What COVID-19 means for diversity and inclusion progress in the United States

The Council for Inclusion in Financial Services explores the effect of COVID-19 on the diversity and inclusion agenda. 

The short-term impact

It is irrefutable that COVID-19 is having an impact on the progress of diversity and inclusion programs in the United States. However, this is hardly a conscious decision on the part of employers and executive leadership.

For many businesses, especially SMEs and start-ups, there is no choice but to go into ‘survival mode’ and do all it takes to just get through this uncertain period without collapsing.

For these companies, anything that might be considered ‘good to have’ is being abandoned, with senior stakeholders unable to prioritize anything that isn’t absolutely crucial to the business, including diversity and inclusion plans.

Larger companies may have been further ahead with their diversity and inclusion strategies before the pandemic started. For some, this means that a pledge to diversity and inclusion has already become a part of the business’s DNA and consequently is unlikely to change.

Nevertheless, for many large organizations, diversity and inclusion will still be a building project and not yet deep-rooted within the business’s core operations. For these corporations, it is likely that diversity policies will be deprioritized until the organization feels able to invest the resources necessary to create a truly impactful diversity and inclusion plan.

This will certainly have an impact on many talented individuals from a vast range of diverse backgrounds. Women and young people will be affected most by these new developments according to data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies. There are numerous reasons for this, one being the fact that these groups are more likely to work in an industry sector that has been forced to suspend business operations. Individuals from these groups are also more likely to work in lower-paid roles, putting them at greater risk.

Even for organizations that are still committed to attracting diverse individuals, there is still a challenge of engaging the right people. For all minority groups, whether this is young people, women, African Americans, or those with disabilities, the most efficient method of engagement is face-to-face contact. Furthermore, once these groups have become engaged, the next step typically would be for an employer to bring them in for work experience, equipping them with the on-the-job experience and confidence they need in order to be successful.

With COVID-19 putting a stop to all face-to-face interaction, businesses who are used to operating in this way will feel as though all of the methods that they generally use to engage and win the trust of underrepresented and undervalued diversity groups have been put to a halt.

The long-term impact

The long-term effect of this halt in progress is still unknown and is completely dependent on how long businesses feel the economic impact of coronavirus. If the worst part of the pandemic is over and we start to see things return to normal before the end of the year, we can probably expect that many businesses will be able to pick up where they left off, and this will simply have been a short term break in activity.

However, if the effects of COVID-19 continue to be felt by organizations into the beginning of 2021, the effect is likely to be much more destructive, resulting in a need to totally reset the diversity agenda in the United States.

Many organizations will be in severe financial distress, meaning that it will take them longer to recover and, ultimately, longer to prioritize anything that isn’t considered vital to their survival. Diversity and inclusion will stay low on their list of priorities for longer, and it will take some years for this to be built back up.

The solution

However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and there are several things that companies can do now to engage with talented, underrepresented individuals during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Technology is crucial to this and, just as companies have improved their operations, communications and commercial offerings to stay afloat during this period, engaging talent can also function efficiently and effectively via digital platforms.

By offering access to learning resources, one-on-one mentoring services, and forums online, programs can be implemented without draining valuable resources, while also allowing prospective employees the freedom to access the content on-demand, at a time that works best for them.

In addition to implementing and embracing new, digital strategies, businesses will also need to consider how their employer brand is being communicated during this time. It is essential for companies to maintain two narratives – an internal narrative focused survival, and an external narrative that communicates an ongoing commitment to diverse talent. If managed properly, there is no reason why these two messages cannot run at the same time.

Some companies are already doing this and have embraced digital engagement tactics with great success. It is the organizations that are able to adapt quickly and intelligently and implement these digital approaches that will emerge from the pandemic prosperous and in a good position to hire valuable diverse talent as soon as they are ready to. Furthermore, if companies in the United States are successful in moving towards a fresh, digital way of working across all of their business functions, this could have a tremendously beneficial long-term effect on diverse talent for whom certain roles were previously inaccessible due to the inflexibility of the office environment and working hours.

Is Your Career Thriving or Surviving?Get the latest industry news, tips, and trends delivered right to your inbox each quarter.

Sign up today to receive our interactive e-newsletter that helps you stay on your professional A-game!