Now Is NOT the Time to Set Aside Your DEI Strategy
The compounding impact of COVID-19 on every element of life and business; its disparate impact in deaths and unemployment on communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and individuals with disabilities; sustained attention and anxiety in the lead up to a presidential election; and a series of violent acts of racism that led to nationwide civil unrest. The convergence of these and many more issues have brought a raw and painful conversation about equity to the forefront at the dining table, on the phone, via video conference, written in journals. Many in your workforce have been moved to anger, to confusion, to tears, to exhaustion. Some have entered into considering action. Others are seemingly unaffected. All of this is in the backdrop while your teams try to remain productive and focused.
Historically, some have said that initiatives focused on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging are evergreen issues that can be placed on the back burner until a less urgent time. The current context reinforces that compartmentalizing work from life is antiquated and that, as organizational leaders and carriers of workplace culture, we must reaffirm an organization-wide commitment to a culture of respect. This is now more important than ever.
The following are considerations that began with the pandemic, continue to persist, and now are magnified by recent events:
Mental health is of equal importance to physical health
There are countless articles detailing how COVID-19 has compromised our collective mental health. And there is data providing insight into how this is compounded based on the lived experiences of our teams. COVID-19 related deaths and unemployment rates are significantly higher for communities of color, people with disabilities, those from lower socioeconomic statuses, and the LGBTQ+ community. When you view that through an intersectional lens (e.g. an employee who is a part of more than one of these communities) the disparities are more profound. Additionally, the civil unrest that has captured the nation creates another layer of grief, anxiety and uncertainty. Finally, there is a heightened recognition that exclusive and toxic workplace cultures created threats to workplace psychological safety well before the pandemic. Taken together, the vulnerable mental health and safety of employees are realities that are leading organizations to explore whether or not their health care benefits offerings are sufficiently meeting mental health needs and doing so in culturally intelligent ways.
Workforces are much more dispersed, socially and physically distanced, and possibly isolated.
This can leave teams with gaps in connections that are both figurative and literal. While access to internet networks and equipment are certainly necessities and should be prioritized as such, we are also emotionally and mentally wired to be connected to other people, according to Rajkumari Neogy, a diversity expert. Suddenly, and indefinitely, being disconnected from colleagues that you historically spent the majority of the day with is unsettling. Not attending to your employees’ need for connection, both to resources needed to do their jobs and to your organization’s culture, can lead to feelings of displacement and disconnection, further compromising productivity and engagement in times of heightened uncertainty.
For many organizations, the work walls and modes of communication are now completely virtual.
Digital Civility is at its lowest levels in 4 years, according to the latest Microsoft Digital Civility Index; which also indicates that the topic garnering the most incivility is politics and a general increase in online discrimination and microaggressions. The confluence of anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher propensity to be uncivil in online environments, and the increase of political conversations happening at work during a presidential election year could be putting your organization at risk of emails, web-based meetings and messaging platforms becoming forums for harassing behaviors, microaggressions, and an intolerance for those who aren’t as technologically adept.
There is a rise in anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment that may not be constrained to after hours.
A recent article, “Coughing While Asian”, describes the intersection of racism toward Asians and the panic from the COVID-19 pandemic. Perceived and real risk to our safety cause people to go into protection mode, which can also lead to biasing ourselves against those who are different, unfamiliar, or stereotypically affiliated with a threat. That, combined with having one of the most multigenerational, socioeconomically and (in so many other ways) diverse workforces in history, has a variety of caregiving needs and varying levels of access to resources underscores the need to be intentional about inclusion, belonging, and providing the vocabulary for your workforce to engage respectfully and in alignment with your organizational values.
Employees are looking to organizational leaders to model the cultural norms of this unprecedented time. Here are three takeaways on what leaders can do to ensure that the urgency and uncertainty of the current landscape do not undermine your efforts to create a healthy, inclusive, and productive work culture.
1. Send a message to reaffirm your organizational commitment to a culture of respect, civility, and inclusion.
This is not in absence of acknowledging the current times, but because connectedness amongst the team is needed now—more than ever. Ensure that managers are actively echoing (both in words and in actions) this message to support team members through the uncertainty, and reinforce the expectation that employees engage in ways that align with your organizational values.
2. Provide access to the resources your teams need to the job expected of them.
Don’t constrain resources to equipment; include them. Consider flexibility in scheduling, support for caregiving needs, (EAP) support, access to reliable networks, and opportunities for employees to connect socially. Leverage employee resource group gatherings, forums for employees to share best practices or hobbies, and keep employees updated through strong internal communication channels to cultivate connection.
3. Continue to provide training …even if it isn’t in person.
Many learning and development professionals will admit that sole reliance on online training isn’t ideal. But having employees engage in digital training that’s focused on awareness-raising, skill-building, and role-playing behaviors, while they are socially distanced, can actually be an effective method to have team members practice skills in training topics such as DEI, mitigating bias or harassment, and discrimination prevention. Employees need the vocabulary and skill set to engage in a more (potentially) virtual environment with a heightened level of anxiety. Empower them to engage respectfully with scalable training solutions.
As an organizational leader, you are quickly and repeatedly pivoting priorities, focus, and resources to sustain the health, safety, and continuity of your organization. Maintaining a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging will only strengthen the engagement and well being of your teams at this critical and unprecedented time.