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Why Diversity and Inclusion Should Be a Priority in a Pandemic

The news isn’t good. According to new report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. economy contracted at a 32.9% annualized rate from April through May, representing the worst drop in history. This reality and the potential for further contraction is forcing businesses to make painful sacrifices and look very closely at what is […]

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The news isn’t good. According to new report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. economy contracted at a 32.9% annualized rate from April through May, representing the worst drop in history.

This reality and the potential for further contraction is forcing businesses to make painful sacrifices and look very closely at what is an essential activity and what is a nonessential activity. Some have speculated that Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives will be the first to go, even in the midst of global protests on racial equality. The truth is, though, working from home can lead many employees to feel more marginalized – they might wonder whether they’ll get talked over in a meeting or whether they’ll be included in projects. Therefore, inclusion becomes even more paramount to both run a healthy organization and get the most from your employees in such a trying time.

I recently spoke with Stephen Frost, author and Founder of Frost Included, about D&I in a time of pandemic and recession, as well as some of the findings from his recent book, “Building an Inclusive Organization.”

Linda Devonish-Mills: As the economic impact of the coronavirus deepens, some companies may be considering moving resources away from diversity and inclusion efforts. Do you think that is the right approach?

Stephen Frost: Through talking to Heads of D&I in organisations, we are seeing up to 70% of UK based companies moving resources away from D&I initiatives at this time.  This was also confirmed by a recent D&I Leaders poll. Organisations are either cancelling outright, which is a mistake, postponing or switching to virtual. It’ a mistake to cancel D&I work for all the reasons we would know about the business case for and value of D&I to any organisation. But it’s also a mistake because, as David Fairhurst has pointed out, abandoning diverse talent initiatives now will mean lack of pipeline later on in a post Corona world.

A note of optimism though – we are also seeing some organisations investing in D&I even more at this time, either through specific talent initiatives, new products such as inclusive remote working, or by considering inclusion in some of the significant strategic decisions they are making right now. This means we will witness an incredibly interesting progression of events between those organisations who abandon or scale back D&I at a critical moment in their trajectory, versus those who embrace it. We will see the results play out over the next months and years.

LM: Some parts of the country are beginning to reopen or are starting to lay out the reopening plans. How can businesses create an inclusive plan for when employees return to the physical office?

SF: Some businesses have said that there’s no need for workers to ever come back to work (Twitter). 91% of UK workers have indicated that they would be happy to carry on with working at home (OnePoll). And of course, many other industries have never stopped working – healthcare, delivery, etc. There’s the issue of how to sensitively reintegrate those who have themselves suffered from the coronavirus (either directly or through losing loved ones). This needs to be considered. Then there is the element of choice and free will – what if someone is not comfortable about going back to work?

Ultimately employees need to be consulted, diversity needs to be front of mind, and then a plan can be operationalised.

LM: Many D&I initiatives start from the top down, meaning the company leadership drives the initiative. Is there a way, though, that individuals can make their workplace more inclusive from the bottom up?

SF: Yes, through network groups (ERGs) as an obvious starting point. Many ERGs lack direction and structure, but this collective challenge provides a very clear raison d’etre for network chairs to mobilise around. There’s also participating in town halls and speak ups – and why not break the hierarchy and email your CEO directly with your (thought through) suggestions?

LM: Nudge theory, or using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence behaviour, has typically been applied to behavioural economics. However, you contend it can be used for Inclusivity. Can you describe how?

SF: Most of our actions are unconscious and so with the best intent in the world we may replicate and continue with non-inclusive behaviours. Bias is all pervasive. However, if we can identify patterns of behaviour and then put in place budges or process changes to change that behaviour, we can make changes.  For example, if you receive feedback that your meetings are not inclusive, that there is an unbalanced distribution of conversation or the same voices each time, perhaps you could implement a process nudge of quick fire introductions at the start of the meeting, It need only take 2 minutes but if everyone has exercised the vocal chords at the start, there will be an more equitable distribution of conversation resulting.

LM: What D&I “blind spots” do you see most frequently in individuals you work with?

We all have a plethora of blind spots. And I see many in myself and in those around me all the time. Most frequent ones, right now, in clients would be affinity boas and confirmation bias which is typical of people operating quickly under pressure. In times of crisis and uncertainty we tend to hunker down to people we already know (and trust) and to knowledge we have already gained (rather than be open to challenge and learning). It’s a huge irony that at precisely the moment we most need to be thinking inclusively, we are least likely to do it. The best remedy is to acknowledge this, step away from the computer, breathe, invite challenge from someone and return afresh to reconsider the decision we are about to make, but from a calmer position of strength.

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