The Coronavirus or COVID-19 presents numerous personal and professional challenges through loss of life and jobs, economic instability, stress, and upheaval in our normal operations. It has also produced increased discrimination and inequity for those in our society who are historically marginalized in housing, health, employment, and other areas.
COVID-19 has also produced new opportunities for living, working and renewing our commitments to each other in the form of respect and inclusion. Therefore, it is important that workplaces demonstrate a re-commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [DEI] for the following reasons:
COVID-19 is exposing the systemic inequities along the lines of race, gender and economics manifesting in areas like the racial wealth gap, discrimination, and bias.
The intentional discrimination or implicit bias within systems and by individuals have not been fully addressed or remedied through diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives or laws. This fact, combined with the actions of individuals within systems, leads to the fear and anxiety from COVID-19 that increases exclusion and discrimination of others.
DEI must continue as a company and organizational commitment to fulfill the clear social, financial and business imperatives and benefits to our workplaces, communities, and nation.
The nation has experienced a rise in the exclusion, bias, and discrimination that many organizations, corporations, and clients of Progress Strategies+ are working hard to prevent. Examples of such discrimination connected to COVID-19:
Here are some thoughts on what corporations and organizations can do to ensure that a commitment to inclusion is present and ongoing during the challenges of COVID-19:
One: Review, Scan and Assess Existing DEI Policies
DEI policies should be reviewed at least at the end of each year as a general practice. In fact, Progress Strategies+ has reminder milestones for clients to also review them during certain periods. With the advent of COVID-19 and the aforementioned issues of discrimination, the company/organization leader, human resources director and/or diversity and inclusion committee [if applicable] should conduct:
A total review of the current diversity, equity, and inclusion policies with an attention on any areas such as the anti-discrimination section to ensure that the policy is updated to take into account discrimination instances related to (or coinciding with) COVID-19. This review should also take into account policies on reduction-in-force of all employees---particularly those within protected classes and other diverse employees in order to examine any reduction-in-force actions that may have a disproportionate effect on employees by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
A review of any current data you are tracking for positive elimination, decreases or increases of inequity gaps between the overall workforce and employees by race, gender, etc. within the areas of position advancement/promotions and pay---particularly among such employees who are in the same positions and tenure with their White male peers. If you find such inequities, you should have a plan to address them immediately or by the end of the year whether or not your company/organization returns back to full on-site operations.
Two: Remind Employees and Review Any Unresolved Pre-COVID-19 Instances of Discrimination
Almost all companies and organizations are adhering to remote work from home. In addition to this reality presenting more policies in the areas of work accountability, communications and meeting standards, leaders must take this opportunity to inform their employees that discrimination and exclusion via remote meetings or off-site will not be tolerated. This is the perfect time to remind employees about your diversity, inclusion and equity policy----and anti-discrimination/anti-sexual harassment policies----along with the fact that they are still in place for remote work and web meetings.
Discrimination is discrimination whether in physical space, remote work or via web conference platforms. Take for instance the recent news of a vice president of a Chattanooga, Tennessee company. This individual posted a hateful meme on their Facebook page depicting former President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck with the caption ‘Pay Per View.’ After this individual was publicly identified by people across the country who flooded the company’s email and phone lines, the employee was fired. Do you have policies addressing discrimination, racism, sexism, etc. during online activities and remote work from home operations?
In addition to rapid response to this type of scenario, also keep in mind that your company or organization should:
Review and resolve any reported instances or claim of discrimination before COVID-19. If your company or organization is still in operation, then these matters are just as important to resolve and ensure that they are not dormant to the same degree that your workplace is focusing on unresolved matters in sales, marketing, human resources, finance, etc. The world has indeed changed, and many operations and projects have been suspended. Barriers to inclusion and discrimination issues before the onset of COVID-19 are just as important to resolve and rectify.
Three: All Employees count but the CEO/HR Director should have well-being check-ins with employees who have experienced real or perceived exclusion in the workplace
The well-being of all your employees is important. At the same time, it is known that employees of color and women in general experience additional and unique stress, micro-aggressions, bias and real or perceived discrimination before and during the times of societal pressures. Even before COVID-19 many of us know that the effects of workplace bias contribute to 34% of employees of color reporting that they withhold workplace project ideas or solutions, and 48% spend time looking for a new job. [Center for Talent Innovation]. Also, according to the Gallup Organization, micro-aggressions contributes to $450 billion to $550 billion per year in lost productivity.
Therefore, during this time of COVID-19 it is incumbent for organization and company leaders to conduct formal or informal ‘well-being check-ins’ for:
Employees in your workplace who are diverse and underrepresented by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. You should ask about their professional and personal well-being, ensure that they are connecting positively with their peers and are authentically included in work projects and meetings. Also, if you discern---or they share with you---any real or perceived bias or discrimination that they are facing in the workplace, then you should encourage them to immediately share this with your Human Resource Director. If your company or organization does not have one then you should refer to your policies, your official documentation process and schedule a specific time and intake process to receive more information on the issue(s).
Larger companies and organizations may have Employee Resource Groups [ERGs] that are formed to not only celebrate diversity but to serve as a group of employee peers in the variety of areas in race, gender, etc. to share perspectives to management and work on ways for the workplace to be more inclusive and inviting. In addition to helping ensure that such groups are still convening and communicating during COVID-19, you should consider:
1. Being a guest at an ERG meeting and inquire about the group’s well-being.
2. Communicating with the employee who is the coordinator of an ERG and
inquire about the well-being of those members.
Four: More Engagement
Just as it is important to remain in contact with your employee team in general and employees from underrepresented groups in specific, it is just as important to remain in contact with potential hires from such groups that your organization was considering during an interview process that suspended by COVID-19. Many individuals from racially diverse and other underrepresented groups are accustomed to anticipated rejection, lack of communication or authenticity in a recruitment and interview process due to systemic bias in the workplace.
Sometimes perceiving job recruitment efforts as inauthentic---combined with a lack of communication updates on your hiring process---could lead to those prospective hires dropping out of your search. Even if they understand your organization’s own pressures and time constraints due to COVID-19---and that you may experience delays or suspensions of hiring that they are in consideration for---you should keep them informed.
Do not “ghost” [ending communications, status updates and interviews with no contact or explanation] prospective hires because as previously stated, some individuals have built in expectations that some hiring processes operate in ways that lead to their exclusion. Continued engagement with any potential hires reflecting underrepresented racial, gender, ethnic and other forms of diversity is a must during this time.
If your company or organization is a leader in advancing DEI in the workplace or authentically focused on implementing or improving upon DEI efforts during the beginning of your journey, then you should be committed to DEI always and definitely during this COVID-19 period.
Therefore, you know and believe that every quarter, fiscal year and day is important for advancing DEI. DEI is just as important as your investments in marketing, finance/accounting, human resources and every other department or initiative in your work. During a health and social crisis such as COVID-19 that heightens and exposes discrimination and exclusion, you must be committed to DEI more now than ever.
Eric K. Foster is founder and principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm focused on serving clients who desire the creation and completion of projects in a socially responsible manner through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Client Services, Corporate Social Responsibility Client Services and Public Policy Advocacy Client Services.
He is certified in Advanced Intercultural Management from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and is also Co-founder, Chair and Managing Director of Rende Progress Capital, the nation's only racial equity loan fund and emerging Community Development Financial Institution providing loans and services to Excluded Entrepreneurs business owners who face barriers to conventional lending due to racial bias and other market realities.