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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

An Opportunity for Diversity and Inclusion Efforts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Five people hold puzzle pieces, each of a different color, over their heads.

Allison Eng

Sydney DeVor

The coronavirus pandemic has exasperated and exposed the inequalities facing African American workers in this country, including concerns over wage gaps, healthcare disparities, and employment discrimination. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has highlighted these employment issues as crucial to creating policy changes that promote black liberation, and activists have urged the public to leverage the pandemic's volatile climate to transform America's infrastructure into one that will permit growth and address systematic racism. As the country navigates through the COVID-19 crisis, both public and private sectors will have the unique opportunity to rewrite their core frameworks and become champions of progress, not preservation.

Opportunities for Change

During this time, companies should be going beyond public statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement by beginning to change the existing corporate infrastructure within their workplace. Organizations must first identify the structural factors that have been putting marginalized people of color in disadvantaged positions for years and then invest time and resources into enacting solutions.

Here are suggestions regarding how employers can begin to operationalize and embed programs and processes that address systemic racism and build an inclusive work environment.

Hire an outside Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) expert who has the experience and training to create and implement a D&I plan.

This involves training and seminars on how specific behaviors at workplaces should be handled and improved. Broadening employees’ knowledge and perspective on diversity and inclusion is vital in starting dialogue surrounding work issues. Topics to focus on should include:

  • Implicit biases: Employers can require the administration of the Harvard Implicit Biases Quiz and use the results to improve specific facets of the workplace and help shape future events within the D&I program.
  • Normalizing call-out behavior: The hierarchical structure of the workplace makes it hard for younger employees to call out individuals in higher positions. Seminars should cover the best practices employees can use to implement call-out behavior while maintaining a positive relationship and minimizing backlash.

Create space for people to speak up

Workplaces need to be not only diverse but also inclusive, meaning that it should be equally as easy for individuals to speak up about their thoughts, opinions, experiences. Suggestions can include releasing meeting topics and questions beforehand, having BIPOC moderators, etc.

Do not make it the responsibility of BIPOC to come up with solutions; instead, use them as resources to ask questions and gain insight.

Consulting and interacting with employees of color demonstrates support and can lead to open communication about individuals' broader needs and concerns. Consider implementing anonymous complaint forms and weekly forums. Weekly forums allow employees to have a say in how issues will be resolved and discuss the implementation of initiatives to prevent similar instances in the future. Further, open discussions allow workers to understand more about organizational infrastructure and practices.

Leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as subject matter experts to influence policy change within the workplace.

ERGs are voluntary employee-led groups created to foster a more professional workplace. Executives are also encouraged to play a more significant role or listen in; these groups help increase employee engagement. Committee members are allies. If employees were randomly selected to participate in a committee every four to six months, it would ensure that every employee has the opportunity to create an inclusive workplace. These committees could tackle one initiative/problem per month to reduce inequality and recognize racial gaps.

Take steps to begin closing the “pipeline problem” and occupational segregation issues where not enough BIPOC are considered qualified for certain jobs.

This includes:

  • Recruiting talent from different areas and fields and focusing less on candidates' previous experience (especially paid/unpaid), and more on their skills, abilities, and willingness to learn.
  • Dedicating time and resources towards increasing the number of marginalized employees in predominantly white-collar fields.
  • Focusing fundraising and philanthropy efforts on local communities instead of on national organizations like the Red Cross. Local efforts may include volunteering in schools, assisting with food drives, helping out at homeless shelters/elderly centers, and more.

These recommendations may serve as a launch pad for organizations considering diversity and inclusion as the country reopens, but it is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list. There are many ways in which companies can begin to restructure their workplace environments and company cultures to begin to close the gap between white employees and employees of color. While the broader issue of racial inequality will not be fixed overnight, every company has the power and ability to make incremental change that can support BIPOC employees in the workplace and promote positive social progress.

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