Has workplace diversity and inclusion become casualties of coronavirus?

Firms forced to row back on such commitments place themselves at a disadvantage

Those who successfully steered their companies through the financial meltdown of 2008 say the coronavirus crisis has been far trickier to handle. The crash was universal and mainly about money. Coronavirus’ tendrils extend deep into the heart of almost every business and its impact is way more capricious. Some companies have seen their operations grind to a halt overnight but others have been flat out trying to meet huge surges in demand.

With the dust beginning to settle, many organisations are facing difficult restructuring and reprioritising decisions to shore up their ailing balance sheets. Perceived “nice to haves” are off the table, as “must haves” take precedence.

And concern is growing that commitment to diversity and inclusion may be an early casualty of the crisis.

While this is bad news for minority groups, it's also bad news for businesses, according to management consultants McKinsey which said in a May report that there is now a real risk that diversity and inclusion may recede as a strategic priority. This may be unintentional as companies focus on their immediate needs but those companies that row back on diversity and inclusion are placing themselves at a disadvantage.


Female leadership

“Some of the qualities that characterise diverse and inclusive companies – notably innovation and resilience – will be much in need as companies recover from the crisis,” McKinsey said.

Stuart Affleck, director with diversity and inclusion specialists Brook Graham, says the corporate sector's initial focus was on regrouping as organisations tried to work out where they fitted in the new order. But since then the picture has changed.

“We started to see a shift after a few weeks as they realised the importance of inclusive leadership at a time like this to create engagement and belonging for their people through a period of unprecedented change. As a result we saw clients continue their diversity and inclusion programmes and shift to virtual delivery,” he says.

“Even more importantly we saw organisations treating diversity and inclusion as core to their response strategy. I have seen clients engaging with colleagues from a broad range of under-represented groups to make sure the new ways of working were inclusive and that nobody was disadvantaged as a result.”

Affleck points out that there is a very clear business case for diversity and inclusion at this time. It can help drive innovation, foster interpersonal connection, create employee engagement, provide diversity in consumer insights and help embed a culture of flexibility within organisations.

It can also provide the opportunity to drive change and learning and develop inclusive leadership skills at senior level.

“My view is that the pandemic will expose companies already lagging behind in terms of having a mature diversity and inclusion agenda,” Affleck says. “Those companies that had already made significant headway with diversity and inclusion will pull away from the pack as they accelerate their diversity and inclusion agendas in a bid to transition successfully into a post-Covid-19 world where diversity of thought, backgrounds, experiences and a strong culture of inclusion will be needed to help with business recovery and re-imagination.”

The McKinsey commentary emphasises that the relevance of diversity and inclusion and its power to make an impact doesn’t change just because there’s a problem.

Indeed research has shown that companies with female leadership appear to have “a trust advantage” that gives them the edge in crisis situations while gender diversity has been linked to better business performance. What’s worrying, however, is that a combination of coronavirus-related job losses and workplace automation may affect women and minorities disproportionately.

"The sudden lockdown has exposed issues that already existed for minority groups within organisations and, unfortunately, there is also a gender lens to this crisis," says James Magill, head of HR for Vodafone Ireland.

“Women are over-represented in those industries most heavily hit by the pandemic, women in Ireland already carry a disproportionate care burden and are under increased strain with the lockdown as a result and, as we continue to stay home, they are at increased risk of domestic abuse. Employers need to be acutely aware of and ready to support women in this situation.”


Magill has no time for organisations that offer budgetary excuses for not implementing a diversity and inclusion policy.

“It doesn’t have to cost an extra penny and it’s not only for big, well-funded organisations,” he stresses. “We’ve moved beyond the business case for diversity and inclusion. That’s well proven. Where we’re at now is about culture and values based on fairness, equality and reasonableness.

“We’re witnessing a greater emphasis on adaption, innovation and change than ever before as a result of the seismic impact of coronavirus and, rather than push back on the progressive change that’s been happening in relation to diversity and inclusion, the pandemic has shone a brighter spotlight on the importance of it gaining even more momentum.

“A positive, diverse workplace culture attracts talent, drives engagement, impacts satisfaction and improves performance.”

Magill says Vodafone has tried to “create an open and dynamic environment that celebrates diversity and inclusion and encourages everyone to have a voice”. And at times like this, that means listening to those who may be struggling, he says.

“There will be a cohort for whom working from home will be very difficult and we are looking at phasing their safe return. However, it’s unlikely that more than 25 per cent of employees will come back to the office for now including those who have to be there because their roles can’t be done from home.”