julie agreed: “When you're able to speak like that, it becomes an invisible, unspoken signal that says, ‘This is a part of our culture here. We are open to this.’ Because when one person talks about their situation and their needs, if somebody else on that team was also grieving, it’s a signal to them; it helps them say, “Oh, it’s safe. It's safe for me to ask for the help that I need.’”

For more insights and information, watch the full webinar recording here.

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