Blog Post

Diversity & Inclusion Must Remain Front and Center in a COVID-19 World

By Vanessa J. Weaver, Ph.D.
April 28, 2020

Now is not the time for business to cut its Diversity, Inclusion & Engagement (DI&E) programs. DI&E needs to be a significant part of the engine that jumpstarts business recovery, from the unanticipated disruption of COVID-19 to planning for their employee’s “reintegration.”

Business leaders are almost singularly focused on how to limit the impact of the COVID-19 disruption on long-term survival. They are drilling down on everything from cash flow, market valuation, and customer relationships to physically protecting employees.

The impact on industry giants has already been remarkable: Neiman Marcus has filed for bankruptcy. Global shutdowns in the automobile industry and sports & entertainment have cost billions of dollars in unrecoverable revenue. In fact, recent data shows that over 30 percent of small businesses will not re-open.

In all of this, employees have been impacted by the real fear of the coronavirus. Many know someone affected; some know a person who has died; all have had their lifestyles impacted.

Job security fears are also very real, with many employees furloughed, terminated or knowing someone who has been. Already, more than 26.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment since Mid-March.

These realities present an incredible opportunity for internal DI&E organizations, HR and external D&I consultants to provide innovative solutions to their business partners.

Why, you might be asking? Because DI&E issues will have a significant impact on the success of employee reintegration and how organizations reconnect with diverse groups of customers and redefine relationships with the global and local communities in which they operate.

Every aspect of an organization’s culture and operations will be impacted. This new normal regarding “cultural reintegration” is a critical lane that D&I practitioners should address. It is the secret sauce needed to stabilize our businesses and accelerate the business strategies, while leaders are focused on the financials to keep their doors open.

What are some of the cultural reintegration issues that DI&E is uniquely positioned to support?

One example is workplace safety.
It is anticipated that over 20 percent of employees currently working from home do not want to return to their offices because of safety concerns.

In fact, a recent survey by WUSA-TV in metro DC asked if their viewers are comfortable coming back to work. Over 85 percent said no.

Companies are not clear how many of their employees, particularly frontline workers will stay and/or return to work. This is a new culture diversity dynamic that businesses will have to address.

There will be a new diversity “class” dynamic in some companies: those frontline employees who risked confronting COVID-19 to service their customers and keep the business’ lights on and doors opened are most likely to still feel under-valued and under-appreciated.

Another clear culture reintegration need will be redefining who is essential labor and re-evaluating how these employees are taken care of from an inclusion and benefits lens.

There is also a “psychological safety” diversity dynamic for employees, like our Chinese American citizens, who have been verbally or physically harassed and accused of bringing COVID-19 into the U.S.

This psychological safety issue likewise extends to Black men, who are increasingly more concerned about the risks to their lives for wearing masks to work than the risks of contracting COVID-19 without wearing them.

Similarly, the need for psychological safety extends broadly to Black and Brown employees, who are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are becoming increasingly concerned of being treated like lepers by their peers or of their lives being devalued.

All of these culture reintegration issues impact an organization’s retention, development, teaming, and employee engagement.

These are critically important considerations that diversity practitioners should use to refocus their efforts and step out to help solve.

Here are three key recommendations that drive solutions for a new normal for cultural reintegration:

  1. First, business leaders should take a pause before eliminating DI&E. There should be a mandate for diversity practitioners within organizations and/or external DI&E consultants to be official members of corporate re-integration teams.
  2. Diversity & Inclusion practitioners should take the lead and re-evaluate their company’s current portfolio of DI&E programs, training and interventions to determine which ones add value for the upcoming phase of the cultural reintegration.
  3. Companies and diversity & inclusion practitioners should focus on the corporate brand and their responsibility to address the impact of racial disparities in the marketplace. Increased media attention and public awareness have brought to light the long-term systemic impact of the current pandemic-related realities of Black and Brown communities.

Several industry leaders and Fortune 500 companies have embarked on a game-changing approach, called Take on Race, whose mission is to “Define, Declare and Demonstrate” the role that corporate America should take in addressing racial inequities in Black and Brown communities.

Take on Race is sponsored by P&G, with participating industry leaders like PwC, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase and Lily that are representative of over 120 Fortune 500 companies that are participating. If your company is not one of these, you can learn more here.

In the next article, I will be presenting a case study vignette of two companies in different stages of Diversity Maturity that are including DI&E as they define their cultural reintegration strategies. Until then, stay safe.

Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver Biography

Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver is a DBP Solutions@ partner and CEO of Alignment Strategies.

Alignment Strategies is a consulting firm with over 30 years of expertise, focusing on leveraging DI&E to enhance business performance by increasing employee engagement and inclusion.

You can learn more about her on her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Vanessa J. Weaver, Ph.D.