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Applying a DEI Lens in Covid-19 Response

By Courtney Murphy, Senior Fellow, CECP

The Covid-19 crisis has dealt a blow to businesses and communities from a health and economic standpoint. While it’s true that the virus may not discriminate based on race, communities of color in particular have been affected disproportionately because of ingrained socio-economic inequities in healthcare, housing, jobs, and education that have been laid bare in this crisis. People of color are left more vulnerable to contract the virus. Furthermore, the digital divide in low-income neighborhoods, without reliable access to internet or computers, has left many children without connection to school.

Covid-19 has also revolutionized corporate culture overnight, with the vast majority of employees working virtually and some also caring for children or loved ones who may be affected by Covid-19. In joint peer-to-peer calls hosted by a partnership of Association of Corporate Contributions Professionals (ACCP), Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP), Points of Light (POL), and Council on Foundations (COF), corporate social responsibility leaders indicated they are prioritizing the well-being of employees by providing resources for self-care and agile changes to workplace policies. The Edelman Trust Barometer special report on Covid-19 demonstrates the essential role of the private sector in providing employees with reliable and timely information. 

With employees no longer physically together, and many experiencing personal hardship in their families or communities, the growing focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within companies is more important than ever. Instead of putting these efforts on the backburner, a heightened awareness and authentic appreciation of differences is acutely needed. This is a moment for leaders to listen intently and strive to consider all perspectives, which is admittedly challenging at a time when response teams at companies are moving rapidly to make decisions.

What does it mean to apply a DEI lens in the Covid-19 response? Many workplaces establish the dominant corporate culture with their norms, policies, and expectations. This culture may, inadvertently, favor certain groups over others who face invisible obstacles in assimilating, advancing, and feeling psychological safety. A disruption in the ways of operating presents an opportunity to make changes towards equity and inclusion. Applying a DEI lens means taking a look at policies, procedures, and cultural norms to ask whether they work for everyone, and how they might be adjusted to embrace and celebrate the fullness of each individual. Specific areas of a Covid-19 response where a DEI lens could be applied include:

Virtual Norms – With employees working from home, some companies swiftly shifted to using video conferencing for most meetings. Some employees who appreciate the ability to separate their home and work lives may not want to break down that boundary or share certain aspects of their personal lives. Videoconferencing can also present a burden on already-stressed employees to be “camera-ready”. Managers can ask employees how they feel about using video conferencing and relieve some stress by designating which meetings need to use video and which can proceed with a phone call. Virtual backgrounds can be used in Zoom to remove the gaze into one’s living room or bedroom, which can feel intrusive.

Managing Expectations – In addition, while many employees are getting back the time usually spent on their commute, those with young children are simultaneously overseeing distance-learning for their children and dealing with other increased demands that could make the usual working schedule untenable. To mitigate this, companies can consider what flexibility they may be able to provide to let employees decide when and how to get their work done and relax expectations of being perpetually “present”. 

Employee Engagement – Companies are framing their employee engagement through an inclusion lens as they provide Covid-19 education and resources for working from home. Employees can give back financially through an increase in corporate matching to Covid-19 charities, create hashtags such as #COVIDkindness to share uplifting stories of helping others, and take part in virtual volunteer opportunities to sew masks from home or call upon the elderly, for example. Companies are seeing the value of creating group experiences with families and colleagues amid virtual work. However, these messages need to be delivered carefully, as companies know that not all their employees are in a position to help others. Indeed, many are in need of support themselves, and companies are activating Employee Assistance Funds to help with individual hardships. 

Employee Resource Groups – Diversity and Inclusion and Human Resources teams at companies are actively engaging remotely with employee diversity networks to be aware of conversations about the impact of Covid-19 and what they may need to move forward. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can inform corporate grantmaking by helping to identify issues and the communities and nonprofit organizations that are the most impacted by Covid-19.

Grantmaking – Indeed, philanthropic responses to the Covid-19 crisis are prioritizing vulnerable populations and focusing on equity and the intersections of poverty and race. Many companies are donating to funds set up by community foundations, which have an ear to the ground on the needs in communities. Dr. Kamau Bobb, who led the CECP Accelerate Community Systemic Investments in Equity, Talent, and Tech, spoke on a recent interview on America Amplified about how this crisis will exacerbate the challenges in a K-12 Education system that was already unequal. A recent report by Echoing Green and Bridgespan indicates that nonprofit groups led by black and Latino directors lag behind peers with white leaders. The way in which companies respond to Covid-19 presents an opportunity to shift that power dynamic. Many companies are investing in efforts to support small business leaders in disadvantaged communities or those who may not be able to easily access loans and government relief.

This is a time for companies to engage fully in the hard work of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, both within their company and in their community response. The intersection of Diversity and Inclusion and Corporate Social Engagement has never been more important. While social distancing and virtual workplaces present a challenge in bringing people together, the potential to unlock solutions in Covid-19 recovery holds promise to build a future that is more inclusive and equitable for all.