The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust organisations and individuals alike into a state of flux, fear and confusion many of us have never seen in our lifetime.
The plates are shifting, but this period of uncertainty also provides an opportunity for business leaders to recast, and to look at every process, policy, practice and behaviour through an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) lens. Those that do will undoubtedly emerge stronger and better placed for the future once we get back to some semblance of normality.
Unless organisations think about EDI now, we know that patterns will emerge around which groups of staff will be more advantaged or disadvantaged when restructuring happens, as it inevitably will in so many businesses.
We have seen it before. An organisation carries out a restructure and everything is carefully considered from a business planning and strategy point of view and then right at the end someone suggests it might be a good idea to do an equality impact assessment, but by then it is too late. EDI should not be an afterthought.
Thinking about change through an EDI lens will ensure that senior people consider how to handle the restructure in such a way that does not disproportionately and unfairly impact certain groups of employees, for example women working part time, or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff in low-paid jobs in less secure parts of a business.
The danger of organisations not applying an EDI lens to everything, particularly during change, is that we will see discrimination and disadvantage compounded later down the line, maybe not straightaway, but certainly in one- or two-years’ time.
Unfortunately, we have already seen patterns in relation to BAME people being disproportionately impacted due to Covid-19. There are a number of reasons behind this such as living in poorer quality or inter-generational housing, because they are more likely to be in frontline positions rather than middle and senior management roles, and because they often feel less confident in speaking out for fear of losing their job due to racism.
While some organisations are optimistic about the future, sadly, many are not. Redundancies are inevitable but even bad news can be handled well. Leaders should ask themselves what they can do to help affected individuals.
When restructuring, inclusive leaders always have EDI in mind and think about how to re-design their organisations in ways that do not inadvertently disproportionally impact on some groups of workers. For example, an HR Director told us of how she had ensured that reconfigured roles did not include criteria that would unnecessarily exclude people from the next two layers down in the organisation, where there are more BAME staff. It is not lowering standards of course, but rather thinking again about how necessary some criteria actually are.
Some groups are impacted by change more than others and it will certainly be more difficult for those not in middle and senior positions. Leaders therefore need to look through an EDI lens so they can recognise this and put in place practical measures to support individuals and to help them thrive.
Some clients are helping affected staff with CV preparation and interview practice, after all, they understand the skills, knowledge and experience they possess and are therefore well placed to support them.
Not only is this the right thing to do because it is sensitive, ethical and culturally intelligent, but for the staff left behind who will see what leaders did, they will know that they did their best to help and will feel good about the organisation. This in turn will foster engagement which will lead to greater productivity and effort. Employees will remember how change was handled long into the future, whether good or bad.
To give a couple of examples from opposite ends of the engagement spectrum. One organisation we work with has done lots of work over the last five years or so weaving EDI into everything they do including their management and leadership programmes. They think about their policies and processes and people skills to make sure, for example, line managers understand how different people experience mental health issues and will automatically think about how things might be different for a member of staff if they are the only male, female or BAME person, or how remote working might be fine for some but difficult for others. They are sensitive and aware, and this organisation is doing well and has got fantastic engagement despite it being a difficult time, and with many of its staff being frontline workers.
Another client is on a steep learning curve. They came to us earlier this year because of some difficult incidents involving racism and sexism. We were in the process of helping them think about that and putting measures in place to ensure it did not happen again. Then Coronavirus hit and because everyone knew about the racism and sexism cases, staff engagement really suffered because the repair work was not yet complete. The work goes on to re-build trust and confidence and a more inclusive culture.
Therefore, it is important that an organisation’s commitment to addressing diversity and inclusion is part of its culture and values every day, not just in times of crisis or change.
So, while organisations are being redesigned and reimagined for future ways of working, if they are not already, now is the time to look at everything through an EDI lens to ensure the best possible outcome for everyone.