As a result of COVID-19, American organizations and employees have a lot to process—alarming loss of life, unprecedented economic downturn, and dramatic changes to how they work being some of them. Diverse communities and employees everywhere are disproportionately facing these impacts as they continue to grapple with systemic discrimination. This has been made even more evident by the global Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests, which have created a cultural tipping point.
As organizations face pressure to reopen workplaces safely, define what digital workplaces look like, and provide a seamless experience for diverse customers, they are also being held accountable by employees, customers, and society in general to do more than make public statements of support for inclusion and diversity.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) needs to be a top business and talent management priority, with an emphasis on creating an inclusive workplace culture and equitable access to employment and promotion opportunities for diverse talent.
As organizations define their future of work and critical talent needs, “this is the time for business leaders to lean in and move away from groupthink,” states AIG’s Head of Organizational Effectiveness, Talent, and D&I, Vievette Henry, who recently discussed the importance of DEI now with KPMG.
The business case for inclusion and diversity has long been established. Why focus on it now?
In the wake of recent events, organizations need to do more. As Vievette Henry notes, “[Focusing on DEI] is important now because we have seen the devastation in these communities. We as a society were not where we needed to be [with DEI] prior to COVID-19, and now we have seen the gap widen more.”
Job and income insecurities—including the fear of being replaced by technology—are rising in general, according to a recent KPMG survey of American workers. These concerns are amplified for diverse communities, which face record high unemployment and lasting economic consequences because of coronavirus. For example: 60 percent of jobs eliminated recently were held by women. Unemployment rates have been very high for Black (15.4 percent) and LGBTQ employees—especially LGBTQ employees of color—and unprecedented at times for Asian (13.8 percent) and Hispanic (14.5 percent) employees, with young adults facing very high job loss risks. The disproportionate impact of layoffs on diverse talent is typical of previous recessions, a recent study found, although companies with a proactive DEI approach were found to fare better financially during and after the 2008 recession.
Diverse communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, are also experiencing issues of violence and intimidation. The continued tragic loss of Black lives and reports of xenophobia against people of Asian descent are disturbing examples. It is not surprising to learn that the combined impacts are causing mental health trauma and burnout as diverse employees show up to work every day.
Organizations can take steps to create intentional DEI strategies by first understanding how social inequities manifest in the workplace, and how their own policies and workplace culture impact their employees.
Increased adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and technology will require a strong DEI lens. Organizations are increasingly adopting technology to streamline internal processes and customer interactions. Externally, they need to be able to provide customized solutions to their diverse customers, without bias. To maintain meaningful human perspective, having a workforce representative of their diverse clients throughout the value chain—from development and production, to marketing and customer service—will be crucial.
Internally, when adopting powerful new technologies to support HR and other processes, organizations need to be vigilant that invisible algorithms do inadvertently carry bias. At the same time, digital workplaces, implemented correctly, also present unique opportunities to improve inclusivity. For instance, accessible technology can create more inclusive working environments for employees with disabilities.
It is now or never. To move the needle for diversity, representation, and inclusion, it is evident that organizations need to act now.
What should organizations do at a structural level?
To intentionally and sustainably address DEI, organizations need to reassess and integrate their talent management and DEI priorities. Human resources (HR), employee resource groups (ERGs), DEI teams, and the business will need to work closely to accomplish this. Based on our conversation with Vievette Henry, we recommend the following talent management priorities for the next 2-3 years:
- Start with the data and understand your current diverse workforce. Inclusive point in time data are the foundation for successful DEI strategies and identifying talent management gaps, priorities, and metrics. First, organizations need to understand the demographics of their workforce—including identities beyond race and binary gender (for example, age) and intersections of multiple identities (such as race and gender). Next, organizations need to understand their diverse employees’ unique pain points and experiences by groups in relation to equity in the workplace and beyond, which impact their employee experience.
- Strengthen relations with the communities where you do business. A good DEI strategy begins with strong community relations and a workforce that reflects that community. Organizations need to ask themselves: “What does our community and customer community look like, and do we have enough representation to reflect that?” recommends Vievette Henry. Done right, this approach can strengthen efforts to identify talent management gaps, priorities, and metrics.
- Focus on retaining your diverse workforce. The ability to recruit diverse talent is linked to employee retention. Consequently, organizations need to identify critical diverse talent at all levels and focus on retaining, developing, and promoting them by prioritizing an inclusive employee experience and policies. As digital tools and new ways of working are adopted, requiring new skills, biases could surface in new or different areas. Now, more than ever, organizations need to review their talent management processes and technologies—including performance management, learning, and succession planning—for inherent biases. To be successful, this requires a nuanced understanding of the complex ways biases or cultural norms can impact a diverse employee population. For example, understanding how white and black women experience sexism in the workplace differently.
- Set the foundation for building a diverse, potentially virtual, talent pipeline. As Vievette Henry states, “If you don't see diverse people when you are hiring, you cannot hire diverse people." First, organizations need to reassess their recruiting strategy based on the data referenced earlier. Next, they need to invest in establishing direct, potentially virtual, talent pipelines and initiatives (such as apprenticeship programs) within their geographical and client communities to source diverse talent, beyond the traditional university pipeline, that is truly representative of these communities.
- Partner with ERGs. DEI efforts are part of organizational culture development that must balance sensitive social issues with business strategy, especially now. To accomplish this, organizations can work closely with their existing ERG networks to access resources and receive meaningful feedback as they develop their DEI strategy.