Fostering Compassion During a Crisis

This year's events offer employers a chance to connect with employees and change workforce and retirement plan investing efforts.

Shundrawn Thomas, president of Northern Trust Asset Management, says he believes plan sponsors are long overdue for important conversations.

The convergence of 2020 events, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, has prompted organizations to adjust. Companies have shifted to remote work, implemented telehealth options, made sizable donations to small businesses and anti-discrimination organizations and disclosed diversity numbers within their executive leadership. But, Thomas says, it’s time to expand and evolve the nature of the dialogue within the workforce.

In his open letter to civic and business leaders, “The Cure to COVID-19 Begins with Compassion,” Thomas explores how employers and executives can have empathetic conversations in the workplace, focusing on the effects of the pandemic and the inequities faced by those in Black and brown communities. “These things lay bare in open sight, but we don’t necessarily talk about them or engage in the workplace,” he tells PLANSPONSOR.

Plan sponsors’ largest power is their voice, he says, and they can influence the dialogue within their organizations by, for example, starting a conversation. Having a conversation allows employees to lean into the discourse and exchange ideas with one another. This creates a sort of transitive effect, Thomas says, allowing employees to create discussions or conversations in their communities. “What happens is people start engaging in those conversations in other places,” he notes. “That’s how you see it begin to impact other places.”

Along with encouraging conversations, employers should take actionable steps to bring change to the workforce. The pandemic has left workplaces struggling to resume daily protocols and production, put some regular businesses on hold and led to distractions. Employers can use this time to reform recruitment and retention strategies, a process that long existed without much formality for diversity and inclusion measures, Thomas says. “These processes have sort of gone on autopilot,” he explains. “We have to take the time to intentionally use this pause where we’ve all been disrupted, and actually make intentional and conscious changes for the better.”

The key is to invest in employees, he says. Add training and development strategies, which not only benefit employees but also raise overall capacity and capability levels within the company; provide internal or external coaching opportunities for senior and junior members; and dollar-match donations when employees are volunteering their time, he says. “That’s one way to invest in the employee, while the employee is investing in the community,” Thomas adds.

The influx of resources doesn’t stop at the company, either. “We have employees go to different development conferences, they are a part of trade groups, and we can support them in terms of taking additional, extended or professional educational courses,” he continues. “There’s a wide range of ways in how we can invest in our employees.”

As fiduciaries, employers and service providers influence their workforces and participants. For example, if a fiduciary is responsible for overseeing assets, they are accountable for the caring of assets, which ultimately account for the well-being of others. Employers should think critically about the funds they are invested in and the standards they hold their service providers to. “We absolutely have to ask the hard questions with how they perform, with respect to how they’re managing the assets,” Thomas says. “You can demand that you have excellent investment performance, but you can also demand the people who are serving you and your constituents are excellent contributors to the community in which we work and live.”

Most problems create an opportunity to grow and learn. The COVID-19 crisis and recent protests have revealed and exposed ingrained inequities among communities; employers with influence and power are in the position to enact changes. “A crisis reveals the true characters of people, a crisis reveals problems,” Thomas concludes. “The nature of the pandemic has exposed those, so the question becomes, now that this is unambiguous, do we choose to continue, or do we show compassion?”