Amidst COVID-19, the number one question I keep getting asked is, in my opinion, an odd one. Clients and friends alike have inquired with emotions ranging from curiosity to concern, “During a pandemic, does DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) even still matter?”
For my concerned family and friends, what they mean is, “Is your company going to go under?” To which I respond, “Dear God, I hope not.” 😣 But for people and DEI leaders, many of whom have had to fight tooth and nail for their DEI budgets in even stable times, what they mean is…
“How do I make sure my company doesn’t stop investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion during this crisis? How do I prevent all our hard-earned progress from falling by the wayside?”
Well, guess what? COVID-19 is a DEI issue.
In fact, most, if not all, crises are DEI issues. Why? Because, despite the fact that this pandemic is hitting all of us, the ways in which it’s impacting us and how much varies. And what determines that? Our identity.
The various identities we hold — from our race or ethnicity to our socioeconomic background, to our caregiver status to the state of our mental health — play a significant role in how and how much this crisis (and really any moment of uncertainty) impacts our lives.
So let’s break it down by letter. We’ve already established that our differences impact our experience. That’s the “D” (as in diversity) part. ICYMI, see above ☝🏽.
Next comes the equity piece which, in my experience, has traditionally been the hardest concept for people to understand and digest in typical times. But if there was ever a silver lining to the way COVID-19 is ravaging our country right now, it’s that structural inequities in the US are being lain bare for all to see in ways that have traditionally been much more opaque to those not experiencing them directly.
From the disproportionate hatred being flung at Americans of Asian descent to the challenges faced by front-line medical workers, it is clear that we are not experiencing this virus the same way across America, let alone around the world.
Some of the worst-hit have been people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds — both financially, as they lose critical employment due to shutdowns, and health-wise, due to a historical lack of access to quality healthcare and underlying, oft-poverty-related, health conditions like hypertension and diabetes. These systemic inequities, coupled with the fact that they make up the overwhelming majority of essential workers, has put poor people, especially black and brown poor people, on the very, very short end of the proverbial stick.
The flipside of this equity coin is that where there is inequity, there is also the presence of privilege. In the age of COVID-19, privilege looks like job security, being able to work from home, and for some, working from second homes, tucked into idyllic nature-filled small towns that are nowhere near equipped to handle the heavy inflow of weekenders turned indefinite urban escapees.
But of course, it’s not that straightforward. We’re all dealing with a mixture of privileges and inequities, with some folks weighing more heavily in either direction.
As a single extrovert with a long-standing history of depression, I’m feeling the pain differently than many of my married friends, more introverted colleagues, or those without ongoing mental health challenges. When it comes to privilege, however, I have the huge advantage of being able to work from home safely and five days into sheltering at home solo, I broke down in tears and was swiftly picked up a few hours later by my sweet family friends and driven back to their suburban house in Pennsylvania to quarantine alongside them.
So what does this have to do with the workplace? Well, aside from having a certain level of individual self-awareness as we navigate this time, as organizations we have a responsibility to do two key things in support of our people. In order to retain and engage the best of the best talent right now (and attract future talent), we have to make sure our employees have what they need to do their best work, as well as make sure they feel seen, understood, and valued. The former is all about equity, and the latter is how we at Collective define inclusion.
Every decision an organization makes right now, whether it’s what you take away (for some, this may mean pay cuts and layoffs) or what support you provide to employees who are weathering this storm alongside you is an opportunity to live your values of being inclusive and equitable.
As leaders, I urge you to ask yourself as you make these decisions, how are people’s identities impacting their experiences in this moment? How are they shaping what employees need to do their best work, to feel seen, to feel understood, and to feel valued? How can you make sure that, in this moment, and frankly in all moments, you are taking care of your employees who are being hit the hardest?
The answer may be making intentional choices like focusing limited resources on your hardest hit employees or making your pay cuts more equitable by asking those who have the most to give up the most, while those who have the least take a smaller hit. Whatever equity and inclusion look like for your organization, the truth remains —
COVID-19 is a DEI issue. It is catalyzing the acceleration of the future of work, which means there’s no better time to strengthen your commitment to equitable and inclusive practices for supporting your people. We will come out of this, and when we do, diversity, equity, and inclusion will be no less of an issue.
After all, as the data has shown us even before COVID-19, a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace is a resilient one. It is a team that harnesses the power of difference, feels empowered to move through difficult times with trust and grace, and is naturally equipped to create solutions that serve the whole.