Making Diversity, Equity, Inclusion a Priority in a COVID-19 World

Article contributed by Ellen McKitterick

It’s no secret that many companies have had to make difficult decisions over the past year. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to cut back through furloughs and layoffs, reduced salaries and benefits, and cuts to ancillary employee engagement programs, to name a few cost-saving measures. And despite the widespread protests against racism last summer that prompted countless organizations to make public commitments to diversity and equitable treatment for all employees, some organizations have taken one step forward and two steps back in this area by scaling back Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in their efforts to put the focus (and dollars) on the health and safety of employees, the continuation of work – whether remotely or otherwise – under a new compliance landscape, and meeting the economic challenges of the time.

Even pre-pandemic, many organizations treated initiatives focused on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging as evergreen issues that can be placed on the back burner, when necessary, until a less urgent time – they’re nice, but not essential. In fact, in a recent Gartner survey, only 2% of HR leaders identified DEI, by itself, as their No. 1 priority in light of the pandemic. However, a year into the COVID-19 crisis, research has shown that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities between individuals based on race/ethnicity, gender, education level, disability, and income, with COVID-19 exposure and death rates, as well as job losses, disproportionately affect communities of color, women, lower-income households, those with disabilities, and those in LGBTQ+ communities. Given these impacts, a move away from your DEI initiatives at this critical time could have disastrous effects and set your organization back in its efforts to achieve a more respectful, inclusive, and equitable work environment. In many ways, these programs are more important than ever, during the pandemic or any other business crisis, because they are often the systems, support, and resources that create connectivity, community, and a sense of shared values that carry our employees through times of uncertainty and turmoil. Although the resources may not be there to support fully-developed DEI programs, choosing a few key areas to focus on can move the needle in your organization and help you keep progress moving forward. Here are five ways to keep DEI a priority amid disruption:

Send a message to reaffirm your organization’s commitment to a culture of respect and inclusion

Over the past year, we have seen the importance of connectedness amongst our teams and the difficulty of creating that connection in remote or socially-distant work environments. Let’s face it, your employees are struggling right now. Whether they’re anxious about wearing masks, the COVID-19 vaccine, experiencing financial challenges, or health challenges, or struggling to keep up with leaner staff and fewer resources on the job, they are under a lot of pressure that, coupled with a lack of connection, can create and exacerbate feelings of social isolation, uncertainty, distrust, misunderstandings, hostility, and create fertile ground for employee conflict. By creating internal communications that focus on connectivity, shared sacrifice, and a “we’re all in this together” mindset, you can strengthen the connections between employees that create more space for understanding and compassion in our interactions. Consider using this opportunity to reaffirm your organizational values and, after setting the tone, create or enhance internal channels of communication to cultivate connection and support – Do they know what your commitments are to DEI, respect, or teamwork? Do your employees know who they can go to with questions, concerns, or challenges? Do they know what resources you have available to employees struggling with various impacts of the pandemic? Do they know the expectations around how they engage with their peers and leaders? By taking this time to engage with them in the “bigger picture,” (and having your managers echo these ideals both in words in actions) and giving them a roadmap for engagement, employees will develop a sense of security in what’s expected of them and what they can expect from others.

Think of DEI through a remote work lens

Into 2021, organizations continue to navigate work remotely, and many are exploring the possibility of keeping remote work the “norm” in the future, whether they take their teams fully remote or implement a hybrid in-office/remote model. Consider the opportunities that remote work provides to explore a wider talent pool, and open up work for underrepresented individuals. Remote work may, for example, provide opportunities to individuals who may previously have been limited in their ability to commute, or it may allow companies in less diverse rural areas to recruit more diverse candidates from farther away where a commute would have been prohibitive. Or, it may be implemented as a reasonable accommodation to keep disabled workers on the job, or to help other employees through unforeseen emergencies like a change in caregiving responsibilities or change in living circumstances. Even if your organization intends to resume full in-office operations at some point, remote work may be a solution you hang onto, as the need arises, for employees with unique challenges.

Collect information about the pain points your employees are experiencing and identify opportunities to provide support

Given the disparate impact of the pandemic on communities of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and individuals with disabilities, employers should take the time now to identify highly-affected employee groups and provide additional support. When you think of resources to provide your employees, don’t stop at thinking about the resources/equipment your teams need to operate remotely or in your changed physical work environments. Consider the parents who have additional childcare needs, the employees with caregiving responsibilities for older or sick relatives, those struggling with the mental health effects of stay-at-home orders or the impacts of COVID-19 in their personal lives, employees struggling financially, and those with anxieties about working in the office due to their own medical conditions – what resources/support do they need from the organization? Now is the time to inquire into the needs of employees in those groups, and explore creative solutions like flexibility in scheduling, EAP support, support for caregiving needs, offering financial wellness programs, and additional opportunities for employees to connect socially. Use your leaders as your eyes and ears – do they have employees on their teams who are struggling and, if so, what are those challenges? If you already have employee resource groups (or are ready to create some), leverage them to identify the needs of your employees and suggestions for how your organization can provide additional support during this time.

If possible, continue to provide training – even if it isn’t in person

As a regular program facilitator, who loves the classroom, making the shift to virtual training was tough for me. But having employees continue to engage with each other in live, online training creates another opportunity for social engagement and allows you to continue raising employees’ awareness and building their skills in a safe, socially-distanced environment. Let’s face it – remote or socially-distanced environments tend to limit our conversations to the necessary (work/task-related) not the needed (social/cultural connection). By having your employees engage in training on DEI topics – such as workplace respect, identifying and mitigating unconscious bias, or harassment and discrimination prevention – you can meet them in this moment of cultural awareness and provide them with a better vocabulary, greater communication skills, and a greater understanding of how they can play a part in creating a workplace culture founded on respect and belonging.

Develop a “working” response to this question – “What did you do for your employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

How you have handled the employee experience during this crisis provides a window into your organization’s values. If DEI, respect, and belonging are core values of your organization, ask yourself whether the decisions you made during the pandemic show a clear commitment to those values. Consider the following:

  • How has HR/leadership supported employees who were furloughed or temporarily laid off, and how were employees treated once they returned to the workplace? Were there open lines of communication regarding your safety precautions? How did you handle the anxieties of those who were reluctant to return?
  • While protecting the organization’s financial well-being (whether it was through cutting payroll, suspending raises and bonuses, or reducing salaries and benefits), what did the organization do to protect employees’ financial well-being?
  • What did the organization do to keep remote employees engaged and productive?
  • How did the organization support the personal needs of employees during the crisis – whether the employee was struggling with their mental health, child or other caregiving needs, or deaths in the family?

Your employees, customers, and business partners are already paying attention to how companies responded to the pandemic and will remember your organization’s response and how that response aligned with your organization’s publicly stated values. Where you find gaps, seek to implement strategies to provide additional support.

To find out more about creating a culture of respect and enhancing your DEI efforts, visit our Culture of Respect Toolkit, or complete our Culture of Respect Consultation Request Form to schedule a FREE 30-minute consultation with a member of the professional staff at EANE.