Newswise — As employers shifted to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees likely heard a similar message from their supervisors: “We’re all in this together.” But new IUPUI research finds that message may not have the intended positive effects for everyone, particularly women in minority groups disproportionately affected by the virus.

Eva Pietri, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the IUPUI School of Science, is working to understand how managers can create the most welcoming and psychologically beneficial virtual environments during the pandemic – expanding on prior research with Butler University’s India Johnson – to determine the best way for managers to talk about the pandemic to their employees.

"We wanted to see if having managers disclose that they are struggling, that this is an anxiety provoking time, and that employees are not alone in these feelings may be an important way to foster connections with employees," Pietri said.

Because the pandemic has affected black individuals disproportionately, Pietri chose to focus her research on how black women reacted to messages from a manager.

After learning about the company’s general response to COVID-19, participants were randomly assigned to receive either no additional information or to learn from the senior manager that she was struggling as a result of the pandemic and shared her own personal fears, while acknowledging that "we are all in this together."

The participants surveyed reacted more favorably when the manager sharing her own struggles was of the same ethnicity.

"They identified more strongly with a black manager when she shared her struggles, felt she had experienced the same adversities, and thought this was a place I want to work," Pietri said. "We found the exact opposite results when the manager was white."

Based on these initial findings, Pietri said companies need to be thoughtful about promoting the message "we’re all in this together" to their employees, recognizing when it might be helpful or backfire. However, she plans to conduct further research to determine effective strategies white managers can use to encourage belonging among all their employees.

A follow-up survey will determine how perceptions change if a white manager specifically acknowledges the challenges faced by black women and if that improves a sense of belonging. She also plans to launch a related study to understand how black women respond to a Latino manager noting her struggles, and to explore the effects of different organizational messages about the pandemic for white women.

Pietri said she hopes her research can be used by organizations to create inclusive messages that resonate with all individuals in their response to the pandemic.

"We are hoping this sheds light on the fact that we are all struggling, but some are struggling more than others and it is important for organizations to acknowledge that in their messaging to employees," Pietri said. "Perhaps different messages are tailored to different groups, or these messages broadly acknowledge that certain groups are being harmed more so than others. Having an appropriate message might create a situation where employees feel more comfortable going to their managers to talk about their challenges."