What seems like a watershed moment for DEI could be lost as senior leaders tackle the coincident pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions and an economic downturn. But HR leaders can keep DEI efforts at the forefront.
While recent, widespread protests against racism prompted countless organizations to make public commitments to diversity and equitable treatment for all employees, the pandemic only highlights glaring inequities that organizations must still acknowledge and address.
“ Workplace equity isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s a strategic and financial advantage”
“Underrepresented groups — racial/ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and women — have been disproportionately affected by the health and economic impacts of COVID-19,” says Lauren Romansky, Managing Vice President, Gartner. “And yet, in a recent Gartner survey, only 2% of HR leaders identified DEI, by itself, their No. 1 priority in light of the pandemic.”
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And now, many organizations may be tempted to reexamine and potentially roll back commitments to DEI programs or initiatives, especially as cost-conscious leaders weigh or implement hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Hesitation would come at the very moment that leaders have committed to do more — and employees and other stakeholders increasingly expect them to make good on their promises.
Keep DEI top of mind
In the U.S., at least, early studies show that people of color are experiencing higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates than their white counterparts, and economically, women and people of color are experiencing the greatest proportion of job losses.
This partly reflects the fact that women and minorities are overrepresented in the types of jobs most affected by social distancing measures — notably, positions in hospitality, travel, recreation and retail industries. Women and minorities are also more likely to be less tenured and hold marginal or low-authority positions, increasing their risk of suffering job losses during layoffs.
“ Help managers and leaders understand the link between DEI and business outcomes”
But as organizations navigate the pandemic and its effects, HR leaders can help limit the disproportionate impact on marginalized groups and ensure that DEI remains top of mind for leaders and managers.
To do so, they must emphasize company culture and branding during and after the crisis, and help managers and leaders understand the link between DEI and business outcomes (including crisis resilience).
Employees, customers and other stakeholders are already paying close attention to how companies are responding to this crisis. They are likely to remember how different companies responded and which issues were stressed, acknowledged and communicated, as well as those that were sacrificed or went unaddressed.
Companies that appear to practice their values will likely be viewed favorably, while those whose actions don’t align with expressed values may lose out — whether in terms of lower levels of trust, branding appeal, customer satisfaction, or employee engagement or retention.
The suggested actions for HR leaders reflect the reality surfacing in a growing body of research: Workplace equity isn’t just the right thing to do; it is a strategic and financial advantage.
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7 ways to rally support for DEI initiatives
- Identify highly affected employee segments and provide additional support. Consider how COVID-19-related disruptions affect different workforce segments, such as parents, certain demographics (younger or older), different gender groups, races and ethnicities, or those with disabilities (visible and invisible, e.g., those without technology skills).
- Leverage employee resource groups (ERGs) to communicate and connect with a wider network of employees throughout the organization and create social connections that might be missing in a remote work environment.
- Identify “volunteer” or expanded opportunities for HR and DEI teams to partner more closely and support critical engagement and employee experience projects — especially in developing emotional well-being resources and remote work best-practices.
- Ensure that rapid response teams are diverse. Make sure these teams represent different parts of the business and geographies, as well as varied demographic groups.
- Partner with internal communications to embed DEI messaging. Advocate for communications that emphasize unity and shared sacrifice. Ensure that changes and strategies, including the DEI strategy, are positioned in an intentional and inclusive manner.
- Support and coach managers to incorporate inclusion in a remote and high-stress work environment. Ensure managers know what inclusive behaviors look like in a remote environment, are modeling them properly, are prepared for how they will be tested in a stressed environment and know how they can help all employees to be inclusive.
- Develop a working draft of your response to this question, “What did you do for your customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?” Partner with DEI teams and other organizational stakeholders to clearly articulate the ways in which the organization practiced its values and commitments.