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We’ve faced the pandemic, violent racism, economic uncertainty, and environmental disaster. Many of us are experiencing trauma and distress.

The way organizations respond to these challenges and the decisions they make going forward will reverberate for many years to come.

To understand why the response to trauma and distress is so vital, it’s important to know the concept of institutional betrayal.

Jennifer Freyd, PhD, who has written and done extensive research on the topic since 2013, defines institutional betrayal as occurring when an institution you trust or depend on mistreats you.

It can arise due to affirmative actions that harm, as well as from omissions to act when action is expected. These actions or inactions can exacerbate already difficult circumstances.

As explained to me by psychologist Anne DePrince, first consider the example of a child who has been abused by a parent. There may be physical injuries, such as bruises, from the abuse itself — but on top of that, there will likely be a second, psychological injury from the fact that the child was harmed by someone who they look to for support and protection.

Next, imagine a student on a college campus who’s sexually assaulted. The student goes to their Title IX officer for support, but instead the Title IX officer is dismissive or implies the assault was the student’s fault.

There would be an injury from the assault, of course, but now there’s a second injury from the institution, in the person of the Title IX officer.

For some people, that second injury can be worse than the first. They’ll say, “I knew that guy was a jerk, but I thought my college would stand by me.”

Then there’s the pain of a loved one’s COVID-19 diagnosis, and on top of it, the injury when your supervisor refuses your request for leave to care for them.

You may experience harm from harassment, and then an additional harm when that harassment is not addressed.

Or maybe you faced trauma and distress from seeing the murder of George Floyd play out repeatedly on social media, and the additional injury that your workplace would not acknowledge the tragedy at all.

This is why it’s so important that organizations lead with compassion and empathy — particularly in times when so many are struggling.

Freyd suggests a list of steps that organizations should take to avoid institutional betrayal. I’ll highlight a few here:

Advocate for and enact employee-friendly policies and procedures

Our best efforts to communicate effectively and with empathy will ring hollow if the policies and procedures our organization has in place are not genuinely supportive of employees.

If you’re interested in ensuring your organization has solid policies and procedures in place, these resources may be a good place to start:

Respond well when someone shares a story of pain

The way we respond when someone comes to us with a story of trauma or distress affects not just that one individual, but everyone in the workplace who’s trying to decide whether to open up about their own challenges.

It’s important that we:

  • listen
  • acknowledge
  • share information that the person may need or want
  • provide them with resources if they’re interested
  • return later to check in

I cover how to respond appropriately in detail in my book, “The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job,” but you can read a summary of the LASER method I developed here.

Provide flexibility and choice whenever possible

A friend once discovered that she had breast cancer. She was a skilled and highly specialized lawyer, one whose expertise was greatly valued by her organization.

As part of her cancer treatment, she needed to receive chemotherapy 1 morning a week for 12 weeks at a clinic near her home. After each session, she was exhausted.

She asked her supervisor if it would be alright for her to telework on the days she received her chemotherapy, to avoid a lengthy commute and preserve her energy to do the work she needed to do. He refused, without explanation.

Fortunately, my friend was able to complete her chemotherapy and her cancer is in remission. Unsurprisingly, within a year of her recovery, she found a new job.

The organization had betrayed her trust by failing to provide her with support when she needed it most.

As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, flexible work options can mean the difference between being able to continue working through a challenging time, and not. In making decisions around reopening, it’s particularly important to give as much choice and autonomy as possible to those affected.

Ensure that procedures are transparent and fair

Lack of transparency adds to stress. If we don’t understand how decisions are being made or what process is being followed, that adds a level of unease and anxiety to what may already be a very stressful time.

Explaining clearly what procedures are in place can remove that layer of stress.

Fairness is also essential.

When establishing a process for making decisions that will affect a person or a group of people, it’s important that their needs and interests are considered.

This may mean adding people to the initial planning, or layers of review to the process. Sometimes we must act quickly, but ignoring key perspectives will not save you time in the long run.

If the process is considered unfair, its outcomes will be suspect — and the entire process may need to be repeated.

Explain decisions clearly and fully

Once a decision is made and action will be taken, it’s important to be thorough in explaining it. It’s best to discuss:

  • the process in place for the decision-making
  • the issues, viewpoints, and facts considered
  • how the decision was ultimately reached

It’s also advisable to acknowledge alternate opinions or any shortcomings in the process, or downsides of the decision, but reiterate that the decision was made because the decision-makers believed it the best one.

Being honest and forthright — including when the news is not good — is often the best approach.

The breach of trust caused by evasion or half-truths is much worse than the clean and respectful delivery of bad news.

This time of change and upheaval has been challenging for so many.

The way we respond to our co-workers and employees can be a support, or it can inflict an additional injury.

It’s important that we understand the concept of institutional betrayal and take steps to avoid it or mitigate its effects.