Now is the time to build a compassionate leadership plan that goes beyond the immediate impact COVID-19 is having on people of colour.
The magnified effect of COVID-19 on the health and wellbeing of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people is also highlighting ingrained inequalities in the workplace and wider society. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Laura Morgan Roberts, Courtney L McCluney, Erin L Thomas and Michelle Kim say it’s time to examine your company’s values and take steps to embed support for people of colour at every level of your organisation, and beyond.
The coronavirus is causing a disproportionately high number of deaths in BAME communities in both the US and UK. In the workplace, the predominance of BAME workers in essential but lower-paid frontline jobs puts them at greater risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection, underlining long standing occupational and lifestyle inequalities.
Members of BAME communities have lost leaders who have fought long battles against racism and poverty, leaving gaping holes where strong role models stood. And, particularly in the US, the Chinese origins of the virus has seen blame heaped on Asian people, and incidences of racial slurs and assaults in the workplace and in public have greatly increased.
HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
As a business leader you have the ability to challenge unacceptable societal norms, and make meaningful support and validation for people of colour an integral element of your COVID-19 response:
1) At team level
- Increase one-to-one and team interaction with employees of colour to identify their needs.
- Ask specific questions about wellbeing, such as “how are you sleeping” and “how can the company make your life easier?”
- Prioritise and review tasks frequently to identify the most urgent work and give employees permission to take time for personal healing or to care for loved ones when needed.
- Challenge racist or bigoted remarks and behaviours immediately – including the seemingly flippant or “jokey”.
2) At organisational level
- Acknowledge the different experiences of people of colour and tailor your support to the particular issues they face.
- Reject “colourblind” messages, like “we are all in this together”. These fail to recognise the disproportionate impact of the virus – and other life experiences – on BAME employees.
- Open spaces where people can share their stories and voice their needs. At Upwork, where article author, Erin Thomas is head of diversity, inclusion and belonging, a forum for Asian employees to share their stories “generated urgency around what these employees and their loved ones were experiencing, and it motivated and inspired the rest of the company to ally with their Asian colleagues”.
- Assess and expand your mental health, bereavement and compassionate leave policies to help those dealing with grief and trauma. Starbucks, for example, is now providing free therapy sessions for employees and their families.
- Check your lay-off or furlough decisions. Are lower tier jobs at your organisation staffed by a high proportion of BAME employees, and has this made them disproportionately impacted by lay-off decisions? Try to frame your decisions about who to retain and who to let go, based on individual performance, rather than seniority, and do consider upskilling and retraining staff.
- Rehire. “Some companies are sharing lists of ex-employees to aid the employment process in their next role. If you are able to hire right now, consider expediting your typical protocols to help others secure employment more efficiently than ever.” And do make sure your hiring practises are equitable.
3) At society level
- Commit to philanthropic, activist or charitable goals that actively support people of colour.
- Direct your charitable donations to small local organisations in need of emergency financial relief – particularly those operated by BAME people or which support black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. Spread the word among your staff so that they can help too.
- Make a public stand as leader of your organisation by pushing for legal measures and policies to combat discrimination and protect and support minorities on every level – from state benefits to police accountability.
The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity for you to create a new and lasting tradition of acknowledging and uplifting BAME people within your organisation and in the wider community. Are you courageous and compassionate enough to put people of colour at the heart of your company’s future policies?