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THE GOOD WORKPLACE BLOG

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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at elizabeth@efaconsult.com for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Trauma Informed HR Principles: Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Updated: Apr 17



In my 35+ years of working, I can think of a few situations when I've questioned my safety or the safety of others at work. Here are a few pretty obvious examples:

  • Falling on an icy sidewalk that wasn't maintained.

  • A supervisor becoming visibly agitated and impatient when the pace of the employee's speaking slowed.

  • The manager reacting angrily when informed about an error.

Let's take a look at each of these examples and how the organization could respond in a trauma-informed way.


Icy Sidewalk

An employee falls and injures themselves on an icy sidewalk on the organization's property.


Non-Trauma-Informed Response: a workers' comp packet is emailed to the employee. The employee reviews the information to try to figure out what needs to be done in order to visit the doctor. The safety team reviews the incident in the next safety meeting. No follow up is done with the employee that was injured.

  • Employee navigates the complicated process alone.

  • Organization does the bare minimum to address concerns.

  • No transparency as to what follow up actions will be taken - employee is unsure if the issue will be addressed. Continues to feel unsafe.

Trauma-Informed Response: The benefits coordinator calls the employee, checks in with them how they are doing, walks them through the workers' comp packet. Helps them find a provider to visit that is within the workers' comp network. The chair of the safety committee (or person who is investigating the incident) talks to the injured employee to find out specifically what happened, explains the investigation process, follows up after the meeting to let the employee know what steps the organization is taking to prevent accidents on the sidewalk.

  • Employee is treated as a customer and is walked through the process, since it is likely they are not familiar with the process, which is complicated. (The needs are anticipated.)

  • Organization explains the process and genuinely tries to address the issue by talking to the employee to find out what happened. (Takes the time to ensure understanding and success with the process)

  • There is transparency in the follow up action so that the employee feels safe going forward. (The employee is reassured that they were heard and are safe.)


Slow Speaking

An employee having a stressful conversation with their supervisor starts speaking very slowly in contrast to how they normally speak.


Non-Trauma-Informed Response: Supervisor becomes visibly agitated and gestures to the employee to hurry up in a way that is perceived as angry.

  • Employee immediately feels pressure to "act normal." Stress is increased due to the supervisor's immediate reaction.

  • Supervisor creates risk for the organization by treating an employee experiencing what could be a mental health or medical issue with impatience and frustration, potentially creating claims or perceptions of bullying or discrimination based on a disability.

  • Employee understands that they must ensure that they do not *show* their stress reactions in the future, or their supervisor will become upset.

Trauma-Informed Response: Supervisor pauses, waits for the employee to finish speaking, then checks in with them to make sure they are okay. "You seemed stressed there for a minute - are you doing okay? Do you need to take a break?"

  • Employee feels cared for and heard. (Supervisor anticipates that this episode will make the employee uneasy and makes an effort to reassure the employee that it is okay.)

  • Supervisor demonstrates organizational values by putting the employee's well-being first, (Employee sees that they are safe to take a break or express their needs during a stressful conversation. They see the organizational values in practice and are more likely to respond in a compassionate way to someone else in a similar situation.)

Employee Error

An employee accidentally mixes up two packages of checks, sending them to the wrong locations.


Non-Trauma-Informed Response: Supervisor becomes angry with this mistake that has happened before, knowing that the client will be upset, and yells and slams their office door.

  • Employee immediately feels shame and embarrassment that they made a mistake. They make note to not make anymore mistakes or to try to hide the mistakes they do make.

  • Employee is scared of their manager and no longer feels comfortable coming to them with concerns.

  • Supervisor has demonstrated behavior that will show the employee that the organization does not value them, or other employees.

Trauma-Informed Response: Supervisor responds to the employee by saying: "I understand that these mistakes happen. Since it's happened before, I'd like to sit down with you and go through the process so we can figure out where the issue is. Can you help me understand the process that you went through? Let's figure out how to avoid this going forward."

  • Supervisor anticipates that the employee will feel embarrassment and shame and approaches the question with curiosity instead of anger. (Needs and perspective are anticipated.)

  • Supervisor demonstrates the organizational priorities by focusing on problem-solving. (The focus is on the process, not the person making the mistake. Time is taken to understand the problem and address it.)

  • Employee engages in collaborative process with the supervisor, making the employee feel valued and heard. (The supervisor works with the employee to solve the problem, strengthening their relationship, and increasing trust.)

If you are looking to improve your trauma-informed responses to your employees, consider the following very basic checklist before your conversation:

  1. Anticipate reactions and needs: Think and plan ahead. How do they normally respond? Is this a significant problem or issue? Do you think it is likely the person may have a heightened response? How can you prepare to address them in a compassionate way that makes them feel safe?

  2. Take the time: Don't skimp on time when responding to an employee expressing a concern, admitting a mistake, or experiencing a challenge. Stop and listen. Don't rush. Be late to your next meeting, if you need to. Make this employee your priority as needed. Don't skimp on time. Be patient.

  3. Follow through: Follow through on any commitments to improve safety, physical or psychological. Collaborate in problem solving. Demonstrate the organization's priority of safety.

Let's see if we can do a little better today than we did yesterday!


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