How Diversity Heads Are Steering Their Companies Through The COVID-19 Crisis

 How Diversity Heads Are Steering Their Companies Through The COVID-19 Crisis

By Ruth Umoh

The coronavirus pandemic has roiled the nation, leaving businesses with little choice but to adapt and adjust. As company leaders have pivoted to address the needs of their most important business asset—talent—one thing has become abundantly clear: those with strong diversity and inclusion initiatives already in place have had an easier time steering their companies through the pandemic’s choppy waters. 

But even for companies with a solid diversity and inclusion foundation, the novel virus has forced diversity heads to think creatively about how best to support their talent, while still making strides on representation and belonging in the midst of global hiring freezes and layoffs. 

While prioritizing the safety and well-being of their employees has, understandably, been placed at the top of their to-do list, continuing efforts to maintain inclusive work environments hasn’t exactly dropped off.

“We now have to look at everything through the lens of ‘is this something that’s going to help improve the health and safety of our people?’” says Maxine Williams, Facebook’s chief diversity officer. “That has then driven everything else we do.”

At Starbucks, store employees working more than 20 hours a week are entitled to standard sick pay and personal time off as well as catastrophe pay, which allows them to receive pay for 30 days if they choose to not come to work. Like many eateries across the nation, the coffee chain has had to change its business model from that of an in-person cafe to drive-thru and delivery only. But staffers, or “partners” as Starbucks refers to its store employees, still man the physical locations.

“There are certain partners who may not want to show up to work for fear that they might be exposed to COVID-19 or because they need to take extra precaution for a family member,” says Nzinga Shaw, Starbuck’s global chief inclusion and diversity officer. 

Uber employees have long had the option to work from home, says its first-ever diversity and inclusion officer, Bo Young Lee, but the company has now had to normalize that process. Diversity heads, including Lee, have been tasked with supporting employees who are at-home caregivers, particularly women and people of color who often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities for elderly parents, disabled family members or young children.

Flexibility is the keyword across the board, whether that’s flexible work hours or flexible leave arrangements, says Williams. Both Facebook and Uber have provided their employees with resources on finding balance as a caregiver and coping in a remote work environment. For parents who are dealing with childcare issues, Facebook has teamed up with the child and elder care provider Bright Horizons, while Starbucks has temporarily expanded its Care@Work program to support employees who need backup care. This benefit includes 20 days of paid care and full reimbursement for workers who pursue care services outside of the company’s chosen network.

Communicating the full breadth of services available to employees early on is critical during a crisis, says Ezinne Kwubiri, the head of inclusion and diversity at H&M North America. “A lot of times you don’t realize all the benefits you have until something is going wrong and you actually need it.” Earlier this month, the fast-fashion retailer furloughed a majority of its U.S. workforce, but Kwubiri says that their employee benefits are still guaranteed until stores reopen.

A central tenet to any good diversity and inclusion initiative is the ability to foster strong human connections. This has become increasingly difficult in a remote work environment, given the fact that many diversity strategies are based on a community office environment and, in turn, lend themselves to in-person interactions. But thanks to digital platforms and other technological modes of communication, employees are still able to connect over shared interests and build engagement.

Facebook, for example, has seen its black female staffers and users share tips for styling their hair at home as well as recipes for healthy meals. Managers are also encouraged to host digital one-on-ones with their direct reports and perform routine check-ins, especially with employees from underrepresented communities.

Some companies have held virtual happy hours, morning coffee meetings and digital town halls, or extended human resource office hours for those who simply want to talk. “There’s been an acknowledgment that sometimes you just have to pause for people to come into a meeting and talk about what’s going on before you dive into things,” says Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s head of global diversity, inclusion and belonging.

As employees continue to swap team huddles and water cooler gatherings for Google Hangouts and Zoom meetings, one silver lining has emerged: this shared experience, albeit unusual, has helped humanize those in managerial positions and opened the door for a new level of intimacy. “We’ve been encouraging our leaders at Uber to share a bit more of their personal selves,” Lee says. “We’ve had children on Zoom calls and they’ve introduced their parents and grandparents to their teams.”

In years past, companies have incorporated cultural diversity awareness in the form of celebratory events like Hispanic Heritage Month, many of which have now been canceled or moved to the digital realm. Girish Ganesan, the global head of diversity and inclusion at TD Bank, says that he’s leveraged virtual programming wherever possible because employees crave positive news and celebratory milestones.

In March, the bank held a virtual event in honor of Transgender Visibility Day and celebrated Lunar New Year in January, at a time when the Asian-American diaspora was confronting hateful stereotypes related to the coronavirus. “We might have a lower participation rate than if we held these events in-person, but every effort counts in order to make sure that employees feel a sense of belonging,” Ganesan says.

These celebratory markers also help to lift employees’ spirits in a period of near-isolation and seemingly endless uncertainty. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of U.S. adults are experiencing negative mental health issues as a result of the coronavirus, up from 32% in March.

Corporate efforts to address mental health needs have risen dramatically over the last few months with companies promoting mental health benefits, crisis support, free access to teletherapy and guidelines on resiliency, dealing with adversity and effective management during stressful periods.

These resources are particularly important for communities of color, such as Asian-Americans, who are facing increased incidences of racism, and the black community, which is dying in greater numbers from COVID-19. Simultaneously, these ethnic groups are typically more reluctant to seek out mental help due to cultural upbringing.

“We’ve been really trying to normalize mental health, especially in a cross-cultural environment, and remove the stigma around it,” Lee says, adding that she’s proactively reached out to Uber’s affinity groups. “As an Asian myself, I have been victim to racial profiling, and so I really want all of our employee resource groups to feel that they’re supported.”

Recently, Facebook made an unprecedented move to temporarily eliminate performance reviews and ratings. “We could see where the impact was going to be intense on people in terms of their mental health and their ability to perform and take care of themselves and their families,” Williams says. “We also gave full-time employees an additional stipend to help them navigate being able to work from home.”

For companies with set diverse representation targets, mass layoffs and hiring freezes have proven to be a formidable barrier. The retail sector alone has seen tens of thousands of layoffs as the industry reels from the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Originally posted on Forbes

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