5 Ways Diversity And Inclusion Help Companies Before, During And After The Pandemic
When faced with difficult situations, companies look for ways to minimize costs. Typical cost-cutting measures include downsizing staff, cutting contracts with vendors and curtailing all activities that are not essential to survival.
The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be one of the most challenging periods that our country has ever faced, as evidenced by the staggering number of people who have become unemployed in recent weeks: since the start of the pandemic, some 26 million people have filed for unemployment insurance as of April 23, 2020, pushing US unemployment to levels we have not seen in nearly a century.
For any employee from an underrepresented or marginalized group, the pandemic is causing a triple whammy: first, the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on health outcomes for people of color, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups; second, many of the jobs being cut as a result of the pandemic are disproportionately held by women and people of color; third, many companies are cutting diversity and inclusion initiatives, which they consider “nice-to-have” and not central to their success.
There are many reasons why many companies consider diversity and inclusion initiatives to be non-essential, but all of them reflect a misunderstanding of the business value of diversity and inclusion and of the many ways in which diversity and inclusion can directly improve a company’s performance, from recruiting and hiring to retention and sales.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a number of examples of ways in which diversity and inclusion can help companies before, during and after the pandemic.
Companies that had already established a strong culture of inclusion and diversity prior to the pandemic are more likely to have programs such as flex-time and remote work, which are known to be particularly beneficial and inclusive for women and for people with disabilities, but generally beneficial to all employees.
Hence, companies that had embraced these kinds of initiatives prior to the pandemic were already set up to allow their employees to work remotely and more flexibly and were better able to adapt to the rapid changes. In contrast, companies accustomed to rigid work schedules and who insist on “face time” are having to reinvent themselves, adopt new technologies, and change their culture, which creates additional pressure in these times of strife.
During the pandemic: a head start
I’ve already mentioned that remote work can be beneficial to people with disabilities – in addition to being generally convenient for virtually all employees. Remote work is also a great way to increase the diversity of your company. However, there are some ways in which our new remote work habits can actually be counterproductive: with a near-total absence of body language, and with the limitations of most videoconference apps, speaking up can be even more difficult than in real meetings, which can lead to detachment and feelings of exclusion on the part of some of your employees, be it because they are introverts, or because someone on the team is hogging the microphone without realizing it.
Companies that are accustomed to a culture of inclusion are more likely to be tuned into these forms on exclusion, and to have identified tips and tricks to ensure that remote works feel truly included. And, as I have argued before, inclusion is not just a nice-to-have: making anyone in your company feel excluded reduces satisfaction and productivity, ultimately hurting your company.
During the pandemic: greater resilience
A culture of inclusion is also crucial during difficult times, when employees have to let go. Terminations are always stressful, not just for the people being terminated, but for those who remain with the organization. If the situation is not handled properly, these periods of turmoil can lead to depression, panic and other forms of psychological fatigue that have a material impact on the employees who remain with the company. Furthermore, those who remain with the organization typically find themselves having to learn entirely new skills or to perform tasks that they are not comfortable doing – further inducing stress within the organizations.
Companies that have embraced a culture of inclusion are more likely to have programs in place, from mentoring to employee development, flex time and remote work, that can alleviate some of these pressures. More generally, employees who have a strong sense of affinity with their company and its leadership – sentiments that are much more likely to exist in an inclusive environment – are much more likely to be able to weather the storm.
After the pandemic: faster recovery
During normal times, especially in recent years when unemployment rates have been at record lows, employees may jump from job to job in search of higher compensation or greater satisfaction. However, with skyrocketing unemployment rates, employees will be willing to tolerate a much higher level of discomfort before deciding to jump ship.
At some point, the pandemic will slow down to a degree that will enable many parts of our economy to restart. While it is unclear whether things will go back to the way they used to be, there is not doubt that the road to economic recovery will be long and arduous. But, sooner or later, things will improve and opportunities will increase. Companies that created and maintained an inclusive environment will have forged strong bonds with their employees and created a sense of loyalty that is likely to translate to low turnover. In contrast, companies that have not taken care of their employees during the crisis will find that their best employees will be the first to leave as soon as the opportunity arises. This will have a singificant impact on how rapidly companies can recover, and the more inclusive companies will be able to focus on their growth with the support of their best employees instead of having to scramble to replace them.
After the pandemic: competitive advantage
In a similar vein, as the economy restarts, companies will need to be ready to compete for top talent. Especially given the disproportionate impact that the pandemic is having on marginalized groups, there will be great opportunities for companies to pick up top talent from a wide variety of segments of our society.
Once again, companies that have already embraced diversity and inclusion will be ahead of the competition as they will be able to attract talent from a wider talent pool, and in so doing they will reduce their hiring costs, shorten their hiring cycles, and potentially increase the average quality of their new employees. And of course, having a more inclusive culture, these companies will also do a better job of retaining their more diverse workforce, creating an additional competitive advantage as they can avoid the financial and emotional costs that often result when companies try to hire diverse candidates into a company that lacks a culture of inclusion.
Will the pandemic make corporate America more diverse and inclusive?
The pandemic is wreaking havoc with our economy, causing many small, medium and large companies to fail. For some companies, demise will be inevitable regardless of how inclusive and diverse they are. However, because diversity and inclusion can benefit companies in the various ways I have outlined, I firmly believe that, other things equal, the more a company embraces diversity and inclusion, the more likely it will be to survive the pandemic and emerge even stronger.
If my belief is correct, it means that, as our economy expands after the pandemic, a greater proportion of the surviving (and thriving) companies will be those that are more diverse and inclusive. In a way, the pandemic is applying Darwinian pressures that will promote the stronger “species” of diverse and inclusive companies. There is reason for optimism, then, because it means that in years to come we may see a marked increase in the overall diversity and inclusion of corporate America.
Regardless of whether you share my optimism, if you are in a leadership position you should make sure that, rather than cutting diversity and inclusion programs, you double down on those efforts to maximize your probability of survival and rapid recovery.