Adapt Your D&I Efforts to the Reality of the Crisis

Lily Zheng

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, Covid-19 hit my business hard. First slowly and then seemingly all at once: my talks and panels were cancelled, travel plans nixed, and workshops and in-person events cleared off the calendar. As workplaces shut down and employees moved to working from home, my colleagues inside organizations shared stories about lunch & learns, speaker panels, workshops, and other DE&I programming haphazardly moved to virtual, postponed indefinitely, or simply cancelled.

Over a month later, much of it has yet to come back.

Many DE&I practitioners inside companies tell me that internal diversity initiatives have stalled. As companies everywhere brace for an oncoming recession, programs have been shuttered or postponed indefinitely. “We’re down to essential things only,” one VP explained to me, expressing an increasingly commonplace sentiment: “Diversity work is nice, but not essential.”

We are in two crises right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organizations that acknowledge only one risk exacerbating the other. DE&I efforts can be a powerful solution to both challenges — but the nature of diversity work must evolve to meet that charge. We need to broaden our definition of DE&I work to capture the new challenges of working amid a pandemic and develop an approach that focuses on solving real problems, not maintaining appearances.

Responding to Covid-19 Requires DE&I

Too many leaders think of DE&I work narrowly, as a limited set of initiatives aimed at increasing representation through hiring, creating a sense of inclusion through event programming, and pursuing equity through incremental change to processes and policies — all of which is easily downsized during a crisis. But there’s much more under the DE&I umbrella that is essential at moments like this. Leaders need to understand that some of the immediate obstacles they face are also critical DE&I challenges. Here are a few examples.

Crisis communications. Different segments of customer and employee populations are impacted by the Covid-19 crisis in drastically different ways. Some employees are dealing with inconveniences while others are seeing their families and communities fight to stay alive. Some customers are looking for reassurance that their favorite brands are maintaining business as usual, while others are looking for a signal that businesses are adapting to the crisis. The team of leaders who are on the front lines of communication during and after this crisis need to demonstrate cultural competence in order to deliver effective, informative, and genuine messages to different groups.

Middle management. The job of being a middle manager just got a lot harder. More than ever, managers are dealing with the impacts of social inequality magnified by a pandemic, scrambling to support employees dealing with increased racial discrimination, those with mental health challenges made worse by stress and anxiety, and those who risk their lives to make a paycheck they can’t afford to miss, to name a few.

Remote work. Conflict resolution, employee engagement, and problem-solving hinge on how employees connect to their company culture and their feelings of belonging in the organization. Fostering a universal sense of belonging and connection through messaging apps, teleconferencing, and email is a challenging goal, but those that get it right will see enormous payoffs.

Companies that are unable to meet these challenges have far more to lose than they did three months ago. Companies that aren’t able to solve these people-centric challenges — and thus DE&I challenges — won’t survive.

Read more on Harvard Business Review here

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Lily Zheng
Lily Zheng is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant who works with organizations to turn positive intentions into positive impact. She has written for the Harvard Business Review, Quartz at Work and HR Executive. Lily is also the co-author of “Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination” and “The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity in the Age of Compromise.”

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