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COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Making D&I a Critical Component of the Solution

We are in two crises right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organizations that acknowledge only one risk [are] exacerbating the other. [Diversity, equity, and inclusion] efforts can be a powerful solution to both challenges.”

Lily Zheng, “Adapt Your D&I Efforts to the Reality of the Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, May 7, 2020.

The last few months have brought increased attention to many issues at the center of diversity & inclusion (D&I) efforts in the workplace. Current events—including the unequal health, economic, and work/life challenges facing women and people of color in the US, the increase in incidents of stigma and discrimination against people of Asian descent, and the worldwide protests following the killing of George Floyd—have sparked important conversations about race, equity, and justice, as well as the impact of inequality on marginalized groups both at and outside of work.1 This necessary dialogue is happening as leaders continue to juggle multiple considerations around the COVID-19 health crisis, business needs, and the “reimagined workplace” that is emerging through different phases of recovery2—all while many continue to work virtually and limit in-person meetings.

This is an important time for human capital leaders to speak to—and take action on—the value of D&I to bring about healing and positive change. While planning for “what’s next,” the opportunity arises for D&I to not only remain a priority, but to become a critical component of the solution.

Sustaining and Enhancing D&I Efforts

Businesses do not always prioritize D&I during uncertain economic times; indeed, D&I budgets (e.g., for staffing, programming, and activities) have typically been among the first to be cut or put on hold during times of crisis and economic downturn.3 Today, however, diversity, equity, and inclusion are such integral components of recovery that it is advisable for organizations to actually ramp up their efforts as well as their communications about the work that D&I leaders and champions are doing.4

In addition to the benefits of sustaining and enhancing D&I, there are important risks of not doing so. As many aspects of today’s health, economic, and societal crises disproportionately affect women and people of color, organizations that do not accelerate their D&I work are more likely to roll back any progress made toward diverse representation, as well as decrease feelings of inclusion among marginalized and underrepresented groups.5

Given these challenges, what can human capital and business leaders do to ensure that their companies don’t lose ground on diversity and, instead, integrate it into their recovery plans to drive sustainable positive change?

Tactics and Solutions

Building empathy and inclusive leadership skills is more important than ever. It’s needed to manage this crisis effectively; D&I priorities should remain front and center instead of an afterthought.”

D&I Council Leader—Statement adapted from The Conference Board D&I Council discussion, May 19, 2020

We present three sets of recommendations on how to articulate the urgency of D&I and a strategy where diversity, equity, and inclusion drive both short- and long-term goals: 1) strengthen communication about the why and how of D&I, 2) make D&I part of the solution, and 3) enhance participation in D&I.

Strengthen communication about the why and how of D&I

Times of crisis, transition, and recovery often require a shift in strategy and communication. D&I positively contributes to business outcomes in a variety of ways, but its value increases even more during difficult times.6 Strengthening internal communication about the importance of D&I should go beyond a single-issue statement in response to current events and guide future behaviors and communications. Some guidelines include:

  • Provide clear, relevant, and consistent messaging about why D&I efforts are especially important now and in times of crisis and recovery. Help leaders and colleagues understand how D&I can create better work environments for everyone by enhancing:
    • Transparency, trust, and psychological safety
    • Engagement and dedication
    • Collaboration and teamwork
    • Decision-making effectiveness
    • Resilience
    • Innovation
  • Highlight the value D&I brings to employees, the organization, and the communities where the company operates. Provide specific examples of how the organization is using D&I concepts, programs, and activities during these times of crisis, as some might not be as visible. Examples include supporting people managers trying to lead their virtual teams more inclusively, drafting guidelines and tools to support difficult conversations about current events, and working with employee groups and councils.
  • Focus on shared values around inclusion. While making the business case for some programs and activities can be useful, speaking about the ethical and moral value of D&I can resonate more broadly and be a more effective way of bringing positive change.7
  • Outline how everyone can engage in the company’s D&I efforts. Provide resources for “meaningful action,”8 such as ways to support communities most harmed by the crises and guidelines for employees who are interested in becoming allies.

Make D&I part of the solution

D&I leaders should leverage and enhance existing initiatives while also adapting them to new needs and challenges as employees and organizations transition to new ways of working. Incorporating D&I considerations into crisis management, such as by encouraging inclusive leadership skills and establishing processes to include different voices in crafting solutions, can be especially useful. Specific examples include:

  • Employee resource groups (ERGs) Engage ERGs and allies to survey their members, gather critical insights, and/or recommend solutions that more effectively support employees more likely to face hardships during the crisis.9
  • D&I team and champions Leverage cross-functional and cross-team collaboration to build relationships to encourage having difficult conversations about inequality. While discussing these topics can be uncomfortable at first, over time it brings more opportunities for meaningful discussions and positive change. D&I work often relies on relationship building, influencing, and building alliances across the organization, which makes it even more valuable during difficult times.10
  • Leadership development and training Inclusive leadership skills are becoming increasingly important. Equip leaders and people managers with the training, resources, and skills to face new challenges and meet the needs and circumstances of different groups of employees.11
  • Leader accountability Build leader expectations around D&I that are measurable and linked to organizational rewards (e.g., inclusive leadership behaviors, inclusion index score, etc.).
  • Health, well-being, and safety practices Provide mental health resources, enhance accessibility to technology, promote health disparity awareness, encourage health and safety practices, and explain the important connections between D&I and safety behaviors.12
  • Work/life effectiveness Build solutions for working parents and for those with new care responsibilities; increase awareness and build trust around different ways of working and encouraging more fluid work rhythms, schedules, and practices; ensure that everyone has the right technology and tools to work effectively.13
  • Community building Encourage new ways of building partnerships with local communities, either through volunteering, information sharing, or other events. Encourage new ways of amplifying resources inside and outside the organization. At the beginning of the recent health crisis when travel was restricted across the US, for example, American Airlines partnered with a number of national retailers to hire their employees with transferable skills who had been furloughed or put on a reduced schedule.14

Enhance participation in D&I

As D&I becomes more integrated into the organization’s recovery strategy, engage employees and leaders more broadly. Recent events, including disruptions in regular work and travel schedules and increased visibility of D&I issues, amplify opportunities to involve those who typically do not participate in D&I. Boosting interest and participation in D&I activities helps ensure that the burden of speaking up doesn’t fall solely on marginalized groups or on those most affected by crises.

A few important considerations to make when building more inclusive participation practices include:

  • Work with HR, business leaders, and people managers to integrate D&I solutions into action plans and within individual talent development plans and goals. For example, people managers can recognize their team members’ work on ERGs during their performance conversations.15 Doing so highlights the value that D&I can bring to the organization as well as to individual employees interested in developing new skills and competencies.
  • Rethink how you communicate with employees and teams with a focus on sharing information more equitably and effectively. Refresh (team) communication practices to establish new norms, procedures, and tools around day-to-day work (e.g., use collaboration tools, limit meetings on particular days/times, consider schedules and time zones, etc.).
  • Leverage technology to connect and poll employees; provide access to educational activities to help employees and leaders practice collaboration and communication skills. Ensure virtual meetings are accessible through closed captioning and recordings and send documents to review in advance whenever possible.16
  • Set up regular check-ins and opportunities for employees to share how things are going. These can take the form of quick polls, leader or team “office hours,” mentoring conversations, and peer coaching, to name a few.17

Diversity and Organizational Resilience

A growing body of research shows that D&I helps navigate uncertainty and build resilience across multiple stages of a crisis and recovery. The same leadership and cultural skills that drive workplace inclusion on a “regular day” can support crisis management and build resilience during times of change and recovery.18

D&I considerations are vital during difficult times and important to building a more resilient and equitable workplace, one that can facilitate difficult conversations and support employees who often remain marginalized throughout their careers.19 Indeed, data suggest that more diverse and inclusive companies substantially outperformed others during the Great Recession.20 Within the workplace, resilience entails an organization’s ability to reinvent and renew, as well as overcome barriers to change.21

Workplace diversity boosts crisis recovery by building organizational and team resilience. Specifically, diversity builds capabilities during the three stages of the resilience process, as outlined in a recent Harvard Business Review article: anticipation, coping, and adaptation.22

  • Anticipation pertains to the awareness and communication around potential risks to the organization. Resilient organizations are ready to respond to high-risk events, however low their probability. D&I supports this process by helping identify critical issues, prepare for the future, and prevent groupthink.
  • Coping focuses on how organizations manage uncertainty during a crisis. Coping often requires alliance-building skills and leaders’ ability to work with both internal and external partners to craft solutions and maximize resources for recovery. D&I activities advance the communication, problem solving, and alliance-building capabilities vital to coping.
  • Adaptation speaks to what is needed to recover from a crisis and to process responses to change, acceptance, and growth. Effective diversity management enhances adaptation by providing tools to navigate change, increase awareness about challenges and opportunities, and encourage openness during difficult times, limiting bias and groupthink.

2 Rebecca L. Ray, Through a Glass Darkly: Preparing to Return to the (Reimagined) Workplace, The Conference Board, April 2020.

3 Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, Sara Prince, and Sandra Sancier-Sultan, “Diversity Still Matters,” McKinsey Quarterly, May 19, 2020.

4 Laura Morgan Roberts and Ella F. Washington, “US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action against Racism,” Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2020.

5 “Coronavirus Layoffs Could Erase Many of Women’s Workplace Gains,” Catalyst, March 26, 2020; Dolan et al., “Diversity Still Matters”; Alexandra Kalev, “Research: US Unemployment Rising Faster for Women and People of Color,Harvard Business Review, April 20, 2020.

6 Dolan et al., "Diversity Still Matters.”

7 Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo, “Toward a Racially Just Workplace,” Harvard Business Review, December 3, 2019.

8 Morgan Roberts and Washington, “US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action against Racism.”

9 For more information on ERGs, see: Laura Sabattini, Amy Ye, Amanda Popiela, and Jane Horan, What’s Next For Employee Groups? The Conference Board, January 2020; Laura Sabattini, COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Employee Groups as a Crucial Resource for Organizations and Leaders, The Conference Board, June 2020.

10 Mary B. Young , Marion Divine, and Laura Sabattini, Taking Diversity and Inclusion Global: Balancing Alignment and Flexibility, The Conference Board, April 2020.

11 Lloyd W. Howell, Jr., “Why Leadership Diversity Matters in Handling Crises Like COVID-19,” Knowledge@Wharton, March 23, 2020.

12 Anna Paolillo, Silvia A. Silva, and Margherita Pasini, "Promoting Safety Participation through Diversity and Inclusion Climates,” International Journal of Workplace Health Management 9, no. 3 (2016): 308–327.

13 For more information on work/life effectiveness and work flexibility, see: Marjorie Derven, “Diversity and Inclusion Are Essential to a Global Virtual Team’s Success,” Association for Talent Development, 2016; Ruchika Tulshyan, “How to Be an Inclusive Leader through a Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, April 10, 2020.

14 Kenneth Charles and Robin Erickson, “An Abundance of Caring: American Airlines Helps Redeploy Employees,” Human Capital Blog, The Conference Board, April 15, 2020.

15 Sabattini et al., What’s Next for Employee Groups?

16 Tulshyan, “How to Be an Inclusive Leader through a Crisis.”

17 Aaron Hurst, “Newly Remote Workers Need Peer Coaching,” MIT Sloan Management Review, April 20, 2020.

18 Stephanie Duchek, Sebastian Raetze, and Ianina Scheuch, “The Role of Diversity in Organizational Resilience: A Theoretical Framework,” Business Research, 2019; Raven Tolbert, “4 Diversity & Inclusion Strategies to Help Your Organization Endure the Next Recession,” Great Place to Work, February 28, 2020; Ed Frauenheim and Nancy Ceseña, “New Study Reveals That Diversity and Inclusion May Be the Key to Beating the Next Recession,” Forbes, December 20, 2019.

19 Morgan Roberts and Mayo, “Toward a Racially Just Workplace.”

20 Tolbert, “4 Diversity & Inclusion Strategies to Help Your Organization Endure the Next Recession.”

21 Patrick Reinmoeller and Nicole van Baardwijk, “The Link between Diversity and Resilience,” MIT Sloan Management Review, July 15, 2005.

22 Yvette Mucharraz y Cano, “How Businesses Can Brace for Catastrophe,” Harvard Business Review, February 6, 2020; Duchek et al., “The Role of Diversity in Organizational Resilience.”


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Laura Sabattini, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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