With the unprecedented disruptions and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed in the world of work.
Some of it is positive: For instance, there’s a heightened awareness among some employers that their employees are their greatest asset, especially those essential workers who risk their health to serve customers. Stories of business leaders emphasizing people over profits indicate an understanding that taking care of our employees will help us emerge from this crisis stronger than before.
On the other hand, some employers may have neglected or even paused their Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs. In the short-term, this may seem understandable given the extraordinarily challenging circumstances. Long-term, however, it will come back to haunt you when the economy improves and you need to compete for talent again.
Between COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, D&I programs are more important than ever. Here’s what you can do to ensure that your employees feel safe, included, and valued during these challenging times. (I’ve also outlined steps leaders can take to foster inclusion and belonging in the wake of the BLM movement.)
COVID-19 is not ‘the great equalizer’
You may have heard that “COVID-19 is the great equalizer.” The thinking goes that the virus can attack anyone — from a warehouse worker to the U.K. prime minister — which is, unfortunately, all too true.
Others have used this phrase to describe how working from home can help level the playing field between employees, managers and senior leaders. In video conferences, most of us have gotten a glimpse into the lives of our co-workers, managers and even the CEO, as their children pop into the frame or their dog jumps onto their lap. These glimpses can connect us to each other and imbue a greater sense of equality, inclusion and belonging.
But COVID-19 is not the great equalizer. In fact, the pandemic has exacerbated the systemic inequalities that many groups struggle against, even in the best of times.
COVID-19 is adversely affecting lower-income workers. Many are essential employees who are in service jobs, are at greater risk of exposure, earn a minimal hourly wage and cannot work from home. According to a recent U.S. study, these lower-income adults are the most likely (52%) to have lost their job, had their pay reduced or have one of those things happen to someone in their household. They are also the least prepared to weather a financial storm.
The pandemic has inflamed xenophobic reactions around the world. Discrimination against Asians in the U.S. has surged since the early days of the pandemic — which was first reported in China — as some people have looked for a group to blame for the crisis. Meanwhile, in China, COVID-19 has escalated the mistreatment of African immigrants.
COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black people, Latinos and other minorities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 33% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of mid-April were Black, even though only 13% of all Americans are Black. The CDC lists a variety of occupational (and other) reasons why people of color are at greater risk, including the fact that Black people and Latinos are more likely to be employed in customer-facing service roles compared to non-Hispanic whites — jobs that often offer minimal or no paid sick leave.
Women employees are faring worse than men during the pandemic, too. Before the pandemic, women and men were unemployed in equivalent numbers. But women comprise about 77% of workers in occupations where large job losses have occurred, such as healthcare and food preparation. In April — the first full month of shelter-in-place orders — unemployment among women rose to 16.2% compared to 13.5% for men.
Older employees can feel stigmatized as well. Workers aged 55 and up are more vulnerable to serious illness and death related to COVID-19 than their younger colleagues. This has helped fuel ageist discrimination and the “Boomer Remover” social media meme.
Unfortunately, given these and other disparities, the pandemic is pulling us further apart at a time when we should be coming together.
How belonging contributes to your bottom line
In this troubling environment, employees — especially those in the most vulnerable groups I’ve mentioned — need to feel that what they do matters; that you, as their employer, have their back; that they feel safe; and that, above all, they belong.
Helping employees feel that they belong isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a smart business move. Research shows that strong feelings of belonging among employees are linked to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% drop in turnover risk, resulting in an annual savings of more than $52 million for a 10,000-person company.
Taking care of your employees also contributes to strong employer branding. Your current employees, as well as customers and investors, are watching how your company reacts to crisis. Potential future employees will want to know how you reacted, too. If you had to lay off employees, did you do it humanely? Have you prioritized employees’ wellbeing as much as possible throughout the pandemic? Are you continuing to focus on D&I during these difficult times, or were you simply paying lip service all along?
How to make D&I part of your DNA
Given the importance of D&I, how do you maintain — or create — a strong program during these chaotic times?
Evaluate how you communicate. The worst thing an employer can do is stay silent during a difficult time. Nobody has all the answers, and we can’t predict what’s next, but let your employees know the company is there for them.
Invite ongoing dialogue between employees. Communication is particularly critical when teams only see each other in video conferences. Encourage and foster open dialogue between team members and their managers. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone needs compassion during these times. Seek to understand each individual’s circumstances. Collaborate with them on a plan that takes into account their particular needs and sets them up for success.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Constantly reassess your team’s priorities. Work with team members who need alternative, flexible schedules to care for children or elderly parents. Some may require a last-minute PTO break. Try to accommodate their needs when possible. And be aware of potential burnout. Some employees will hesitate to ask for time off for fear of how it might look to their boss. You may need to proactively recommend that workers take advantage of PTO.
Think about how you define and support essential workers. Essential workers are too often among the lowest-paid employees. I’m hoping the pandemic will help to change that as companies realize which employees are truly essential — and as those workers begin to speak up about the support they need.
Ultimately, there’s nothing to gain by dropping the ball on your D&I strategy now. In fact, this is the ideal time to re-evaluate your D&I programs and initiatives, decide what’s working and what could be improved, and build from there. That way, when you resume or increase hiring, D&I will be ingrained as a part of your company’s DNA.
LaFawn Davis is vice president of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Indeed.