What Matters Now in Diversity and Inclusion?

With Black Lives Matter, a once in a lifetime opportunity emerges
Alan Morantz
Black LIves Matter

Before George Floyd, before COVID-19, before Zoom and Teams became de facto workplaces, some of Canada’s top corporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders met in Toronto to discuss the challenges of advancing their mission. It was October 2019.

Brought together by Smith School of Business, the attendees identified six challenges facing their work. Two related to attitudes and behaviour: the perception that diversity and inclusion issues don’t exist, and the imperative of converting fear into empathy. Two had systemic dimensions: de-biasing recruitment policies and processes, and the persistent lack of role models. And two related to managing transformational change: securing buy-in and sponsorship from decision-makers, and sustaining inclusive behaviours.

Reviewing these significant roadblocks, you could be forgiven for wondering how much progress could really be made anytime soon.

Nine months later, some of the same leaders met again, only this time via video conference and in an apparent topsy-turvy world. By then, the coronavirus pandemic had spread from country to country, forcing economies to shut down and organizations to develop new ways of working. Then, the death of George Floyd by police officers in the U.S. lit a spark that triggered global protests against injustice experienced by Black and other equity-seeking groups.

These events cracked open a rare window of opportunity to advance the interests of diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations. Attitudes really did seem to shift. But they also presented challenges.

Equity in a virtual workplace

Some of these challenges related to the logistics arising from COVID-19. Organizations had to quickly shift to recovery and continuity to meet the needs of clients and helping legions of employees transition to working from home. It has been challenging to practise inclusion in this environment. Suddenly, workers were physically cut off from colleagues and supervisors. Isolation is anathema to D&I experts. Ensuring accountability and building a network of allies require collaboration and connection in order to make progress; this is difficult to accomplish when so many people work from home.

By the time the D&I leaders met again, many of these logistical issues had been addressed. Now, they identified a new set of challenges that reflect how far the ground had shifted.

  • How do we build greater awareness of the systemic barriers that allow inequities to persist? This will require courageous conversations and more education on the foundational issues.

  • How do we get our organizations to go beyond performative communications and commit to actions that lead to real change? This is not so simple: organizations feel pressure to quickly present “solutions” when in reality this work is long term. And in many cases, the source of the problem—and solution—is beyond organizational control.

  • How tightly do we define the call to action? Recent anti-racism demonstrations have focused on anti-Black racism. Going forward, the concerns of a multitude of equity-seeking groups will need to be addressed, which may be challenging for many organizations to pull off.

  • How do we create safe spaces to allow employees to express their frustrations and pain? Not everyone is at the same place on these issues; some have a sophisticated understanding of race-related issues while others are new to them. Leaders must be able to meet people where they are, to speak to all stakeholders in ways that are meaningful to them.

  • What measures must be put in place to enable shared accountability? While workplace diversity and inclusion used to be seen as the responsibility of D&I leaders or HR, more recognize that everyone in the organization has a role to play.

D&I agenda going forward

Just months ago, a big question for D&I leaders was how to break through the wall of denial. Now the question is how to leverage the awakening on issues of race, diversity and equity. On their agenda is consolidating management support, engaging employees in deeper conversations and action, and building out a metrics strategy.

This is a great opportunity to take advantage of current momentum to push through strategies that have been on the back burner or that have not yet come to fruition. That includes creating a diversity and inclusion steering committee to bring more structure to the effort and clarifying who is leading what and where accountability sits.

Leaders will be asked to do less talking and more listening to employees who have lived with and experienced systemic racism. There will also be greater efforts to facilitate delicate and potentially uncomfortable conversations on how organizational norms and practices—even those that are well intentioned—make some employees feel marginalized.

Look for more employee resource groups (ERGs) to be formed to act as safe spaces and venues for sharing of experiences, knowledge and resources. ERGs are voluntary, employee-led teams that build community, provide support and contribute to personal and professional development in the workplace. They can be effective at identifying organizational shortcomings and developing initiatives that are in tune with how employees feel.

Given that COVID-19 may drive up the number of people working remotely well into the future, leaders will be hard-pressed to promote inclusion in remote workforces. It will become that much more important to demonstrate empathy, understand how people are experiencing the new working arrangements and re-double efforts to draw out diverse perspectives within safe spaces—online.

And we can expect to see dashboards that use employee population data to measure performance in diversity and inclusion over time (assuming employees are willing to share information), as well as more surveys and focus groups to drill down into emerging issues.

Tempered optimism

The wind may be in their sails, but D&I leaders are not going to get ahead of themselves. Societal attitudes can be fickle; gains won one day may be lost the next. There are reports, for example, that the pandemic is causing a backslide in gender equality in the workplace.

There is also the perennial problem of good intentions not worth the paper they’re written on. A recent study looked at the behaviour of the nearly 200 CEOs who signed a pledge, issued by the Business Roundtable in the U.S., to stop caring primarily about their shareholders and to also serve the needs of their workers and communities. The study found that as COVID-19 spread, the CEOs who signed the pledge were almost 20 per cent more likely to announce layoffs or furloughs. Signers were less likely to donate to relief efforts, to offer customer discounts or to shift production to pandemic-related goods.

It may be that the behaviour of these CEOs is simply another case of moral self-licensing. This is the tendency for people to use a past virtuous act to justify future—morally dubious—behaviour. Simple examples: it’s OK to eat that slab of chocolate cake because I walked an extra 10 minutes yesterday. Or: I couldn’t possibly be a bigoted leader since I’ve supported an anti-racism campaign in the past.

It’s long been a puzzle why we have so little to show for all the efforts to make our workplaces more diverse and inclusive. Given how moral licensing and systemic barriers are running in the background unnoticed, perhaps it’s not a puzzle after all. It’s why those working in the D&I trenches know that while some changes do seem to happen overnight, substantive gains require dedication, time and focus. 

Alan Morantz is a senior editor of Smith Business Insight.

Smith School of Business

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