If you are pressing ‘pause’​ on diversity and inclusion because of COVID-19, you probably never ‘got it’​ in the first place.

If you are pressing ‘pause’​ on diversity and inclusion because of COVID-19, you probably never ‘got it’​ in the first place.

by Felicity Menzies

Diversity statements, objective hiring practices, flexible working policies, taglines on job adverts, diverse imagery on websites, celebrating days of significance, and unconscious bias training are all necessary components of effective diversity and inclusion programs, but they don’t, per se, drive improved outcomes. Only when an organisation’s leaders truly value diverse insights and actively dismantle barriers to participation and create the conditions where diverse talent are able and willing to contribute fully to work practices and decision-making will an organisation recognise the proven outperformance benefits of diversity—benefits that are critically important as organisations respond to unprecedented disruption.

Never before in modern economic history has there been such an urgent need to innovate, to understand and respond to rapidly changing needs of diverse customers, to engage in high-quality problem-solving and decision-making, to optimise talent. Leaders that respond through a D&I lens stand the best chance of success. COVID-19 is affecting everyone differently—workforces, customers, suppliers, communities—and failing to understand and respond to those differences might mean, at best, an organisation fails to identify new opportunities and, at worst, fails to manage new risks with significant implications for performance and business continuance.

Leaders stand the best chance of managing and pivoting successfully through unprecedented change when they deliberately examine and respond to the changing landscape through the lenses of four diverse groups:

The Diverse Workforce

Inclusive leaders understand that COVID-19 is impacting employees differently. They respond to the unique needs of different groups to ensure that all employees are contributing their full potential.

  •      Inclusive leaders recognise that COVID-19 is causing significant psychological strain and that different employees will respond differently. Inclusive leaders understand that employees with a preexisting or history of mental illness are particularly vulnerable. However, it is normal for any individual to experience distress, anxiety or depression in response to the pandemic and its health, financial, and social implications. Inclusive leaders also know that women and minorities experience higher levels of anxiety at work as a result of bias, discrimination and prejudice and that concerns regarding job security and financial stability may be felt more acutely by those employees. Inclusive leaders understand that for employees who live alone, social distancing measures might be particularly detrimental to wellbeing. Inclusive leaders strengthen their messaging and support around mental health. They regularly share trusted resources on COVID-19 and managing mental health and wellbeing, clearly communicate where and how to seek help, check in with employees regularly on their wellbeing, adjust their performance expectations, ensure employees have time for self-care and to connect on non-work matters with colleagues, and respond and communicate with empathy.
  •      Inclusive leaders are aware that movement restrictions aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus coupled with job losses and financial strain may be making violence in homes more frequent, more severe, and more difficult to escape. Many domestic victims are now in lockdown inside the home with their abuser with limited avenues for escape in the event of an escalation of violence. Inclusive leaders recognise that working from home might not be safe for all employees and offer alternatives, communicate support services available, and employ best-practices for checking in on employee safety without heightening the risk of violence.
  •      Inclusive leaders are aware of an increase in xenophobia and racist attacks. They strengthen their messaging regarding racism, promote a zero-tolerance approach, and communicate support services available to victims.
  •      Inclusive leaders know that many employees working from home have 24/7 caring responsibilities. They understand that it is not feasible for parents caring for pre-school children or home-schooling to maintain their previous work schedules. They similarly understand that some employees will be caring for elderly or other vulnerable relatives and members of their community and this will impact their availability and productivity. Inclusive leaders know that gendered expectations regarding caregiving and housework mean that women will likely take on more of the caregiving and household burden compared with men.
  •      Inclusive leaders understand that some workers, even if deemed ‘essential’, have pre-existing medical conditions or are mature age which leaves them relatively more vulnerable to COVID-19. Inclusive leaders also understand that there are racial disparities reported in some markets on the health implications of acquiring COVID-19 linked to generations of systemic racism. They seek to ensure the safety of all employees and make adjustments to working arrangements and communications as appropriate to protect vulnerable staff. At the same time, inclusive leaders understand that the safety of all of their workers is a legal as well as a moral obligation, and they take precautions to protect the health of all staff. Workplace health and safety extends beyond hygiene practices and protective equipment to ergonomic considerations for employees working from home.
  •      Inclusive leaders understand that people from non-English speaking backgrounds might not have access to the same information as those from English speaking backgrounds. They direct employees to COVID-19 resources in multiple languages and provide interpreters as required to ensure all employees can access the information they need to keep them safe and informed about health issues, social distancing measures and restrictions, government and employer support, and work-related matters.
  •      Inclusive leaders understand that people with disability may face unique barriers working from home because they are unable to access accessible technology on their home computer or remote communication solutions and home workstations are not accessible. Inclusive leaders make reasonable accommodations to meet the needs of employees with disability working from home. Employees with disability might also experience higher levels of anxiety related to difficulties accessing support because of social distancing measures. Inclusive leaders focus on understanding the unique challenges of employees with disability and provide them with the support and assistance they require. 
  •      Inclusive leaders understand that the socioeconomic diversity of their workforce. They recognise that household expenses including phone, internet, and electricity/gas costs will likely increase for employees working from home and that for some employees, the impact will be significant relative to their household income. Inclusive employers seek to reimburse employees for work-related costs. Inclusive leaders also understand that many household incomes will be negatively impacted by the pandemic and offer financial support, for example, financial counselling and resources, low-interest loans.
  •      Inclusive leaders also understand that employees have different living arrangements. Some employees have a dedicated desk, room, and computer at home, whereas other employees do not, and seek to provide employees with the equipment required for a productive home working environment (subject to caregiving, wellbeing, and other constraints) or alternative working arrangements (subject to social distancing guidelines and others safety measures).
  •      Inclusive leaders are aware of bias and scrutinise layoffs to ensure that staffing decisions are fair and objective and that all employees impacted are treated with compassion.

The Diverse Customer

Inclusive leaders understand that COVID-19 is impacting consumers differently. They seek to understand the rapidly changing needs of their diverse customers and actively seek and integrate diverse perspectives and ideas to respond effectively.

  •      Inclusive leaders ensure that communication teams, product/services teams, and marketing teams are diverse.
  •      Inclusive leaders ensure that meetings are run inclusively so that all voices are heard. They actively encourage new ideas, break down silos, remain curious, and create space for others by admitting they don’t have all the answers. They actively manage their biases and prejudgments and monitor their tendency to favour the contributions of people with backgrounds similar to their own or suggestions that align with their preexisting ideas. They understand the power of video conferencing over teleconferencing for inclusion and adhere to other best practices for managing remote teams such as circulating agendas in advance of meetings, monitoring the contributions of team members to ensure no voices are dominating at the exclusion of others, ensuring everyone has access to high-speed wifi, and ending meetings prematurely and rescheduling if one person’s internet connectivity prevents them from contributing to the discussion.
  •      Inclusive leaders understand that cognitive functioning is impaired when staff are in flight-or-fight and seek to promote an emotionally supportive work context. They promote psychological safety by regulating their emotional response, communicating with empathy, rewarding contributions, strengthening personal relationships, and acting as an upstander if a team member exhibits any behaviour that could damage psychological safety for the group.

The Diverse Supplier

COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains, leaving many businesses exposed. Inclusive leaders understand that diverse supply chains are a risk management strategy. They review the diversity of their supplier base and expand their organisation’s supplier pool. Inclusive leaders also understand the value of open innovation and actively seek to integrate the perspectives and ideas of diverse suppliers and other stakeholders to reduce costs, accelerate time to market, increase differentiation, and create new revenue streams.

The Diverse Community

Inclusive leaders understand that they have a significant role to play in supporting the safety, wellbeing, and prosperity of their community. They revisit their purpose, values, and core capabilities and seek opportunities to assist their communities. Inclusive leaders pivot from manufacturing fashion garments to personal protective equipment, from alcohol to hand sanitiser. They offer financial, psychological, and career counselling services at nominal or reduced fees. They donate money, food, and resources to charities and medical services. Inclusive leaders understand that we are all in this together, our livelihoods are intertwined, even if we are not able to hold hands for some time.

Stay safe. Keep well. Be kind.


Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.