COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter test diversity in the workplace: Communication breakdown evident

Equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace remain high on the agenda of organisations as we transition to the next era of work. Despite COVID-19 headwinds, the continued rise of progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter and resulting demonstrations around the world have brought the issue of equality, diversity and inclusion, or ED&I, firmly to the fore and shone a spotlight on the progress organisations are – or are not – making.
The outpouring of public support for these movements ensured that the focus remained on the difficult lived experiences faced by many in our world of work today. At the same time – or perhaps because of it – a number of organisations rapidly took to social media to pledge their support and promote their dedication to managing diversity.
But amidst the challenges of the pandemic, have organisations made any progress in improving diversity in the workplace off the back of movements such as Black Lives Matter?

Employers and employees disagree over equality, diversity & inclusion focus

It seems there is inconsistency between employers and employees about how much attention ED&I has received. For our new Hays Barometer Report, we asked over 4,000 professionals and employers about their organisation’s changing commitment to ED&I during the pandemic. What we found was a split of opinion.
During this pandemic, one quarter of employers believe their organisation’s focus on ED&I has increased. In contrast, just 13 per cent of their employees agree. 
However, there is alignment when it comes to whether the importance of ED&I has increased as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. As our results show, 14 per cent of both employers and employees agree it has become more important. The most striking statistic to come out of this line of questioning, however, was that the majority of both groups, employers and employees, believe there has been no change in importance at all as a result of this or other similar movements. 

Employees are unaware of changes being made

The human case for building fairer and more inclusive workplaces is certain; regardless of background, everyone deserves to work in a safe, supportive and respectful environment. There is also a vital business case for equality, diversity & inclusion in the workplace. 
However, it seems that employees are far less likely to agree with their employer that the workplace focus on ED&I is increasing. Whether they believe corporate silence or a failure to implement appropriate polices and measures are to blame, there is a feeling amongst skilled professionals that organisations aren’t prioritising ED&I. 
This inconsistency suggests that the more holistic and strategic view held by employers may help them to recognise that long-term changes are being made to encourage ED&I, but the boots-on-the-ground view of professionals suggests that they are not necessarily fully aware of any changes being made. 
To rectify this, communication is key. Professionals may not always be privy to the strategic decisions affecting ED&I in the workplace, but they are the ones seeing its effects day by day. 

The importance of really listening to employees

But before you are ready to communicate any progress, you must first take some time to listen to the unique perspectives of your employees. Yes, it’s essential to communicate internally how important ED&I is to you and your organisation, but then you must pause and actively seek feedback from your staff. 
Make yourself aware of the unique situation of your direct reports, especially those from underrepresented demographic groups. For example, hold regular one-on-ones as well as anonymous surveys to check in and ask how your people are and what additional support they require in order to bring their whole selves to work, progress their career and reach their full potential.  
The gathering of such feedback is invaluable when looking to understand and make genuine ED&I progress. But crucially, it also allows you to show your staff you care and stand with them. It is also a good metric to see if your commitment to ED&I is having a real impact.
This process of seeking feedback and only then making meaningful change should be continuous though, not a one-off exercise, so create an environment where regular open dialogue is encouraged.  

Only then are you ready to communicate equality, diversity & inclusion progress

Next, if you feel you are making genuine, honest progress to improve ED&I in the workplace or at least want to make this a priority, share your commitment with your employees. This shouldn’t only be communicated through a one-off grand announcement though. It should be communicated through your actions, too. Therefore, don’t separate your ED&I efforts from business as usual, but instead interconnect them and lead by example by making ED&I a standard agenda item and area of focus for you.  
As part of this, share policies, progress and successes regularly and honestly. Crucially, also share the identified areas for improvement so that your employees see you value their feedback and act upon it. By being transparent and acknowledging that there is more work to do, you demonstrate a genuine commitment to continuing to improve ED&I in your workplace.   
Expect to face scrutiny from your employees though, so make sure you walk the talk before looking to promote any ED&I progress to them. Otherwise, you open yourself to claims of hypocrisy and insincerity, which can damage your employer brand, staff engagement levels and retention rates. 
Therefore, if you fail to reach a target, say so. Honestly communicate to your employees why you haven’t achieved the desired outcome and the steps you are now implementing to reach your goals. Remember, transparency and authenticity are essential in engaging your employees in your ED&I journey. 

Progress together

In today’s unprecedented environment, with so many other challenges to overcome, ED&I cannot be left by the wayside. By working together as one unit, employers and employees can make real progress in their organisations. But this can only occur if employers first communicate transparently and honestly your commitment and progress, while simultaneously listening to the feedback of your employees. Only then can you implement relevant and practical steps to improve ED&I in your workplace.

About this author

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director, began working at Hays in 1993 and since then he has held a variety of consulting and management roles across the business. In 2004 he was appointed to the Hays Board of Directors. He was made Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand in 2012.

Prior to joining Hays, he had a background in human resource management and marketing, and has formal qualifications in Psychology.

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