Keeping diversity and inclusion on the boardroom agenda: Five actions for employers responding to Covid-19

Written on 6 Oct 2020

As employers grapple with the ongoing uncertainties of Covid-19, diversity and inclusion (D&I), which had been high on boardroom agendas, may easily be overlooked. However, with recent reports and government guidance continuing to highlight the important role D&I plays in a business's success, coupled with evidence of the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on different sections of society, keeping your D&I strategy alive is key to readying your workplace for the new world of work being accelerated and shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Build diversity into your leadership team

Reports have highlighted that businesses with a diverse leadership team are likely to be the winners in riding out the Covid-19 crisis. Diversity is seen as key in bringing innovation to an organisation's response. The importance of this is underpinned with commentators noting that at times of crisis, a decision-makers unconscious bias is more likely to come into play, exacerbating the situation.

  • Where the leadership team lacks diversity consider not only how this can be addressed longer term, but how employers can tap now into a wider spectrum of experience and thinking, perhaps through D&I champions.
  • Engage management in understanding where unconscious bias may manifest itself and provide updated remote training. Build red flags for bias into internal practices and processes, particularly around recruitment, performance and promotion.

Reflect D&I in your workplace Covid-19 response

Employers are understandably keen to get employees back into the physical workplace, but for many this has been stalled by concerns over a second Covid-19 wave and the government's latest guidance to return to homeworking where possible. Covid-19 has emphasised that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Retaining employee trust and confidence and reinforcing an inclusive workplace culture will require employers to be sensitive in their response to individual employee needs and concerns. Government guidance is clear - where employees feel accepted and respected "employees go the extra mile to secure results, stay with their employer for longer, have a strong commitment to their organisation and lower rates of absenteeism".

  • Ensure your Covid-19 health and safety risk assessment addresses not only your workforce as a whole, but also the impact on particular group, such as those who are BAME, disabled, neuro-divergent, pregnant or returning from maternity leave. Consider sensitively and confidentially any concerns raised; take care not to pre-judge an employee's situation.
  • Embed and build on any communication channels operated whilst remote working – how can these connections (perhaps across different working locations) be continued as workplaces reopen and help embed inclusivity across the organisation?
  • Review your approach to flexible working; identify the benefits and challenges of remote working during Covid-19 and how these learnings can be used to offer flexible working going forward. Women with childcare responsibilities, those with disabilities or BAME individuals may feel more comfortable in taking on more senior positions where remote or blended working between office and home is supported. The government has previously committed to consulting on flexible working by default, unless employers have a good reason not to permit it.
  • It is important to remember however the importance of the workplace for many employees; the facilities available, the social interaction with others and, as Covid-19 has highlighted through increased incidents of domestic violence, for many it is a 'safe' place. For others the workplace may provide a neutral place.

Consider the longer term D&I impact

The end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme on 31 October is requiring many businesses to scrutinise carefully their future costs. The government's new Job Support Scheme provides some assistance - but with its focus on "viable" jobs and the need for increased employer contributions towards an employee's wages in order to receive government funding, there is clearly a risk of employers turning to redundancies and only retaining staff in higher level jobs or allowing unconscious bias to slip into decisions on who should be retained. The damage to the organisation's culture and brand could be significant. With large employers required to publish their gender pay gap, the impact of decisions taken now on D&I will be clear to an external audience of potential new recruits, clients and the media.

  • Consider the broader cultural and brand impact when identifying employees 'at risk' of redundancy – what do the demographics of your pools of 'at risk' and retained staff tell you? Where staff are not in 'viable' jobs can you retain and retrain them?
  • Make sure any redundancy decisions are based on objective criteria and are not tainted by criteria which are potentially discriminatory. For example, whilst working from home has enabled some families to have a more balanced approach to childcare, research has indicated that during lockdown women tended to bear the brunt of home-schooling and which may in turn have impacted on their performance. Others may have had increased caring responsibilities or needed to shield in circumstances where they were unable to work from home. The government has previously committed to extending redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Underpin D&I in your recruitment process

Government guidance highlights the need for employers to consider "a wider talent pool"; recruiting people "who have overcome their own personal challenges so that they can bring fresh perspectives ideas and solutions to problems". The guidance offers support to employers in embracing future employees from a whole spectrum of backgrounds – workplace returners, those who are disabled, the homeless, older workers, those recovering from drug and alcohol misuse, or ex-offenders (where legislative reforms are already proposed with respect to spent convictions, disclosure of warnings). The guidance draws on the unique perspectives that these individuals can bring to the organisation. Employers should also look at what government support is available to them through programmes such as the Kickstart Scheme and government funding for apprenticeships.

  • Understand what your future workplace will look like. What skills will people need? Where will they need to be based?
  • Consider how you can make opportunities in the workplace attractive to those who may not previously have applied. Can you offer flexible working which may be particularly attractive to those with children or older workers?
  • Adapt your existing recruitment practices. How do you currently recruit? What changes can you make? Do managers need to receive unconscious bias training? Does your recruitment process reflect your supportive and inclusive culture? Whilst UK employment law permits employers to take positive action to compensate for disadvantages that it reasonably believes are faced by people who share a particular protected characteristic, care must be taken not to positively discriminate except in the very specific circumstance permitted by legislation.
  • Make sure your workplace policies and practices reflect your diverse workforce. For example, in respect of those recovering from drug and alcohol misuse the government guidance points to promoting a culture of understanding about drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace, offering a regular pattern of work to create a routine and having a clear drug and alcohol policy in place.

Adapt and refine your policies and practices

Getting D&I right is not a quick or easy process. Employers must be prepared to adapt and refine their policies and practices; understanding what is working and what is not. Gender pay gap reporting is a clear metric that organisations can look to. We are currently waiting for the government's response to the potential introduction of ethnicity pay reporting but many businesses are looking to introduce this as a voluntary step.

  • Have a clear process for reviewing your policies; how can you assess the impact they are having on D&I? Should you take voluntary steps to demonstrate your commitment to D&I, such as ethnicity pay reporting? Ensure that you comply with your obligations under the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018 in your approach.
  • Scrutinise your recruitment and promotion practices – are certain groups better represented than others at each stage of the employment journey?
  • Where you have a staff forum, does it reflect the make-up of your organisation?
  • Take on board and act on feedback from any informal D&I groups which are bringing people together within the organisation. Is it helpful to appoint more D&I champions?

Next steps

Employers who put D&I on the backburner in their response to Covid-19 risk emerging from the crisis underprepared to deal with the new world of work. As #metoo and BLM have done, so has Covid-19 highlighted the inequalities that can exist within the workplace. As employers respond to the current challenges and embrace the increasing power of digitalisation and their wider societal and environmental responsibilities in their workplace strategies, employers must now look at what their modern skilled workforce may look like, with D&I at its very core.