Aside from global gender disparity, the pandemic has exposed other deep inequalities. For example, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 served as the trigger for worldwide protests against racism.
Suki Sandhu, one of the UK's leading diversity specialists – who in 2019 received an OBE for his work at both boutique executive search firm Audeliss and INvolve, the inclusion organization that “helps businesses transform their cultures and create more inclusive workplaces” – says that some businesses were slow to act.
"In March 2020, DE&I fell off the priority list," he says, pointing to research published by the Institute for Corporate Productivity that indicated over one-quarter (27 percent) of organizations had put their DE&I related initiatives on hold due to the coronavirus crisis. The death of George Floyd, and others, caused these schemes to be kickstarted and grown.
Although the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, Floyd’s death was an “awakening moment for businesses globally to take up the race agenda,” Sandhu says, noting Audeliss has enjoyed a “record year,” highlighting the demand for greater workplace diversity. “We’ve never seen companies be as proactive and purposeful in wanting to drive it, and as far as we’re concerned we just hope it’s sustained and they continue to have that focus.”
To accelerate progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), though, he believes the mindsets of many leaders must change, and top-down support for schemes is critical.
A month before Floyd's death, Crowe LLP (USA) appointed its first Chief Diversity Officer, Christopher Mitchell. "Crowe is a progressive firm," he says, "and we wanted to be more intentional about improving D&I and ensuring that all of our staff feel comfortable and can be themselves. When George Floyd died, we had to back up and pivot on our strategy. At that point, it was important to sit down with people, lend an ear, and understand what they were feeling."
Texas-based Mitchell explains how the power of listening to employees' concerns enables people to be themselves and, in turn, improves motivation and productivity at work. “Processing all of those opinions isn't easy, but it helps work out the next steps, focusing on messaging, training and providing information on DE&I strategy.”
Diversity is more than hitting quotas, or similar, though, stresses Mitchell. "There is sometimes confusion about DE&I – it's not about numbers, but all about inclusivity. It's about people being made to feel part of the team; if they feel like an outsider, then they are going to leave."
Organizations should establish business resource groups, to better understand teammates, suggests Mitchell. “For anyone who joins the firm, attending these groups will help personal growth and assist with understanding any inherent biases.”
Crowe plans to publish the company's first DE&I report towards the end of 2021. "You have to be transparent, intentional, and hold yourself accountable to a plan," Mitchell says. "This report we hope will make our people feel better about the infrastructure we are building that makes everyone feel more included. It's a win-win situation, but reporting alone doesn't solve everything.
"It is a bad move if you ignore DE&I today. The key messages for businesses trying to improve DE&I are: listen to your people; be patient; do what you can within your organization; and be intentional. Inclusivity is not an easy thing to 'solve' because it is emotional. It takes trial and error, but the vital point is to understand what your people think."
Sandhu agrees. "If a company is willing to report externally, it shows the commitment to DE&I." However, he argues that offering digital training is especially crucial as businesses move to a hybrid working model. "It's imperative to educate leaders and employees about inequalities and also provide them with practical tools that create real, meaningful change," he says, going on to echo Mitchell's tip to create employer resource groups. "And it is so vital to capture data so that you can track performance and progress."
Lynda Dupont-Blackshaw, Global Marketing Director of Crowe Global, worries that the continuation of remote working will marginalize certain groups, and managers must be trained to accommodate the new ways of working. "At the moment, most businesses are not equal," she says. "They are trying to be equal and should offer people a safe environment. But they must be careful not to exclude anyone unintentionally as we move to hybrid working.
"Managers are going to have to be superb at connecting and engaging with staff in different places – both virtual and physical – and making sure they are collaborating and not leaving anyone out. Those who think managers today possess the necessary skills are likely to be sorely mistaken."
The final word goes to Sandhu, who underlines that “diversity and inclusion isn't an add-on – it sits across everything. It should always be seen as a priority because we constantly need to drive change and constantly remind people what needs to happen.”
He adds: “It's about accelerating what your plans might be rather than taking the foot off the pedal and also remembering that in a remote setting, or pandemic setting, you have to double down with diversity and inclusion initiatives to retain your talent.”
"When it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion, it is a marathon, not a sprint," says Herschel Frierson, Strategic Networks Leader at Crowe USA and Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Black Accountants. Having been with Crowe since 1996, Frierson is well-placed to comment on how the firm has led on DE&I for decades.
"One of the main reasons I joined Crowe was that it was continuously evolving, continuing to grow – and that family atmosphere is what has kept me here," he says. "The leadership group knows there is always more that can be done and that there is a long distance to travel. We have to find opportunities to grow together. We want to better our – what I call – family members here at Crowe and get the best out of people."
Top-down support for DE&I initiatives is critical, states Frierson. Leaders must have a progressive mindset and also show their vulnerabilities. "Once they embrace the fact that everyone has different lives, then the organization can move forward," he says. "When you understand and respect that different groups have struggles, and set up support systems, then people can be their authentic selves. This will bring out the best in them."
He adds: "A lot of progress has been made in the last year because there have been more conversations about DE&I. How can you move the conversation forward? It is about heading in the right direction in this marathon. If you still have the same conversation in a year, you are not moving quickly enough. It isn't about breaking the glass ceiling. Diverse-minded business leaders want to be thinking: 'Let's build a whole new house.'"
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