17th Jul 2020
3 Min Read

Unimaginable pain and grief... and a rainbow.

Russ Norton
Russ Norton
Diversity & Inclusion

It will take courage, commitment and collective responsibility to take the learnings of the Covid-19 tragedy and turn it into the impetus for a bolder and more strategic approach to building more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

If nothing else, let this be a positive outcome.

Despite claims that it’s ‘the great leveller’, coronavirus has revealed some of the deep-rooted differences between demographic groups. Black and minority ethnic people have died in disproportionate numbers in the US and UK.

Lockdown restrictions have put extra pressure on people with mental health conditions, particularly those in lower income brackets, who don’t benefit from the luxury of private gardens or quiet home workspaces and those at risk of domestic violence are in even greater danger than normal.

These stories have not been shared under the heading of diversity and inclusion, instead they are our daily reality. For some, it has been a wake-up call, the first time they’ve noticed their own level of privilege, the first time the need for D&I has become obvious. A powerful impetus to do things better, for the benefit of everyone, could come from this tragedy. However, our actions must still be strategic if we are to make successful changes for the long-term.

Culture is hard to change, but individual mindsets can and - with enough groundswell - bring about cultural change. So, we should never shy away from talking about diversity and inclusion, global pandemic or not. The challenge is to set measures and messages to land with the right impact, because without a strategic approach, well-intended actions can lead to unintended consequences.

A case in point, California wrote into law that at least one woman sat on every board of a company with at least six directors. Many organisations simply appointed one new female leader, increasing the size of their board to meet the quota. Now, the law faces challenge from some male-dominated companies, claiming it is unconstitutional and, from D&I advocates, saying that proportionate targets would deliver more meaningful results. While data is an essential ingredient to any D&I strategy, this example shows that arbitrary targets are a risk.

A clear articulation of ‘why’ is essential to bring people on board. Your organisation may support a domestic abuse charity because of the personal experience of one of its leaders. It might support Pride to open its brand to a new audience of potential customers or employees. Each action must come with a clear explanation of why you’re doing it, so that people can make sense of it and approach it with the right mindset.

It’s impossible to be human and not have more than one characteristic, which also means there are myriad topics covered under D&I. It can be difficult for the uninitiated to find their way into the subject. It can also mean that more vocal groups hog the limelight, to the detriment of smaller or quieter communities.

Again, the solution comes from taking a strategic approach, plus mandatory training in the basics of D&I, to include an induction module on the support available at your workplace and co-ordinated communications that surface one topic at a time.

We’ve made huge progress in some areas; acceptance and inclusion of LGBT and, to a lesser extent, bisexual people has increased and generally people are more confident talking about sexual orientation. Their battles were fought by proud people willing to speak out, raise awareness and recruit allies. Where once we felt squeamish to use uncertain and uncomfortable terminology, now they’re more commonplace.

Right now, it’s the trans community that is facing the brunt of unfair debate over their right to exist. We have to keep being brave enough to stand up and support those that need it, not just in the space of gender identity, but for every under-represented community.

There is power in pushing people out of their comfort zones and into their growth zones and we must call on that power in D&I, in a strategic approach and challenge ourselves to make our policies and procedures equitable and fair. In doing so, we have to be open to hearing feedback from those that may have been excluded by them in the past.

We must question whether all communities are represented by our planned activities and through our internal communications. We must influence stakeholders to spell out the reason to believe, declaring why D&I matters and be brave enough to tackle difficult issues at an organisational level.

This article was originally published in THEHRDIrector, issue 189, July 2020. Reproduced with kind permission.

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