'Don't assume they know'

Reactions in the workplace

When The AJN put a call-out to the community, the overwhelming response was that the terror attack against Israel had either been ignored or workplaces had shown sympathy with the Palestinians but not with the Israelis.

We may seem far away from the war in Israel, but the impact is being felt around Australia, even in the workplace. Several weeks after the terror attack of October 7, many community members are still feeling alone and abandoned by their employers and colleagues.

When The AJN put a call-out to the community, the overwhelming majority of responses was that the terror attack against Israel had either been ignored or workplaces had shown sympathy with the Palestinians but not with the Israelis. Many also acknowledged that they were struggling keeping up ‘normal’ appearances, dealing with the everyday workplace experiences. There has been limited acknowledgement of the terror attack and the resulting war, despite most responders being openly Jewish at work.

One community member said while colleagues were approaching her, they would say things quietly to make sure no one else heard. Another who worked in a government department said after the atrocities of October 7, only two colleagues asked her how she was feeling, and that support was offered around the failure of the Yes referendum but “not one word was said on the atrocities happening to the Jewish people or support offered to address the trauma of what we saw unfold over X and other social media platforms”. She went on to explain that only one internal email was sent in the weeks following about the ‘conflict’, “which had a lot of words but ultimately said nothing and took no stance and contained no links or direct numbers to employee assistance hotlines”.

Working in a boutique travel agency, one said she expected someone to check in on her.

“We have a lovely team of intelligent, creative, and worldly individuals from various backgrounds… I don’t know what I expected, but I expected something – someone to just check-in with me, to ask how I was doing or whether I knew anyone impacted. I think I expected some type of acknowledgement that something was very wrong. But that week, and all the weeks that followed nothing has been said about anything at all,” she told The AJN. “I feel there is an elephant in the room, but then I’m not sure if I’m the only one feeling the elephant and everyone else is just getting on with things.”

For many, it’s not just going about the day-to-day, it’s also creeping into their personal lives with colleagues expressing anti-Israel sentiment online and even clients sharing their views in meetings.

Questions arise as to whether this is a result of people being uneducated around the complexity of the situation and not knowing how to respond sensitively, or whether their workplace is actually anti-Israel.

Senior people and culture partner at a Sydney-based FinTech, Gali Horwitz said the way to broach the topic largely depends on the culture of the organisation and the relationship between the employee and employer.

“There is no one-size fits all as we navigate this horrific moment in our Jewish history – you should take an approach that you are most comfortable with,” Horwitz told The AJN. “As you interact with others, it’s important to always treat them with respect and assume positive intent. It may be that your manager/management is not sure how to approach the issue, doesn’t want to single you out because they know you have been impacted through this conflict, or doesn’t want to make a political statement. By sharing what is going on for you, and discussing your specific needs and what good support looks like, we can help bridge that gap.”

Horwitz said there are a number of ways to do this, including sharing your honest feelings face-to-face, writing an email to management and colleagues, or approaching an HR representative to help you navigate things.

She said it can be challenging when it comes to colleagues, especially when it comes to intent.

“Is it to share how you are feeling and what you are experiencing or is it to educate and share perspective?” she asked. “It’s OK to let others around you know that you are feeling down, struggling, or having a hard time focusing and staying motivated with what is happening in the world at the moment and why. If you want to educate and increase awareness, it’s important to know your audience.”
Horwitz said though that it’s crucial to be considerate of their needs and acknowledge the sensitivity.

“Express your intent to have an open, respectful discussion. If you are educating others, share information from reliable sources, listen actively to diverse perspectives and try to avoid imposing your view. You should be prepared for the possibility of hearing different or challenging perspectives,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by organisational psychologist Rachel Setti.

“You may need to brush up on your knowledge of the conflict so that you can calmly present clear facts to create meaningful and productive conversation,” she said. “Use active listening to skills to hear others out and show empathy. Remember, you do not have to be an expert on middle east geopolitics and you can always take a pause to compile information and get back to them if they are genuinely curious.”

Setti also said that tone is very important when discussing sensitive topics with colleagues.

“If they are defensive or not receptive to listening to you, then tell them you’ll speak to them another time and move on. Be curious and seek to understand their perspective. It’s ok to respectfully agree to disagree, though if you can find a common thread this can change the course of the interaction.”

And she acknowledged that sometimes the silence happens because people don’t know what to say.

“They may desperately be wanting to talk to you about the situation but can’t find the words or not sure how to start the conversation.  When they ask how you are, thank them for their question and express that things are difficult at the moment, explain why, and encourage their need to understand more,” Setti explained.

In a positive story, one community member who works for a large corporation, said she has felt support throughout the ordeal, with flexible working arrangements offered and her children even receiving doughnuts from her workplace to make them smile. She shared that the organisation has a focus on psychological safety and mental health. When she approached her boss, he immediately asked how he could help. She said what she has found most helpful is understanding that you must tell people what you’re experiencing, don’t assume they know. “We all just assume that everyone knows what’s happening and how we’re feeling, the impact that it’s having on our community. It’s front of mind for us, but people wouldn’t necessarily understand the full extent.”

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