Don’t Let Your Diversity Efforts Fall Victim To COVID-19

Don’t Let Your Diversity Efforts Fall Victim To COVID-19


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Romy Newman826
President & Co-Founder of Fairygodboss
July 25, 2024 at 3:30PM UTC

March 31 was Equal Pay Day for women in the U.S., and I have to confess: I didn’t notice it at all. 

I am the co-founder of Fairygodboss, a community devoted to advancing women in the workplace, so that’s more than a little surprising. But my new normal has become an insane chaos of homeschooling, house cleaning and trying my hardest to keep our 50-person startup running successfully. And I, like so many others struggling to keep the figurative lights on at this moment, have genuinely lost track of what day it is. Attention, to put it mildly, is scarce.

Since mid-March — when the enormity of this financial downturn began to become apparent and the majority of corporate workforces went virtual — many companies have similarly had to reprioritize. Some have had to perform layoffs; others are doing their best to avoid them. Some — like Amazon — are actually hiring at a rapid clip; others, especially medical and pharmaceutical companies, are working desperately to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. 

Against this backdrop of rapid-fire prioritization, it can only be expected that there may be less time to pause and consider how to incorporate diversity initiatives.

Further, as companies rightfully prioritize jobs above all other expenditures, budgets that typically go to diversity or development initiatives may be some of the first to be cut.

Even before March, real gender parity in the workplace was over 200 years away according to the World Economic Forum — a painfully slow pace. And now it seems probable that this crisis will hamper progress further. Women are more likely to be impacted by increased caretaking and homeschooling responsibilities in our new stay-at-home world, especially because they are usually the lower earner in a household. Reports also reveal that women disproportionately suffer lasting penalties when they leave the workforce, so layoffs may be more of a setback to female workers than they are to male. 

Today, it often feels like an arcane luxury to think of anything other than the immediate health and financial consequences facing our communities. Yet, it’s important to look back at one pattern that emerged from a not-so distant crisis: Namely, during the last recession, data shows that companies that continued to focus on diversity and inclusion actually achieved significantly greater financial performance than those that did not. According to research performed by Great Place to Work, between 2007-2009 when the S&P was down -35%, companies whose underrepresented minorities reported a highly positive work experience actually showed a 14% increase in financial performance

This data indicates there is real economic reason to continue focusing on and investing in diversity efforts — even during the greatest work disruption most of us have ever faced.

So, how can companies keep their foot on the diversity gas pedal — even as they manage the urgency and unpredictability of this insane new normal? And how can they do this without the budget, financial resources or in-person programming they may have had previously? Here are some ideas: 

1. Remember Representation

In one fell swoop, every company in America (and the world) has had to quickly reevaluate strategy, staffing and priorities. One important way to ensure that those decisions take diversity into account is to make sure that underrepresented minorities are actually present in the room when these decisions are made. As companies consider which strategic initiatives will be more important in the new world order and who should lead them, they must consider diversity, remembering that diverse teams drive more innovation and that, in many cases, the population of the end user or consumer is also diverse.

According to “Practicing Inclusive Leadership in Times of Crisis,” a white paper recently released by Deloitte, before COVID-19 “the social and business imperatives for diversity and inclusion (D&I) became increasingly clear, with commitment to and investment in D&I on the rise across corporate America and around the world." 

"Now, in light of COVID-19, it is more important than ever for organizations and individuals to practice inclusive leadership," Deloitte states.

Time and time again it’s been shown that diversity initiatives only work when they are driven from the CEO and highest levels. So in this difficult time — and particularly when workers are dispersed and isolated in their homes — it is essential that companies’ communications continue to reiterate the importance of diversity and inclusion as a core company strategy.  

“We have to be working more diligently, more purposefully on implementing our diversity strategy, and communicating new strategies via virtual platforms. We must install diversity champions throughout all levels of the organization,” Celeste Warren, Vice President of Global Diversity at Merck, reminds us.

2. Emphasize Team Composition

With unprecedented workforce reductions, there is a tremendous — and tragic — amount of restructuring going on. “Typically, women and people of color are the most impacted by layoffs,” says Warren. Further, because companies have prioritized diverse hiring in the past few years, it’s likely that diverse employees have less tenure and thus may be first in line when layoffs occur. As companies endure the necessary evil of layoffs, it is critical that they are deliberate in maintaining diversity in their workforces. 

“Typically, women and people of color are the most impacted by layoffs."

— Celeste Warren, Vice President of Global Diversity at Merck

At the same time, after years of deliberate and slow planning, companies are rushing to put together succession and contingency plans in the event that senior leaders get sick. Despite the pressing nature of this work, it’s still crucial that diversity be a part of the thinking. In the much more normal days of 2019, more men named Jeffrey were appointed CEO than women in the Fortune 500. Without very deliberate focus, it feels like this trend could be far exacerbated in 2020. 

In the meantime, some companies — particularly those in industries specializing in connectivity, virtual working, essential consumer goods and delivery — are hiring rapidly and en masse to fulfill newly created demand. There is tremendous pressure to act quickly, which we fully support. Yet even in the rush, companies should consider diversity. One of the fastest ways to ensure diversity is considered is to set goals and measure achievement; also important is diversity among the people interviewing and making hiring decisions. Maureen Greene James, North America Leader of Inclusion and Leadership Development at Cognizant, reminds us to “be intentional in hiring to build an inclusive workforce."

"Create diverse interview panels to ensure that candidates are able to ‘see’ themselves as part of the organization," Greene James said. "Build a panel that might look like this: a white transgender woman, an Asian man and a sight-impaired Black woman. Now that’s intentional!”

Even the things that seem small can matter greatly. For instance, Julissa Vasquez, Diversity Talent Acquisition Manager at Intel, tells us that one important way we can advance diversity in these hiring situations is to “be intentional about using inclusive language to avoid unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes.”

Lastly, even for companies that aren’t currently hiring aggressively — or even at all — there is still a substantial opportunity to perform diversity reviews and think about pipelining. Which teams are currently lacking in diverse representation? Which hires will be prioritized as diverse when the economy starts to rebound? There remains a real opportunity to build and nurture connections with prospective candidates — even now. 

3. Support and Engage Employees

There’s a meme going around that says: “You are not working from home. You are at home trying to work during a crisis."

The moment the corporate world went to a 100% work-from-home model, the entire construct of employee engagement changed radically. It’s very hard to engage and retain employees who you can’t see, most of all when they’re struggling with increased anxiety, disruption and caregiving responsibilities. 

How can and should companies deploy support to their workforce given these difficult circumstances? Mita Mallick, Head of Diversity and Cross-Cultural Marketing at Unilever, suggests: 

"Check in on people — pick up the phone and just call. Text. Send a handwritten card. Ensure that people are visible and can be seen, that they continue to be networked in your organizations and communities. That they are included. Now is not the time for people to be disappearing and falling off of your organization’s radar.”

At PwC, Timothy Ryan, U.S. Chair and Senior Partner at PwC, says he’s taking this opportunity not only to check in on all 55,000 of the firm’s team members, but to review their experience with inclusion at this time. 

“We are asking a series of questions about our people’s experience with inclusion in the time we’ve been dealing with the coronavirus, and we will break down the results by demographic so that we know how different populations are doing and what they need,” Ryan wrote on LinkedIn. “I will also be meeting with representatives from our diverse groups to get more insight, and we will factor all of what we learn into how we transform our business going forward.”

Virtual meetings are new to many employees (as even SNL pointed out in their recent at-home episode), and they can increase the challenges that underrepresented voices already face in meetings. Amy Philbrook, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Fidelity Investments, provides some suggestions on how to mitigate this impact: 

“When conducting virtual meetings, switch from voluntary participation to facilitated round table ‘weigh ins’ on the topic at hand," Philbrook said. "Not only does this bring a method to the Zoom madness, it ensures everyone knows in advance they will be called on and everyone has a chance to contribute and be heard.”

At the same time, it’s essential that managers understand that their expectations must reflect these difficult new working parameters. Erika Irish Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at Goldman Sachs, emphasizes that we must “ensure managers show empathy, are clear about expectations and lead by example as it relates to establishing work/life boundaries.” Brown also reminds us to make use of existing communication structures like Employee Resource Groups to “engage diverse share resources and provide a continued sense of community and connectivity.”

Most importantly, this crisis gives companies a real opportunity to articulate and live their values. Doing so will help drive employee engagement and affinity. Pfizer recently announced a $40 million donation toward those on the front lines of the crisis. Caroline Roan, President of the Pfizer Foundation and VP of Global Health and Patient Access, explained that “at Pfizer, we believe it is our responsibility to help protect the most vulnerable from this disease.” 

Qualtrics made their Remote Work Pulse product available for free so employers have a way to easily check in on employees — in terms of both engagement and mental health. Salesforce has donated over $5 million toward a small business grant initiative and online resource center for customers called Salesforce Care. And Cisco donated $5 million toward Global Citizen and the WHO COVID-19 response to support frontline workers and encourage people to stay home. 

“Our commitment to providing our people with an inclusive, empowering environment has never been more relevant than it is today,” said Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of North America at Accenture said of his organization’s approach. “For now, this means focusing on the personal challenges our people may be facing — including juggling family responsibilities with their usual workloads — and supporting them with the resources to succeed during these tough times. With our ongoing commitment to equality, we have created an environment that supports our people to perform at their best, no matter the circumstances, and underpins a culture in which everyone feels they have an equal opportunity to belong and thrive.”

Personally, from where I sit juggling responsibilities at home, I have never felt the sensation of competing priorities in such a stark way.

And I know that I am not alone here. It’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture as we try to manage the immediate and urgent challenges we’re all facing every day. And yet, if we’re to emerge stronger and more successful on the other side of this, diversity and inclusion can’t be seen as an “extra.” It must be an integral part of that equation. And there’s no cost to keeping that in mind.

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