Op-ed: Embracing diversity will help companies in the struggle ahead
By Beth Chandler, Dani Monroe, and Colette Phillips
May 7, 2020
Of all the things we are learning during this new era of social distancing, few are clearer than the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society. But equally certain is that people of color are among those most hurt by the fallout from COVID-19. From mounting evidence that minority communities will be the hardest hit by the disease to the reminder that the economic consequences of a recession almost always impact communities of color the most, we face a real danger of coming out of this period with an even wider racial unemployment gap as businesses scramble to survive and cut back on diversity and inclusion programs.
But businesses would be smart to look at diversity and inclusion as an opportunity to gain an advantage — both to get through the crisis and to position themselves for success once it passes.
In some ways, the looming recession may just be accelerating the demographic shift to a younger, more diverse generation. Long before COVID-19 reached our shores, America was expected to increasingly depend on people of color to drive innovation in our economy. Following COVID-19, that transition will necessarily go into hyperdrive as the baby boomer generation — overwhelmingly white and the second largest population in the country — retire, and businesses look to younger workers and millennials, who just happen to be the most highly diverse generation in history.
If the past is any guide, companies employing diverse workforces will be more competitive in a recession environment. A now-prescient study by Great Places to Work at the end of 2019 found that publicly traded companies during and following the Great Recession that performed best were the ones that provided positive experiencers to women, people of color, hourly workers, and other historically marginalized workers. According to Fortune Magazine, while companies in the S&P 500 saw their stock prices crater by almost 36 percent from 2007 to 2009, companies that were most invested in the diversity of their employees grew 14.4 percent.
Why? In part because these companies recognized that communities of color tended to be in positions closer to the end customer and often had untapped insights into where costs could be cut or revenues boosted. Put simply, employers that were inclusive about their decision-making came out on top. Companies today looking to maintain productivity in this difficult environment might be surprised to learn how much operating with integrity and a sense of fairness and transparency can go particularly during the toughest of times.
Promoting an inclusive culture may not only get your business through the coming recession — but also position you for success after it’s over. At a time when we’ve all had more Zoom, Skype, WebEx and FaceTime meetings in the last 2 weeks than we had over the previous 2 years, it’s helpful to remember that the younger generation is not only the most diverse — but also the most technologically savvy.
It wasn’t long ago that working from home was mostly confined to women and generally frowned upon. But in a very short period, it’s become a key driver of our economy and the only way many businesses have been able to stay afloat. When we recover from this crisis, many businesses will be considering whether the expense of an office space is necessary — and even then, how many workers need to be on site. There will be a premium on businesses, and talent, that shows the ability to work effectively from home, manage people using technology and provide the kind of IT support necessary for these distributed operations.
Lastly, in a world where your “environmental social governance” (ESG) score is increasingly the difference between a successful RFP and one that comes up just short, the working environment of the not-too-distant future should make it easier for firms to hire minorities.
Historically, one of the obstacles to diversity for businesses has been transportation — the inability for an employee to get to work and for a company to recruit outside of its surrounding towns. But in a work-from-home environment, a services company based in Danvers can hire a full-time Cambodian immigrant IT professional from Lowell or a part-time Latino accountant in Worcester not because of where they live or whether they have a car, but because they’re the best candidate for the job.
At a moment when so much is unclear, one thing is not: We need all hands on deck for what will be a difficult several months for the regional economy. The sooner we make our businesses diverse and inclusive, the nimbler and better prepared they will be — for the recession and for writing the next chapter in the American economy. Both the YW Boston and CPC are working both individually and collaboratively to help organizations both maintain and sustain their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion while employees work remotely; and Partners Healthcare continues to ensure that diversity, inclusion and equity are embedded in everything it does during this unprecedented time. We strongly believe that this is one of the best ways to create a socially and economically inclusive society, while making a sound reinvestment in our their own future and economic survival.
Beth Chandler is president and CEO at YW Boston, Dani Monroe is chief diversity & inclusion officer for Partners HealthCare, and Colette Phillips is president and CEO of Colette Phillips Communications Inc.