Since coronavirus began decimating world economies, dramatically altering workplaces for many and heightening health concerns, companies have been under the microscope for how they treat their people.
As Weber Shandwick has tracked media reporting on COVID-19-related actions of over 750 companies, we’ve observed many addressing issues of employee safety and wellbeing but have come across very few speaking up externally about diversity and inclusion and guarding against unconscious bias, inequality and otherism (the exclusion of a person based on their perceived diversions from an acceptable norm).
Over the past two months there have been alarming spikes in both hate crimes against Asian Americans in the U.S. and unemployment claims from women, particularly women of color. We are also seeing forecasts for worsening pay inequities. Yet there has been little in the way of unified, private sector commitment to addressing the issues that threaten our current and future workforce and, in turn, our businesses. In the era of COVID-19, what has happened to all the responsible and earnest dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) that had such momentum prior to the pandemic crisis?
The longer our typical ways of working are disrupted and as we consider the path forward to bringing “non-essential” workers back to workplaces, the more pressing the issue becomes. In fact, Tel Aviv University associate sociology and anthropology professor Alexandra Kalev observes that when executives make layoff decisions based on either position or tenure, it results in what she has termed “drained diversity” where job loss disproportionally impacts women and people of color. The time is now for a clarion call to action from leaders about maintaining and prioritizing diverse representation and inclusivity during a time when so many feel or are marginalized.
To better understand what’s at stake for leaders, people, and organizations overall, we spoke to three seasoned professionals on the future of DE&I as companies prepare for the re-opening of their workplaces. The panel consisted of Margenett Moore-Roberts, Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer at Constituency Management Group; Gary Sheffer, Sandra R. Frazier Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and former Chief Communications Officer at General Electric; and Alison Quirk, Corporate Director at Legg Mason and former Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, State Street Corporation.
Four insights arose from our panel that provide leaders and their companies with guidance on DE&I as they contemplate back-to-work scenarios in the era of COVID-19 and post-pandemic realities.
- No Company or Leader Should Come Out of This Pandemic Unchanged.It may be a reflex for brands to go back to business as usual, but “brands that give into that reflex are going to suffer,” says Moore-Roberts. Instead, leaders should focus on a reconstruction of the value proposition for DE&I based on the sobering revelations and data that COVID-19 has brought to life. Quirk points to an early example of companies doing this well, highlighting those who have used Q1 earnings to focus on efforts being made to support employees through this time versus on the bottom line and challenging investors to reassess their priorities by putting employees first. COVID-19 is putting a microscope to – and compounding – inequities, laying them bare in ways we can’t ignore.
- Pre-COVID-19 DE&I Issues Will Be Magnified During and Post-COVID-19. In times of crisis, perceived threat levels go up and our biases go into overdrive. Both can make it harder for us to reflect upon our perceptions about the people around us. This is the first time we’ve all been subjected to a single source of disruption. And yet, if organizations haven’t positioned DE&I as core to their success, it will be easier to push it aside in time of crisis, Moore-Roberts believes, noting that “if we’re not careful, we could wipe out years of progress around D&I.” Fear can lead to labeling and phobia. Leaders must ensure their decisions are bias-free and invest in understanding the unique impact this crisis is having on each of the employee populations.
- Leaders Need to Honestly Confront the Distinction between Equality and Equity. Organizations will have to grapple with a changed framework of equity vs. equality. COVID-19 is surfacing concrete examples of the outcomes associated with long-term systemic inequities that indicate that we don’t all have an equal starting point. “The cliché of ‘we’re all in this together’ doesn’t mean we’re all in this the same or experiencing it the same way,” notes Quirk. Some employees do not have the funds to upgrade their internet to accommodate this new way of working at home and others are caring for young or older family members while trying to be productive and keep their jobs. Others are absorbing extreme impacts, including multiple deaths of loved ones and financial hardship. This is where equity – giving people what they need to succeed – fits in. And while HR and DE&I are and should take the lead in championing and facilitating equity, Sheffer points out that communications plays an important role in defending both people and reputation. It’s incumbent on all leaders to protect and support employees, or risk being on the wrong side of history.
- And Yet, COVID-19 is a Uniquely Universal Shared Experience. This creates an opportunity to develop what Sheffer considers a “We Agenda.” If organizations are going to be restructured post COVID, shouldn’t they be taking the time to rebuild them more inclusively? We know that diversity yields stronger reputations and growth. Our own research has found that DE&I is an important driver of company reputation and financial performance. We can’t have the same group of people in a room who don’t understand the lived experiences of the entire workforce and rebuilding with an eye toward the future. Leaders should be paying attention now to ensure that different perspectives are already in the room when decisions are being made. Organizations that don’t put diverse voices in the room do so at their own peril.
There is no doubt that a whole new world order will result from businesses’ response to the coronavirus and leaders who have placed DE&I front and center will reap greater respect, more positive reputations, and a more diverse and loyal workforce. Waiting until the virus leaves our shores will be too late to continue advancing an agenda that prioritizes inclusivity and diversity.
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