Four ways to display inclusive leadership in a time of crisis

We must view diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as increasingly important given the current COVID-19 crisis. With new work routines and employees feeling isolated, forgotten (out of sight, out of mind), overwhelmed, and fearful, we must lean in on our DEI commitment to reinforce organizational ethos. Unchecked, these challenges can lead to decreased productivity, reduced engagement, and erosion of culture. All of which can unravel any DEI organizational progress made to date.

It’s our job as HR leaders to understand these challenges and longer-term risks, empower our leaders with awareness and tools, and ensure consistent, open, two-way dialogue with employees. We’ve outlined four key tips below.

1. Ensure empathetic, transparent communication and really listen to employees

With leaders creating videos from their dining room table, home office, or basement, “we’re all in this together” has become a mantra. Right now, employees need to see their leaders’ humanity and humility to allow for personal connection and more honest and transparent communication, regardless of title or organizational level. These are uncertain times for us all; employees want and need to hear what you do know, what you don’t know, and what you’re still trying to figure out.

Taking a pulse on employee engagement gives employees a voice and can help identify any areas of disconnect and stress that comes with remote work and management. Gauging perception (e.g. via a survey, anonymous Q&A forums, open dialogue at the beginning of a team meeting) on inclusion, well-being, and the effectiveness of your organization’s current communications are all important areas to assess. Do employees feel supported in accomplishing their work? Are there differences in perceptions between various employee groups (e.g. gender, race, age, etc.)? What measures can be implemented to address these issues?

Leaders must act on these insights with empathy. Understanding that certain racial/ethnic groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and offering flexibility and additional support for those caring for ill family members shows commitment. These efforts will be remembered when this crisis is over. Now is the time to think about retention. People who feel their organization and leaders stepped up in terms of inclusive behaviors, recognition, and transparent communication during this difficult time will reward their companies with loyalty.

2. Engage your existing employee resource groups and/or start a new one

For organizations with employee resource groups (ERGs), engaging them in the discussion as thought partners will help you understand and support employee needs. ERG leaders can help better define challenges and potential solutions for specific subsets of the workforce. They can also serve as a key communication and employee engagement channel across constituencies. Strengthening these ERG relationships with leadership now supports a more solid foundation post-crisis.

For those without existing ERGs, this may be the perfect time to start one. Think about unique challenges that certain groups may be facing to determine where to start. Working parents who are now homeschooling provide just one example. Consider your intranet as a channel to create a community space for existing and potential ERG members to engage.

3. Continue performance and development discussions but with a ‘softer’ touch

I’m not talking about an annual performance review but rather informal, frequent coaching discussions. These are key manager/employee touchpoints and should continue virtually with an inclusion lens applied.

The first step in this new environment is simply to understand what your people need to be productive. For remote work, providing technical support and replicating office accommodations when possible is a good place to start. Tailoring performance expectations to prioritize “for now” allows for adjustments to meet immediate requirements, while exercising a deep consideration for peoples’ different situations during the pandemic. Keep everyone focused on business results, but flexibility reigns.

Employees still need to feel organizational commitment to their professional development and well-being with managers checking in consistently. Especially for employees impacted by role changes, managers should help identify transferable skill sets and other areas of the business where they could be useful, keeping employees developing and contributing.

It’s equally important to equip managers with the tools and training necessary to identify signs of stress and/or burnout. Companies that empower their leaders with the authority to offer flexibility and resources to employees in need will set managers up for success in managing their people through this difficult time. These resources are ideally offered via a centralized intranet hub for HR/benefits information, COVID-19 support resources, employee well-being spaces, etc.

4. Leverage what makes your culture unique and be strategic in how you think about the future possibilities for broader inclusion

Every company has unique cultural DNA, and it’s important to reflect those tenets throughout your DEI efforts. Start by anchoring to the company’s vision, mission, and values, and reiterate them to all employees. Leverage a behavioral-based leadership competency framework to provide cultural stability and guidance with a focus on inclusion, effective decision making, collaboration, flexibility, and resilience. Consider virtual lunches, coffee chats, or happy hours to create intentional points of connection and decompression.

Taking a step back, think about future possibilities for broader inclusion. Have you established trust that work can happen efficiently when people are not physically co-located? Does this virtual work scenario open up opportunities to cast a wider net for future candidates who may be geographically dispersed and/or needing to work on a flexible schedule? What additional practices and outreach might you need to explore?

Being intentionally inclusive is good for business.

In this time of worldwide uncertainty, doing all you can to value, support, and ensure the well-being of all your employees has never been more important. A commitment to DEI drives business results, innovation, and adaptation. Exhibiting inclusive leadership speaks volumes to current employees and drives goodwill – these same employees are your brand ambassadors and a source for future candidate referrals.

When we identify the positives in all we’ve learned from this, we can redefine the future state of work in a way that’s more inclusive for everyone!

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