Libby McCaughey
over 1 year ago by Libby McCaughey

What's happening with Diversity and Inclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic?

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In a recent CIPD survey conducted in April 2020, around two fifths of employers said they thought that their prior investment in diversity and inclusion helped them respond effectively in a crisis to employee (43%) and customer needs (41%). It makes sense that a diverse workforce, which feels included can contribute to more innovative solutions, as well as having a greater understanding of issues facing the company, customers and the community. Furthermore, employees are more likely to go the extra mile at work if they feel trusted, treated fairly, valued, and that they have a meaningful voice in their organisation.  

To what extent are employers maintaining their focus on diversity and inclusion during the current COVID-19 crisis?  
Workforce inclusion is more essential now than ever as people are dealing with unprecedented circumstances. And as more employers start to think through a safe and effective return to the physical workplace, consideration needs to be given to: 

-       How people can best and most safely balance their home and work responsibilities. 

-       How the pandemic is affecting different groups of employees. 

-       Workplace adjustments that may be needed.  

Peter Cheese’s (CIPD CEO) wrote a blog on the three tests employers should take before bringing their employees back to work. Also the Government has published COVID-19 secure guidelines on how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic – there are eight detailed guides for employers, employees and the self-employed. Each covers a different type of working setting.  

An active focus on D&I has slipped down the list of top HR priorities 

It’s concerning that diversity and inclusion is currently seen as a lesser priority during the pandemic by employers. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 14% of employers put diversity and inclusion in their top three HR priorities, compared to just 5% one month into ‘lockdown’.  

However, when we look at responses to this question together with the rest of the survey data, a more comprehensive picture emerges. We see that although an active focus on diversity and inclusion appears to have slipped down the overall priority list as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been replaced by a stronger focus on workforce inclusion overall and a greater understanding of employees’ individual and personal circumstances.  

It is likely that focus on specific programmes of work have been put on hold temporarily. However, being inclusive is still a priority factor for many employers in the immediate decisions that need to be made. Despite the percentage of employers saying diversity and inclusion has become a lesser priority during lockdown, just over two-fifths (42%) disagreed with the statement: ‘work on diversity and inclusion has to go on the backburner for now’. Just a quarter (26%) agreed.  

However, there is a greater understanding of employees’ individual and personal circumstances 

It is reassuring that the majority (65%) of employers say they have explicitly considered the needs and likely concerns of different employee groups. This suggests diversity and inclusion is still on their radar, albeit in a different guise. However, there are still 12% of employers who say they haven’t. 

Those in key worker roles are working in difficult conditions, many are facing pressured situations and there is a high degree of risk and uncertainty. Other UK workers are now working remotely, perhaps for the first time. They may be feeling socially isolated as a result of the ‘lockdown’, and many UK workers across the board are juggling home and work responsibilities, including childcare, home schooling and care for elderly relatives or vulnerable friends and family. Inclusive and flexible management practices will certainly make a difference for people and for the business as we gradually exit lockdown. 

Reassuringly, the findings suggest that a large proportion of employers who understand the current worries of employees are responding to those. Despite diversity and inclusion slipping down the people profession’s overall priority list at the moment, if we look at employee health and wellbeing, it has become a top three priority for many more employers since the onset of the pandemic. A notable 65% say it’s a current high priority, compared to 37% before the pandemic.  

It’s particularly interesting that for employers who noted employee concern around the negative impact of isolation and loneliness on their mental health, the proportion of employers who put health and wellbeing as a top three priority rose to 77%. Additionally, 73% of employers who say employees are fearful and anxious about themselves or loved ones becoming ill put employee wellbeing in their top three priorities.  

And there’s more support for line managers 
The inclusive behaviour of line managers comes under the spotlight as a necessity for employee wellbeing, as well as for engagement and productivity. Line managers are now managing virtual teams and flexible workers, as well as being expected to support employees facing different circumstances in and out of work. In addition, they themselves are facing similar challenges both at work and juggling work and home responsibilities.  

Two-fifths (41%) of HR teams have stepped up support for line managers. Managers’ role is a significant influence on employees’ work experience, including their wellbeing and their sense of inclusion. We hope that more organisations will follow this lead. Private sector employers are most likely to have stepped up this support (44%), compared to 36% of public sector employers and 30% of the voluntary sector. 

Diversity and inclusion need to be a core part of business decision-making processes 
The COVID-19 pandemic has created numerous challenges for businesses, which require quick and difficult decisions. These include decisions on redundancies, furloughing and the return to work. Employers should ensure these decisions are compliant with their legal obligations and do not discriminate. Take a look at advice the EHRC has produced for employers as well as Government guidelines on making workplaces COVID secure. 

In addition, standard people management practices such as recruitment are now happening in very different circumstances than before the pandemic. It’s essential for employers to ensure they also handle these situations in a non-discriminatory way. For example, if switching to virtual recruitment methods, employers need to ensure they are being fair, transparent and inclusive. 

In conclusion, diversity and inclusion is clearly still on employers’ radar, albeit in a different guise. The focus before the pandemic has been replaced by a stronger focus on workforce inclusion overall, and a greater understanding of employees’ individual and personal circumstances.  

Many employers, for the first time, have been forced to ask questions related to employee circumstances and wellbeing and are developing a clearer picture of their workforce and the specific needs of individuals. They’ve had to factor this insight into wider decision-making, such as preparing for the return to the workplace and the new ways of working that will need to be implemented. It’s imperative that attention to inclusive leader and manager behaviour and decision-making prevails in those already doing so, and needs to be encouraged among employers who are more inclined to prioritise operational imperatives at the expense of concern for their staff. 

Information sourced from CIPD