Why HR can’t forget the D&I agenda

As Americans begin returning to workplaces, many HR leaders are focused on mitigating health risks. But, they also need to be mindful, experts say, of the added risks to their D&I agendas.

For instance, women account for 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April alone, according to research released recently by Citibank. The report shows the problem is only expected to worsen: Of the 44 million workers at risk of losing their jobs, 31 million are predicted to be women (70%).

While women are heavily represented in industries hardest hit by the virus, there may be another reason for the disparity: the rise of the “old boys’ network.”

“In times of stress, human nature is to default to people who feel familiar and ‘safe’; this is a dangerous pitfall right now,” says T.R. Straub, co-leader of the Diversity & Inclusion Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm.

For instance, Straub says, with many people working from home, there are few opportunities to bump into others and engage in conversations with those outside of your default network.

“For those at less senior levels, or otherwise outside of spheres of influence, this can diminish their voices,” Straub says. “And, by the sheer nature that the senior-most ranks of organizations are less diverse, this has the unintended effect of inadvertently shutting out minority voices.”

Employees of color are also at risk of being marginalized. Despite growing corporate efforts to release yearly diversity and inclusion stats, Black individuals still only hold 3.2% of senior leadership positions at large companies. What’s more, 65% of Black employees say they have to work harder to advance within the workplace, compared to 16% of white employees, according to a Center for Talent Innovation report released in late 2019.

D&I may not be getting the attention it deserves because of the business disruption caused by the pandemic.

According to Ian Cook, vice president at data analytics company Visier, many organizations have been in crisis mode and focused solely on their financial viability in the last few months.

“This makes it all too easy to ignore, or unintentionally leave aside, the important lens of diversity and inclusion when it comes to business decisions,” Cook says, adding that, often, the decisions to layoff or furlough employees are driven by the finances team, which focuses on the dollars, not the people behind them.

“This can also lead to the D&I agenda being forgotten,” Cook says, noting that, for many organizations, D&I is seen as a “score-keeping” or a reporting task: something checked periodically to make sure results are aligned to goals. More sophisticated organizations, he notes, have evolved their D&I practices to be part of the decision-making process.

“When up-to-date D&I data is always available, and business leaders know they will be accountable for the impact of their decisions on D&I outcomes, it becomes a core part of every people decision to assess and understand its impact,” he says.

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