When I first started thinking about this article, I was tempted to start 2021 with a look back at Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DI&B) lessons learned last year. But then I wondered: Who wants to relive the last twelve months? I certainly don’t!

Instead, let’s focus on three DI&B issues that are top of mind for many leaders right now, with suggestions for how to address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

1. Inequitable vaccine access and its potential impact on business

COVID-19 vaccines, though still limited, are rolling out around the world and in the U.S. That’s great news. Unfortunately, the vaccines aren’t being administered equitably, exacerbating class and socioeconomic differences with the potential to impact hiring, talent retention and the ability to get back to work.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 42 countries, the majority of which are high-income nations, are administering initial vaccine doses. Meanwhile, no low-income nations have started their vaccine programs. The WHO warns that the virus will continue to thrive without equitable, global vaccine distribution.

In the U.S., vaccinations are being administered haphazardly despite federal recommendations, resulting in 50 states with 50 allocation schemes.

It’s not surprising, then, that reports have emerged around the country of vaccination inequities affecting Black people, Latinos, Native Americans and other ethnic minorities, even though their death rates are higher than those of whites and Asian Americans.

Some states are proactively addressing inequitable vaccine distribution. Still, the problem is likely to persist for months. And it raises a lot of questions for business and DI&B leaders, such as: How can you fully resume or even scale operations if many lower-paid and essential workers, who are often minorities and whose jobs can’t be performed at home, don’t have equitable access to vaccines?

Right now, there’s more confusion than clarity around COVID-19 vaccinations and the workplace. But here are a few things to consider:

  • Pay attention to how vaccinations are being distributed in your location. Encourage employees to use local sources of information for vaccine availability and the steps required for getting vaccinated.
  • Consider general communications that are most applicable to the largest portions of your employee population rather than targeting specific groups. Get creative and leverage your employee resource groups, Slack channels and your intranet to promote vaccine distribution awareness.
  • Even if you’re considering a requirement that employees be vaccinated, remember that many individuals may not be subject to a mandatory vaccine policy. For example, people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may be exempt from vaccination requirements. So, it’s important to determine early on whether reasonable accommodations are necessary. Also, some employees may be exempt for religious purposes.

2. Increased scrutiny of DI&B efforts and overall ethics

As the economy improves, which it eventually will (depending upon the virus and vaccinations), so will the job market and competition for the best talent. When that improvement happens, plenty of jobseekers and employees will feel more empowered. They’ll have more employment choices than they do now. 

And if they see that an employer hasn’t been ethical — not just in treating employees fairly but in other areas too, like climate change — job seekers may look elsewhere. Employees may speak out or move on.

We’re already seeing employees unionizing at one large technology company (an industry in which unions are extremely rare). They’re not fighting for better wages but to influence their employer’s policies on social and other issues. It’s too soon to say if this will become a larger trend, but trends often start with tech companies.

Many organizations talked the DI&B talk in 2020, but have lagged behind when it comes to making real, lasting, systemic changes. Maybe they thought that was acceptable then, given everything else that was going on. But doing the hard work now may help you avoid some hiring and retention challenges later.  

3. The need to empower DI&B leaders to make positive change

Over the past year, I’ve had ten times more DI&B-related conversations with leaders from Indeed’s clients than I did the year before. They want to know how to improve diversity and inclusion at their organizations; what they should do to make their candidate sourcing more diverse; what data and resources are needed to measure their efforts; how they can sustain and scale their efforts; and how to better empower their DI&B teams, among other things.

Along with this heightened interest, some enterprises are empowering their DI&B leaders with more responsibilities. (I’m just one example, having recently expanded my role to include product inclusion and social impact.)

In some cases, instead of reporting to a VP, DI&B leaders now report to the CEO, because the chief executive has taken an active interest in the organization’s inclusion initiatives. Nielsen is taking it even further: Its CEO David Kenney recently took on the additional role of Chief Diversity Officer to ensure racial equality in its workplace received the attention it deserves.

So, to do the hard work and create a more inclusive and ethical workplace, you may need to give your DI&B leaders additional resources, tools, headcount and increased ability to directly impact business decisions.

Good intentions are no longer enough

Given the long, stressful year we’ve all been through and the uncertainties still ahead, plenty of people are “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore,” to quote the movie Network. Employees and leaders alike are exhausted. It seems like everyone is ready for positive change.

Now is the time for leaders to make that change real by helping employees stay healthy and productive, by doing the hard work to create a more inclusive workplace and giving your DI&B team the resources they need. 

If 2020 was the year of good diversity and inclusion intentions, let’s make 2021 the year of actions and impact.