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I’ve heard countless times that we operate in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times. Part of my brain just switched off – it’s nothing special because it’s normal, there is no need to worry. But since the onset of Covid–19, I’ve realised that we really are operating in VUCA times and it is hugely disruptive to business operations globally.

Many organisations are preoccupied with crisis management and sadly regressing in some really important people principles, like equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Taking your eye off EDI will have a detrimental impact on your organisation now and in future proofing your resilience.

McKinsey has published some of the most famous studies into the importance of EDI on business performance. Their three reports: Why Diversity Matters (2015); Delivering through Diversity (2018) and Diversity Wins (2020) are a staple read for any HR practitioner. Their latest report Diversity Wins, Inclusion Matters tells us yet again that “the likelihood of diverse companies outperforming industry peers on profitability has increased significantly”.

When we first entered lockdown my reptilian brain (the part of our brain that takes flight and wants to freak out) quickly went into overdrive when some of my clients were cancelling or postponing EDI projects. I was questioning the importance of EDI whilst there were pressing matters like tumbling revenues, keeping employees safe, increased demand in some sectors and creaking supply chains. This is in spite of me seeing first-hand the benefits of diverse teams in creating world-class products when I worked at the BBC and my own personal experience of exclusion and micro-aggressions at work having been born with a rare neuromuscular disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy). Not to mention countless evidence-based reports like McKinsey’s that more diverse and inclusive organisations outperform homogenous ones.

Some organisations have de-prioritised EDI, moved their diversity and inclusion leaders into general HR roles (more hands for firefighting), cancelled projects and slashed budgets.  But then there are the progressive organisations. The ones that know that fostering diversity enables them to make better decisions and innovate at pace. They understand that fostering inclusivity today strengthens their image for the future when searching for talent.

“Inclusive response, inclusive regrowth” has become somewhat of a mantra for me. It’s about EDI leaders becoming inclusive crisis managers to support the business right now and maintain inclusivity, for example conducting Equality Impact Assessments for critical decisions. Recognising that our business decisions could be biased (which we are particularly prone to when working under stress and time constraints) and that privilege in the workplace creates an uneven playing field. For example, an Institute of Fiscal Studies research shows us that Bangladeshi men are 4 times as likely as white British men to be working in ‘shutdown industries’ and black African households have lower than average household savings. Therefore, there is a disproportionate financial impact on these communities and households that is worth bearing in mind.

HR practitioners need to remind the business of the importance of EDI, namely:

·         It increases your reputation. Employees talk in public forums like Glassdoor and LinkedIn about how well (or not) you supported them during the pandemic. This can either attract or undermine talent attraction for you post crisis.

·         Decision-making improves.  Businesses are having to make some very difficult and profound decisions. You probably want to make smart decisions.

·         Creativity and innovation increases. This enables you to better serve your customers and find efficient ways of working.

As we emerge from Covid-19 what are the practical steps you can take to direct your organisation towards a more inclusive place? Here are three key things you can focus on:

Removing systemic bias

Many organisations approach diversity and inclusion as pillars, or strands and in silos. They focus on women in leadership this year, ethnic minority graduates the following year, LGBTQ+ individuals after that, then it’s mindfulness and eventually they might get around to disability. Organisations take a programmatic approach to diversity, which is about fixing individuals. For example, designing a career development programme for women to build confidence and negotiating skills. We need to take an intersectional and systemic approach. Map out the journeys people take to enter your businesses and navigate your organisation once inside.  Remove the speed humps and roadblocks preventing them from completing a journey or slowing them down.

Seeking board level engagement

Even before the pandemic my network told me that the main thing impeding EDI was the lack of senior level engagement and senior leaders not walking the talk. For EDI to ‘stick’ in any organisation it has to be sponsored from the very top. Even during times of crisis, inclusive leaders believe in the value of diversity and inclusion. They are bold and call out non-inclusive behaviours. Despite lots of distraction, inclusive leaders believe that inclusivity enables the business to bounce back better.

Culture

Culture is the sum of our day-to-day behaviour. It is important that your people demonstrate inclusive behaviour now. Don’t revert back to non-inclusive leadership styles or allow unhelpful unconscious biases to take over. If you have stated values about diversity and inclusion then make sure you live up to these values. Otherwise, you are being incongruent and not supporting the ethical case for diversity and inclusion.

Toby Mildon is a Diversity & Inclusion Architect and founder of Mildon, a consultancy and advisory business. Prior to setting up his business, Toby worked as an in-house diversity and inclusion manager at the BBC and Deloitte. Toby is the author of Inclusive Growth: Future proof your business by creating a diverse workplace.

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