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COVID-19 / HR / Workplace culture

Go beyond ‘How are you?’ when checking in with employees right now

The consensus from these HR pros: Address current events with compassion and genuine plans of action.

A team at work. (Photo by Visual Tag Mx via Pexels)

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity Month of's editorial calendar.

The year 2020 is clearly turning out to be one for the history books.

It’s been full of extremely notable events — a global health crisis, an ensuing recession and one of the largest civil rights movements this country has seen in the last 100 years — and we’re barely halfway through.

And amid all this uncertainty, many adults are working from home for the very first time. Companies are making decisions about healthcare policies, remote work, whether or not to take a stance on racial injustice. And although the spread of coronavirus will eventually ease, unemployment numbers will start to decline and civil demonstrations will see results, this “new normal” means that companies and the people who lead them cannot continue as usual.

Accordingly, we reached out to people operations and human resources professionals for some guidance about what language to use and how to address employees during this moment — especially when a standard “How’s it going?” seems unfit.

Tamara Rasberry, a D.C.-based HR consultant focused on inclusion, diversity, equity and mental health, said that she is fortunate enough to have developed relationships with her colleagues to the point where checking in on them doesn’t seem phony or disingenuous.

Tamara Rasberry. (Photo via LinkedIn)

She said she feels comfortable reaching out to ask, “Hey, how are you doing?” or “How are you holding up with all that’s going on now?” or “Is there anything I can do for you?” while also reminding them to take breaks when needed.

“I think it becomes more challenging for HR folks and supervisors/leaders who do not already have genuine relationships with their staff,” Rasberry said. “If you’ve never asked your Black colleague or direct report anything not work-related before but you want to now, it may or may not be appreciated.”

Especially when the communication is coming from a non-Black person, it can read as wanting to feed on trauma, even if that is not the intent, she said.

Best tips include being mindful of your approach and not singling anyone out, especially if you only have one Black employee or one Black team member, she said. It’s good to let your staff know that you recognize that current events are likely taking a toll on them and that you’re there and open to talking about it. And when people do come to you? Listen actively, Rasberry said.

“Be open and not defensive. The conversations may be uncomfortable but they are necessary,” she said. “It’s also a good time to take a look at internal processes and the types of conversations that have been had up to this point. It is the responsibility of all leaders and supervisors to foster a psychologically safe environment. That includes creating spaces where people feel safe to have potentially uncomfortable conversations.”

Megan Emhoff. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Baltimore-based Protenus’ chief people officer, Megan Emhoff, said her team has been oscillating between “How are you?” or “What are you struggling with today?” or some combination of the two when checking in with employees.

“I think perhaps one of the more important questions to be asking, and one that we’re slowly getting better at asking, is ‘What do we/I need to know about how youre showing up today?'” Emhoff said.

And Vincent Palochko, director of people operations at Philly-based Linode, said that while we’re all currently facing the same set of events, employers must remember that those events will effect employees in different ways. He said he prefers to be as real and specific as possible when checking in on team members.

Vincent Palochko. (Photo via LinkedIn)

“Rather than ‘How are you,’ I try to approach conversations with something more along the lines of ‘Hey, I know you live right in Center City; are you OK? Were you affected by anything that’s happened there?’ or ‘How are you managing at home with your kids — that has to be tough to juggle along with work.'”

It’s also OK for HR pros to also be vulnerable, Palochko said. “We’re in this together and I’m not OK either, sometimes,” he said.

Between the HR pros that we talked to for this story and anonymous employees we heard from earlier this month, the general consensus is that it’s better to address current events with compassion and genuine plans of action, if possible.

“Even if you’re not sure what to say, still say something,” Rasberry said.

She also acknowledged that there are plenty of Black HR pros and leaders who are having to navigate their own emotions while also trying to be there for their employees during this time.

“To those folks, I say, be gentle with yourselves and reach out for support if you need it,” Rasberry said.

Companies: Protenus / Linode
Series: Build Better Companies / Racial Equity Month 2020 / How to Work Remotely

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