The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit us hard. Seemingly overnight we were told we had to stay home, and we didn’t know how long it would last. Many organizations had to quickly pivot to working remotely. Other businesses were forced to furlough or layoff employees. When a company is having financial issues, the programs that are deemed unnecessary or optional usually get dropped. Unfortunately, diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs often fall into that category and it was no different during the pandemic. However, just as companies were cutting back and learning to work differently, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. This killing lead to protests and civil unrest in multiple cities. Racism was front and center. It also became harder to ignore. Several companies released statements of support to the Black community and promised to make intentional efforts to diversify their leadership teams. Diversity and inclusion programs are back on the table! This is the perfect time for companies that already valued D&I to revisit their programs and processes and for those that did not to start. Your employees, customers, prospects, partners, and every other stakeholder will be watching. We all will be.
Women and people of color (Black and Latinx in particular) have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 related furloughs and layoffs. As employers begin to think about going back into the workplace, resuming business operations and re-staffing, it is critical that they are mindful of the effect the pandemic has had on these populations. During this period, there has been an increase in mental health issues (primarily anxiety and depression) and substance abuse issues due to job loss, isolation, and fear of the unknown. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. People who experienced these issues prior to the pandemic are likely to experience them at a heightened rate during this time.
Even as people continue to social distance and work remotely, it’s important for leaders and managers to keep the lines of communication open for all employees and address their diverse needs. It can be easy to ignore the needs of people you don’t see often so employers must be intentional about communicating with their teams and continuing to utilize inclusive behaviors such as not interrupting during meetings or allowing only a few voices to be heard. It is also important to provide mental health support and resources consistently.
COVID-19 does not discriminate, but the disproportionate impact on Black people and Black communities, as well as the recent high-profile killings and ensuing civil unrest have placed an additional emotional toll on Black individuals. Show support and check-in with your Black employees. Listen if they want to talk, but don’t have expectations. Lastly, don’t make your Black employees de facto D&I experts or expect them to be the “voice of all Black people.”
While race is what most often comes to mind when D&I is mentioned, it’s important to remember that there are several other layers of diversity that employers must acknowledge and value. These include age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability (mental and physical). It must be noted that D&I is not simply a program or an initiative. It does not have an end date. D&I should be woven into every facet of business operations. As companies plan their next steps in establishing or maintaining their D&I efforts, they should look not only at the deep dive topics such as hiring, pay equity and implicit bias but also at organizational culture involving topics such as flexibility, leave options, accessibility, benefits, paid holidays, policies and meeting protocols. And this is in no way a comprehensive list.
The world is changing and that includes the world of work. Now is not the time to give up on your D&I efforts, even if they haven’t been working thus far. It’s better to act, make mistakes, learn from them and do better next time than to not act at all. It won’t be easy; but it will be worth it.