Diversity and Inclusion During a Crisis: Five Emerging Lessons

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipDiversity & CultureHuman Resources OfficersDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
min Article
May 27, 2020
4 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipDiversity & CultureHuman Resources OfficersDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
The COVID-19 pandemic hit different groups differently and leaders need to ensure that all team members feel included and avoid feelings of alienation.
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The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted life in every corner of the globe – but it has not affected everyone in the same ways.

For some organizations, the pandemic has flattened hierarchies by putting the majority of employees in the same place – at home. Simultaneously, a recent series of racial incidents has revealed to some people deeper and previously unseen inequities. In particular, the grief and turmoil that have erupted in response to the unjust death of George Floyd is a prime illustration of the fact that, in many cases, whatever we thought we understood about other people’s experiences may not be accurate. At the same time, the pandemic itself has disproportionately affected women and minorities, with each group facing unique challenges. Asian employees may face racism, while female employees may carry a greater share of household responsibilities. At the same time, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ communities are suffering disproportionate health effects from the pandemic across the board.

Some leaders may have diverted their focus away from diversity and inclusion as they grappled with urgent questions around how to manage new economic realities. Yet it is no longer an option to leave these issues unaddressed. If organizations are not actively renewing their commitment to stamping out discrimination, they can expect to see inequities grow deeper and more insidious. This is a time where an organization’s past investments in diversity and inclusion can yield significant rewards if leaders are able to pivot and adapt those initiatives to new needs. It’s increasingly clear that a commitment to equity is not just the right thing to do, it is good business. In line with many other studies, our research shows executives at organizations with advanced diversity and inclusion strategies are about 30 percent more likely than others to feel highly loyal, innovative and set up for top performance1.

Based on our recent conversations with diversity and inclusion executives across industries, we see the following pitfalls emerging – as well as a range of potential solutions.

Leading inclusively is getting harder

In times of stress, human nature is to default to people who feel familiar and “safe.” With fewer casual conversations and water-cooler moments, some employees may find it even harder to get access to senior leaders and others in the “in-group” to make their voices heard.

Leaders must balance the speed of decision-making, which is critical in these times, with the need to include the voices of the groups affected by these decisions. More broadly, leaders need to watch out for the formation of ‘cliques’ among sub-groups of employees, as these can heighten feelings of alienation.

New forms of unconscious bias abound

Working from home can increase empathy but may also surface information that triggers biases. Videoconferences that reveal an employee’s gray hair, same-sex partner, or extended family rooted in another culture could enhance perceptions of difference instead of acceptance.

Leaders need to be mindful of such triggers and moderate reactions accordingly. They can also look to technology to help mitigate these biases. Many companies have invested in removing bias from in-person meetings and interviews; leaders should now think about how to de-bias virtual interactions like interviews, executive committee meetings and the like.

Existing D&I infrastructures must adapt or die

Some planned diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as in-person leadership trainings or off sites for women and/ or people of color, might be less effective in light of the new normal.

Leaders will want to consider how to adapt and evolve existing D&I initiatives to solve the problems diverse populations currently face. As an example, executives mentioned the potential of employee resource groups (ERGs) to raise internal awareness on what each employee group is facing during the crisis. This not only raises awareness of key issues faced by diverse employees, it also gives them a platform to be heard within the organization.

Sponsors and allies needs to supercharge their efforts

During these challenging times there may be a growing divide among various employee populations. Diverse talent may be overlooked when new opportunities arise as businesses pivot amid changing circumstances. Sponsors and allies need to be more deliberate about committing their time to connect with and develop diverse talent in a virtual environment.

Sponsors, who play a hands-on role to help employees navigate the organization and position themselves for stretch opportunities, should be even more intentional about who they sponsor and the muscle they put behind the relationship given the increased risk of invisibility for diverse employees. They should be mindful that the flight to familiarity can also play a role here, as sponsors unconsciously tend to pick people who have similar cultural backgrounds to themselves.

Allies, who use their privilege or position to advocate on behalf of those who do not hold that same standing, will also face a changing role as the needs of diverse employees change. Allies who invest in listening and understanding can help rebuild the links between in-groups and out-groups and reduce the chance that any employee gets lost in the shuffle.

If you don't keep D&I on the leadership agenda, it will get lost

 As companies grapple with urgent needs such as employee safety and furloughs, longer-term commitments to workforce equity often fall to the wayside.

To ensure that organizations do not lose sight of the importance of equity in difficult times, the D&I executives we spoke with are targeting monthly updates with their top leaders to keep them apprised of changing employee demographics and perceptions. Additionally, organizations have been engaging in frequent pulse surveys and/or leveraging ERGs to get an authentic understanding of employee sentiment and address the root issues people are facing.

Looking ahead: disruption catalyzes organizations to reimaging diversity and inclusion mandates

As the pandemic shifts reality for many, needs will also continue to change. Smart leaders will use this time to understand these needs and re-configure diversity and inclusion support programs to meet them, rather than trying to make old resources fit new problems. Ultimately, the organizations that gain the most from their D&I investments are those that see them as crucial and strategic assets in both good times and bad.

Additional Authors

Harsonal Sachar leads Knowledge for Russell Reynolds Associates’ Diversity & Inclusion Practice. She is based in Toronto.
Alix Stuart is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Boston.

Abate, Alessandra, Dee Fitzgerald, Ryoko Komatsuzaki, Ulrike Wieduwilt, Harsonal Sachar, Alix Stuart Diversity and Inclusion: What Separates the Best from the Rest, Russell Reynolds Associates, October 2019.