How Diversity Heads Are Steering Their Companies Through The COVID-19 Crisis

diversity heads

The coronavirus pandemic has roiled the nation, leaving businesses with little choice but to adapt and adjust. As company leaders have pivoted to address the needs of their most important business asset—talent—one thing has become abundantly clear: those with strong diversity and inclusion initiatives already in place have had an easier time steering their companies through the pandemic’s choppy waters.

But even for companies with a solid diversity and inclusion foundation, the novel virus has forced diversity heads to think creatively about how best to support their talent, while still making strides on representation and belonging in the midst of global hiring freezes and layoffs.

While prioritizing the safety and well-being of their employees has, understandably, been placed at the top of their to-do list, continuing efforts to maintain inclusive work environments hasn’t exactly dropped off.

“We now have to look at everything through the lens of ‘is this something that’s going to help improve the health and safety of our people?’” says Maxine Williams, Facebook’s chief diversity officer. “That has then driven everything else we do.”

At Starbucks, store employees working more than 20 hours a week are entitled to standard sick pay and personal time off as well as catastrophe pay, which allows them to receive pay for 30 days if they choose to not come to work. Like many eateries across the nation, the coffee chain has had to change its business model from that of an in-person cafe to drive-thru and delivery only. But staffers, or “partners” as Starbucks refers to its store employees, still man the physical locations.

“There are certain partners who may not want to show up to work for fear that they might be exposed to COVID-19 or because they need to take extra precaution for a family member,” says Nzinga Shaw, Starbuck’s global chief inclusion and diversity officer.

Uber employees have long had the option to work from home, says its first-ever diversity and inclusion officer, Bo Young Lee, but the company has now had to normalize that process. Diversity heads, including Lee, have been tasked with supporting employees who are at-home caregivers, particularly women and people of color who often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities for elderly parents, disabled family members or young children.

Flexibility is the keyword across the board, whether that’s flexible work hours or flexible leave arrangements, says Williams. Both Facebook and Uber have provided their employees with resources on finding balance as a caregiver and coping in a remote work environment. For parents who are dealing with childcare issues, Facebook has teamed up with the child and elder care provider Bright Horizons, while Starbucks has temporarily expanded its Care@Work program to support employees who need backup care. This benefit includes 20 days of paid care and full reimbursement for workers who pursue care services outside of the company’s chosen network.

Communicating the full breadth of services available to employees early on is critical during a crisis, says Ezinne Kwubiri, the head of inclusion and diversity at H&M North America. “A lot of times you don’t realize all the benefits you have until something is going wrong and you actually need it.” Earlier this month, the fast-fashion retailer furloughed a majority of its U.S. workforce, but Kwubiri says that their employee benefits are still guaranteed until stores reopen.

A central tenet to any good diversity and inclusion initiative is the ability to foster strong human connections. This has become increasingly difficult in a remote work environment, given the fact that many diversity strategies are based on a community office environment and, in turn, lend themselves to in-person interactions. But thanks to digital platforms and other technological modes of communication, employees are still able to connect over shared interests and build engagement.

Facebook, for example, has seen its black female staffers and users share tips for styling their hair at home as well as recipes for healthy meals. Managers are also encouraged to host digital one-on-ones with their direct reports and perform routine check-ins, especially with employees from underrepresented communities.

Some companies have held virtual happy hours, morning coffee meetings and digital town halls, or extended human resource office hours for those who simply want to talk. “There’s been an acknowledgment that sometimes you just have to pause for people to come into a meeting and talk about what’s going on before you dive into things,” says Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s head of global diversity, inclusion and belonging.

As employees continue to swap team huddles and water cooler gatherings for Google Hangouts and Zoom meetings, one silver lining has emerged: this shared experience, albeit unusual, has helped humanize those in managerial positions and opened the door for a new level of intimacy. “We’ve been encouraging our leaders at Uber to share a bit more of their personal selves,” Lee says. “We’ve had children on Zoom calls and they’ve introduced their parents and grandparents to their teams.”

In years past, companies have incorporated cultural diversity awareness in the form of celebratory events like Hispanic Heritage Month, many of which have now been canceled or moved to the digital realm. Girish Ganesan, the global head of diversity and inclusion at TD Bank, says that he’s leveraged virtual programming wherever possible because employees crave positive news and celebratory milestones.

In March, the bank held a virtual event in honor of Transgender Visibility Day and celebrated Lunar New Year in January, at a time when the Asian-American diaspora was confronting hateful stereotypes related to the coronavirus. “We might have a lower participation rate than if we held these events in-person, but every effort counts in order to make sure that employees feel a sense of belonging,” Ganesan says.

These celebratory markers also help to lift employees’ spirits in a period of near-isolation and seemingly endless uncertainty. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of U.S. adults are experiencing negative mental health issues as a result of the coronavirus, up from 32% in March.

Corporate efforts to address mental health needs have risen dramatically over the last few months with companies promoting mental health benefits, crisis support, free access to teletherapy and guidelines on resiliency, dealing with adversity and effective management during stressful periods.

These resources are particularly important for communities of color, such as Asian-Americans, who are facing increased incidences of racism, and the black community, which is dying in greater numbers from COVID-19. Simultaneously, these ethnic groups are typically more reluctant to seek out mental help due to cultural upbringing.

“We’ve been really trying to normalize mental health, especially in a cross-cultural environment, and remove the stigma around it,” Lee says, adding that she’s proactively reached out to Uber’s affinity groups. “As an Asian myself, I have been victim to racial profiling, and so I really want all of our employee resource groups to feel that they’re supported.”

Recently, Facebook made an unprecedented move to temporarily eliminate performance reviews and ratings. “We could see where the impact was going to be intense on people in terms of their mental health and their ability to perform and take care of themselves and their families,” Williams says. “We also gave full-time employees an additional stipend to help them navigate being able to work from home.”

For companies with set diverse representation targets, mass layoffs and hiring freezes have proven to be a formidable barrier. The retail sector alone has seen tens of thousands of layoffs as the industry reels from the coronavirus pandemic.

In the event that H&M downsizes its offices, Kwubiri has been contemplating what that should look like from a diversity and inclusion perspective. “We must first have an understanding of how we’re making these decisions and ensure that they’re completely equal,” she says.

But not all companies are grappling with these decisions, as of yet. Facebook, which wants 50% of its workforce to be from underrepresented groups by 2024, says that it remains committed to hiring 10,000 workers by the end of 2020. Within the financial sector, institutions like TD Bank, Bank of America and Citigroup have pledged that there will be no job losses in 2020 as a result of COVID-19.

At Starbucks, Shaw says that the company has fortunately been able to source talent through the crisis and it hasn’t made any statements about halting those efforts.

For companies, like H&M, that have paused hiring, the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to focus more heavily on inclusion and career development for marginalized employees. “It really leaves room for planning so that the next time there’s an open position, we can no longer say that we were moving so fast that we didn’t have the time to put the strategy in place,” Kwubiri says.

Although diversity and inclusion planning looks different for every company, the pandemic has allowed those who spearhead these efforts to not only flex their leadership muscles but also highlight the indisputable need for diverse talent in real-time.

“The pandemic is not agnostic to issues of power, privilege or equity and it’s not coming on an even plane,” says Williams, Facebook’s diversity and inclusion head. “This is a clear example of the very issues that diversity and inclusion initiatives are designed to address.”

Kwubiri adds that diversity and inclusion should bleed through all facets of H&M and must be viewed as a core business strategy across corporate America. “Even from a marketing perspective, your message will have to change because of the climate that we’re in,” she says. “So if you want to target a product to the African-American community, for instance, you should probably partner with your company’s diversity and inclusion professionals to ensure that your messaging is consistent, sound and shows empathy and support.”

In a more jaded time, company executives might have been willing to push diversity and inclusion aside during a period of economic downturn and overall instability. That has since changed, says Uber’s chief diversity officer.

“We see rising levels of fear, and fear is fundamentally one of the biggest barriers to diversity and inclusion because it breeds othering and labeling,” Lee says. “If we don’t emphasize understanding and engagement now, it’s only going to exacerbate this issue. This is the perfect time to lean into our shared humanity.”

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