The Oct. 7 attacks on Israel were personal to Walter Isenberg.
Isenberg, co-founder and CEO of Sage Hospitality Group in Washington, D.C., recalled how his mother survived the Holocaust after the Nazis killed his grandparents. When learning about Hamas' attacks, he found out one of the people kidnapped by the militant group was a Holocaust survivor.
"I'm thankful my mother is not alive to witness what's happening in our world today," Isenberg wrote in a memo to Sage employees that was shared with SHRM Online. "Hatred towards the Jewish people is nothing new. Sadly, history repeats itself, and antisemitic acts are on the rise around the world."
Isenberg wanted to reach out to employees, he said, "who are Israeli or Palestinian, and likely have family and friends who are being impacted by these horrific events. … Whether these events have directly or indirectly impacted you and your families we pray for the safety of loved ones, and pray for peace."
As the war between Israel and Hamas escalates, many executives are releasing statements, offering guidance to their employees and, in some instances, providing support to the region itself. As of the end of October, more than 150 corporations have released statements condemning the initial attack by Hamas.
Executives at Goldman Sachs, Google and Meta were among dozens of employers that condemned the Hamas attacks and expressed solidarity with the Israeli people in public statements and social media posts. Disney donated $2 million in humanitarian relief to help Israel.
Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, said in a LinkedIn post that the Pfizer Foundation has launched a donation campaign to support several key organizations that are working to provide emergency assistance in Israel. The company plans to match all employee donations made through the campaign.
"The Pfizer Foundation is also in active discussions with our partner NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] on the ground to determine if additional financial support is required," Bourla wrote. "And we continue to work with our global network of humanitarian and logistics partners to assess the need for medicines and vaccines and are ready to provide support where needed."
Many Employees Upset with Their Company's Response
While companies across the U.S. have expressed support for Israel, many employees have begun to pressure their employers to make similar statements in support of Palestine.
In an open letter, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has pledged $8 million in grants to nonprofits that are providing relief to civilians affected in Israel and Gaza. But hundreds of Google employees felt the letter was pro-Israel, according to a report by The Washington Post.
Further, Starbucks sued its union, Starbucks Workers United, after the group posted "Solidarity with Palestine" on social media two days after the Hamas attack. The post was deleted within 40 minutes, according to ABC News, with the company saying it resulted in more than 1,000 complaints, acts of vandalism and angry confrontations in its stores.
Some organizations have explicitly sympathized with, expressed support for and offered donations to help Palestinian people impacted by the conflict—although many of them, including food service companies Talabat, Careem and McDonald's Malaysia, are based in predominantly Muslim countries.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations stated that U.S. employers' lack of support for Palestinian civilians can be psychologically damaging to employees from the region.
"While many companies have sought to create spaces of belonging for Israeli employees through the release of statements," the organization explained, "their Palestinian ones, who are also significantly affected by the conflict, are frequently left without a sense of support at their place of work."
[SHRM article: How to Take a Public Stance on Social Issues]
How Should HR React?
Maya Berry, executive director at the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., explained that employees and customers will hold accountable companies that take a stance on social events.
For example, to express concern or condemn the violence of Hamas' terror attacks against Israeli civilians without doing the same for the Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli bombings could harm the organization's reputation, Berry said.
"Weighing in on matters of 'terrorism' and 'war crimes' is something I trust coffee makers or shoe makers or car makers should generally avoid," she said. "And to be clear, I would love the companies I support to advocate for justice and human rights because I place a high value on those. I just don't think the way I see things is shared by all, and if a corporation leans into an issue, they better do so in a principled way, or they will cause harm—and lose business."
Companies must also realize that many Jewish and Palestinian employees are undergoing an "extraordinarily difficult time" emotionally, according to Kenneth Marcus, the founder and leader of the Louis D. Brandeis Center in Washington, D.C., an institution dedicated to advancing the rights of Jewish people.
"Employers need to understand that such emotions are impossible to keep entirely separated from the workplace," he noted.
Marcus said Jewish employees need employee resource groups (ERGs) now more than ever before, "and I suspect that this is also true for other groups." ERGs have been shown to create a sense of belonging among workers with shared experiences. About 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies support ERGs in the workplace.
Berry added that HR should ensure the psychological safety of all employees by providing a safe space to listen to their concerns, reminding them of the company's focus on inclusion for all employees and reiterating to the workforce their anti-harassment policy.
"The conversation about these issues may seem like it is happening in the abstract, but it is really personal," she said. "All of this is, after all, about real people."