Falling Through the Cracks How COVID-19 has affected Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives

Falling Through The Cracks

How COVID-19 has affected Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives
By Greer Hopkins
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June 2020

2019 ended on a high note for Diversity & Inclusion (“D&I”) in the workplace which led businesses to acknowledge its importance as they entered 2020. However, those same businesses are now faced with unanticipated challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing industry leaders to redirect capital towards what is deemed essential, and for many, that does not include D&I.

It is this shift that prompted us to host a virtual roundtable discussion titled Quarantined in its Tracks: Did COVID-19 end D&I Momentum? to address the evolving state of D&I.

Of note, this discussion took place prior to the recent events that began in late May 2020 in the United States. Still, current events only underscore the importance of diversity and inclusion and the value of meaningful representation in the workforce.

Our panel represented business leaders from a cross-section of industries and discussed the current state of D&I initiatives within their organizations. The participants took the opportunity to voice their concerns and pain points, as well as share best practices and collectively identify solutions.

Before COVID-19

In the strong economic climate that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, D&I programs were enjoying a period of maturation and positive growth. Once limited to considerations of race and gender, D&I grew to encompass identity, diversity of thought, and all manner of identifiable demographics and equal opportunity. In fact, even as 57% of HR professionals agreed their companies had become more diverse in the past year, firms continued to introduce new and refine existing D&I initiatives and programs, focusing on global representation and inclusivity.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Diversity & Inclusion during COVID-19

The COVID era is driven by the dual problems of:

  • Curtailed budgets and tightened liquidity resulting in insufficient program funding, hiring freezes, and mass layoffs that disproportionately impact people of color.
  • New Operational Paradigms that extinguished existing modes of employee communication and engagement.

Government mandates that required people to stay home and businesses to shutter also led to the cancellation of conferences, executive forums, educational workshops, seminars, and other D&I programs. Beyond the cancellation of large-scale programming, D&I focused recruitment initiatives are now paused by hiring freezes put in place to support cost savings. Finally, and perhaps most notably, unemployment has risen dramatically.

The proof is in the numbers. American unemployment claims rose over the last two months, resting at nearly 20% of the workforce unemployed. As of May 30th, 2020, the data shows that the hardest hit are minorities and women. The evidence as of April 30th, 2020, shows 60% of the eliminated jobs were held by women, increasing their unemployment rate by 0.9% versus a rate of 0.7% for men.

The Department of Labor data illustrates an even more troubling story for African American men and Hispanic men and women. The former saw a 1.2% increase in their unemployment rate, while Hispanics and Asians saw a 1.6% increase, versus a 0.9% increase for Caucasians. The overall unemployment rates for African American men, Hispanics, and Asians were 7%, 6%, and 4.1%, respectively, versus 4.0% for whites. Frequently left out of the workforce diversity debate, are LGBTQ individuals, 40% of whom work or worked in profoundly affected industries like hospitality and the food and beverage services.

For those still employed, the heightened guidelines for safety and, in some cases, stay-at-home orders, present challenges to D&I and employers' ability to ensure inclusive and egalitarian workplaces. Chief among these changes is remote working, which requires digital accessibility. Without the common ground of a thoughtfully curated office space, employees find themselves in a variety of home situations, some that are easier to adapt to productive professional spaces.

Further, new communication challenges arose as employees who remained in the field and their managers transitioned to remote locations. Opportunities to provide feedback, offer guidance, or even express gratitude for a job well done were lost. This at a time when, more than anything, employees are seeking a sense of belonging, security and community, and employers are seeking to maintain positive employee engagement.

Fueled by this data and the anecdotal knowledge put forth in our roundtable discussion, our panel went to work.

D&I through different 'Lenses'

The COVID-19 crisis challenges different employee populations in different ways. Some employees are dealing with inconveniences, while others are stressed about health issues, access to basic resources, and job insecurity. It is incumbent upon leaders to understand the many 'lenses' through which these various employee groups may be experiencing the pandemic. These leaders can then begin to understand the circumstances and the needs of a diverse employee population and seek to identify solutions and map inclusive career paths.

The conversation needs to shift with CEOs to help them understand that this IS the time to talk more about D&I. It's this gap of understanding, the correlation between diversity and inclusion and business value that doesn't get enough conversation,
said a thriving financial services executive, award-winning author, and member of our roundtable.
That said, there is an immediate need for a different kind of virtual bias training. There are different lenses that provide a background to each person we're having virtual conversations with,
she adds.

A few of the lenses which were highlighted during our roundtable discussion included:

  • The 'double-shift' which is disproportionately impacting women as they juggle office and household work. According to recent surveys by and Survey Monkey, 31% of women with full-time jobs and families say they have more to do than they can handle. Only 13% of working men with families say the same. Women are now spending 71 hours every week on housework and caregiving. (Source: Harvard Medicine)
  • Mental health issues are of particular concern for people who live alone and are working remotely. Without the human interaction of the office they must shift to technology to quell loneliness that could lead to burnout, anxiety, and stress.
  • The New Team Member. Onboarding and acculturation of new employees sans face-to-face interactions has presented an unanticipated project. HR leaders are charged with ensuring newly hired are provided the training and opportunities afforded to those who started pre-pandemic.
    We're helping our new hires assimilate virtually by focusing on them and doing regular followups, and the response has been great!
    said a talent leader of a renowned tire manufacturing company.
    The chief people officer for a leading creative transformation company added in agreement,
    We're trying to initiate a sense of belonging and build a relationship with new employees a few days prior to their joining date, so it gives them more time to adapt to our culture.
  • The subconscious bias that may accompany the hiring manager in virtual interviews with potential candidates, e.g., interviewers are getting a novel glimpse into 'what's behind the candidate' and home environments during zoom interview calls.
  • The opportunities that arise via virtual intern programs make the experience more engaging and knowledgeable for the incoming interns through technology.
    We haven't canceled our intern program. We're hosting them virtually so interns can practice on live presentations via conversations with experts (our clients), leading us to believe that this might just be a more robust program from a content perspective,
    commented a global professional services leader.

    A Big 4 accounting firm is considering hosting a virtual interactive intern program by leveraging technologies to support its 2000-person intern program.

  • Immune-suppressed and at-risk employees who may be more hesitant to transition back to an office and who are still essential/need to work.
  • Asian employees in the US are not subjected to bullying or racism, which may stem from polarized media outlet narratives.
  • Handicapped employees who leverage office accommodations that are absent in their remote work environments, rendering them incapable of completing their responsibilities.

While our discussion did not grant us the time to identify all of the solutions, it was determined that keeping the lines of communication open between leaders and employees is a critical and necessary first step to addressing the challenges facing employees. The panelists discussed empowering employees to participate in identifying and implementing solutions and by allowing people to “flex,” drawing upon skills they may have but are not part of their regular duties. One HR leader even discussed drawing upon the experience of incoming student interns who have more experience communicating and learning via virtual platforms.

As the conversation continued, it also became clear that even as leaders seek similar outcomes, they have different thoughts on how to achieve them. Among them, the distinction between diversity and inclusion, and whether either is a necessary prerequisite for the other to be achieved.

In a recent news article, Microsoft's Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela stated,
Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice. With diversity, you can count how many people from different backgrounds work at your company. ... But inclusion? You have to choose it. You have to work hard so that when someone joins your company, they feel welcomed—but three months later, they feel like they belong. And that is a much, much higher bar than just counting the number of employees you have of a particular gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, etc.

The idea of representation without making people feel included – not only at the beginning of their tenure but throughout – is a hollow approach and strikes at the heart of my firm’s need to work hard at inclusivity every step of the way.

In our discussion, a leading global human resources business executive shared his focus on leading with inclusion reframing “D&I” to “I&D” and commented,
We aim to bolster inclusiveness via technology. We want to move out of just talking about it to doing something more relevant and actionable.
Adopting a different perspective, a reputed leader of D&I initiatives, articulated a primary focus on diversity,
When companies create practices and programs keeping a particular group in mind, you unknowingly disadvantage all groups. One way to avoid this is to use data to figure out who is falling through the cracks and raise a dialog on what it means for everyone.

Regardless of the preferred approach, all attendees agreed that seeking both diversity and inclusion is critical to the success of any D&I program.

Economic Growth and Recovery during COVID-19

While it remains to be seen what the COVID-19 recovery will look like, and it will undoubtedly vary across industries, companies who do not push forward with these critical D&I programs may not see the growth of those companies that stay the course. McKinsey's 2015 "Diversity Matters" report examined 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While correlation does not equal causation (higher gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn't automatically translate into more profit), the relationship does indicate that when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful.

The same trend surfaced during our executive roundtable discussion, which highlighted companies that were deep in their convictions about supporting the D&I agenda. Even during the pandemic, they are moving forward aggressively in their initiatives and flexing approaches from in-person to more virtual. Conversely, companies that were not as focused on D&I pre-COVID, have de-prioritized D&I in the short term, with no specific plans on future re-engagement.

Maintaining a competitive advantage is more critical than ever for companies during an increasingly uncertain economic cycle. In December 2019, Fortune discussed a study that showed companies that maintained a focus on inclusivity during the Great Recession, did better financially during and after it. With top tier companies already focusing on D&I, even with retrenchment and reductions, diversity will hold a more reliable place as they look to recovery. Companies that lean into D&I and look beyond narrow accessibility issues are going to recover better economically.

These statistics steered the conversation toward why Diversity and Inclusion are even more critical during a crisis and should not be placed on a back burner, among them:

  • Companies who have maintained a focus on D&I during periods of recession experience quicker recoveries.
  • Diverse companies have more success in entering new markets.
  • Millennials, who are now the majority of the workforce, are more likely to seek diverse companies as their career destinations.
  • Diverse companies have demonstrated higher financial returns.
  • Companies with diverse leadership are more capable of honing their clients' perspectives and needs, which can yield higher customer retention.

Such points create opportunities, and as we navigate uncharted paths, leaders should focus on specific action items to identify and explore new processes and ways they can be more inclusive. Executives will be better equipped to manage future challenges with a well-developed D&I toolkit.


D&I momentum will not be stopped in its tracks for companies that are genuinely committed and moving the needle forward. With evidence that companies who stayed the course on D&I during the Great Recession rebounded better, senior leadership should be even more incentivized to maintain a focus on D&I. Creating a blueprint to ensure clear messaging among leaders and employees is critical. D&I has not lost all its momentum yet!

Our round table delegates discussed several ways leaders should acknowledge this crisis as an opportunity to distinguish their organization – communication being chief among them. Empathy was high on the list as a way of maintaining a level of engagement to support and build continual D&I momentum.

We need to approach things from a human angle,
said one HR leader who is aiming to lead with inclusion as her organization shifts 90% of their workforce to virtual work environments.

Such ongoing empathetic and compassionate conversations present leaders with opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of and articulate the needs, concerns, and accomplishments of their employees. Keeping open the lines of communication throughout an organization can also decrease the post-crisis recovery time.

Leaders need to ensure that employees feel comfortable communicating with them and are aware of how to use the tools do so. In many cases, technology is the foundation on which this whole new virtual work environment exists. One of the main ways to ensure you don't incorporate biased technology is by using it to your advantage.

Use creative crowdsourced ways to get them [employees] excited to interact,
said one global business unit leader who encourages the use of new technologies.

Cross-training and upskilling is also fast becoming a primary method of ensuring inclusiveness across diverse groups. A recent Walmart-funded report by FSG and PolicyLink explains that reskilling frontline workers instead of laying them off minimizes the costs and productivity losses associated with hiring new employees. Many retailers already cross-train so that workers can more flexibly fill different functions and prepare for changing environments. Including women and minorities in these efforts during the recession will help you retain your best performers while maintaining diversity. Southwest Airlines demonstrated this during the Great Recession. Specifically, they redeployed talent to avoid lay-offs and transitioned workers back to their original jobs as the economy recovered. Thinking creatively, supporting a diverse workplace, and encouraging teamwork is vital to developing strategies resulting in fewer layoffs among women and minorities.

Technology can also ensure D&I momentum by using it to create a window into employee lives and offer flexible solutions to provide motivation, engagement, and efficiency. This, in turn, helps increase overall productivity. Empowering leaders and managers to conduct regular check-ins with their workforce is one ingredient to a successful engagement recipe. This includes the flexibility to move or reprioritize prepandemic deadlines and targets, shift performance reviews, or remove low-priority items from the to-do list.

Recent reports state that only 40% of firms have taken steps to increase flexibility since the pandemic began, and fewer than 20% say their employers have shuffled priorities or narrowed their scope. Facebook, for example, has reportedly suspended their usual performance ratings – instead, all employees will receive bonuses based on exceeded expectations for the first half of the year. They have also created extended childcare benefits and new leave options for caregivers. Managers can reshuffle priorities based on a case-by-case analysis, so employees can flag problems, readjust priorities on the fly, and most importantly, ask for help.

Other methods discussed with our roundtable participants included clear messaging among leaders and employees. Some leaders discussed employee surveys; others discussed manager training; all acknowledged the importance of identifying methods to ensure clear "handshakes" to make sure critical information is not lost in an untraceable game of "telephone." The only way to combat this humanitarian virus is by taking the humanity route.

Overall, our roundtable highlighted how the global COVID-19 pandemic has challenged business leaders, asking them to keep up, catch up, or get out of the race. To be relevant and sustainable, companies must be inclusive. Though our delegates had different opinions on whether diversity begets inclusion or inclusion begets diversity, the data and anecdotal evidence all seem to conclude that the businesses that will be most successful will have both. As change is inherent in a time of crisis, let's focus on positive change. Let's take this time to reevaluate, realign, and reconsider our strategies from a more diverse and inclusive point of view.

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