Social isolation, working while parenting or carrying out other household responsibilities, increased risks to safety in the workplace, and concerns around job security have all put tremendous stress on employees; however, employees from underrepresented groups—who are vital to developing a more diverse talent pipeline—have been hit particularly hard.
COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequities and disproportionately impacted women, LGBTQ+ employees, and people of color, according to research by McKinsey.1 Women report greater challenges than men in handling increased household responsibilities, such as childcare resulting from school closures. LGBTQ+ employees fear the loss of allyship that comes from social settings and the workplace. People of color cite greater concerns about safety in the workplace and career progression. And, some employees may identify with more than one group, multiplying the negative impacts on their mental health, physical health, connectivity, and more.
In an interview with the KPMG Board Leadership Center (BLC), Cali Williams Yost—founder and CEO of Flex+Strategy Group—shares her views about how boards and management teams should consider the needs of underrepresented employee groups and ensure workplace policies support the future pipeline of diverse talent.
KPMG BLC: What are the biggest challenges organizations face in understanding the extent to which underrepresented groups at their companies (e.g., women, people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+) are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the resulting recession, and remote-work environment?
Yost: There is a difference between awareness and true understanding. The biggest challenge facing companies is truly understanding how the disproportionate impact on underrepresented groups has affected their employee experience and their ability to bring their true and best selves to their jobs—and then making decisions about how to move forward from that place of empathetic awareness. For many leaders, that means looking beyond their own experience during the pandemic, which might be very different.
For example, it is well documented that women have shouldered the lion’s share of the increase in personal responsibilities during the pandemic—often to the detriment of their jobs and careers. When leaders realize just how daunting and historically unprecedented the daily challenges have been for a woman who is currently trying to do her job without access to any of the traditional support she relied upon in the past, the organization can adapt its response. For example, leaders would realize offering to pay for childcare or for tutors isn’t enough because, in many cases, those supports don’t readily exist and many parents aren’t comfortable with strangers in their homes.
Recognizing this, some employers have partnered with local Ys to provide support and care in their communities. They have given women, as well as fathers and grandparents, increased levels of leave and/or flexibility to coordinate work and personal responsibilities with the assurance it will not affect their performance ratings or career progression.
Another example is the fact that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately affected by the most devastating impacts of COVID-19. As leaders consider ‘back-to-the-office’ plans and health and safety protocols, they should respectfully listen to and honor the legitimate concerns some employees of color may have about exposing themselves and their families to the health risks of working with others unless it is absolutely necessary or until it is safer. And, if they do need to be on site, leaders should make an extra effort to ensure as much adherence to health and safety measures as possible.
Building a culture that supports this empathetic understanding of the realities facing different populations reinforces the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in all levels of leadership. Ironically, unless the current challenges facing underrepresented groups are addressed in creative and flexible ways, the leaky talent pipeline will undermine that goal.
BLC: Are the typical DEI metrics and reporting processes sufficient to show what’s going on?
Yost: Yes and no. Traditional metrics—such as the percentage of employees by gender, race, and background at a given level—can provide insight into whether representation increased with hiring or fell due to turnover. But these metrics don’t measure an equitable employee experience. They don’t give deeper insight into the work environment and cultural norms that either will or will not set up underrepresented groups for success during the pandemic and beyond. Business leaders should seek to understand comparative levels of burnout, engagement, and perceived organizational support. Then, efforts should be made to ensure underrepresented groups have the same growth opportunities, fair and equal treatment in the performance management process, and health and well-being as the rest of the employee base. COVID-19 heightened awareness of the critical role employers need to play in the physical, emotional, and mental health of employees. Going forward, even after the pandemic, that recognition and support should continue, as it will directly affect retention and advancement.
BLC: Assuming the company can get a good picture of the problem, what are some approaches being used to address the specific needs of those groups that are being disproportionately impacted?
Yost: In general, commit to helping managers master the skills required to lead flexible, diverse teams. When the pandemic hit, organizations were forced to rapidly pivot how, when, and where managers and employees worked. They didn’t have time to prepare properly, and one of the areas of weakness that has become apparent in many workplaces is the lack of consistent manager effectiveness to lead in this new way of operating. They will need ongoing leadership training and guidance now and in the postpandemic workplace. This will help all employees, but particularly those in underrepresented groups, have a manager with the skills to understand and tailor the support needed by different groups to perform and stay healthy, especially under difficult circumstances.
Work flexibility—or flexibility in how, when, and where work is done—has allowed organizations to continue to operate during the pandemic while keeping their people as healthy and safe as possible. However, to use that same flexibility to drive equity and inclusion during the pandemic and beyond, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all policy or program applied exactly the same way across [employee] populations. Fairness is in the consistency of a process-based approach that can adapt the way work is done based on the unique realities of a business, job, and person. It also addresses the need to manage work and personal boundaries with more coordinated intention. Pre-COVID-19, there was a tendency to pretend there was no ‘outside of work’ to consider.
Now, we know for sure there is. Those boundaries are important to maintain; otherwise, they disappear and undermine performance. How do managers, teams, and individual employees work together to clarify expectations of accessibility and responsiveness that consider the needs of the business and everyone’s unique realities?
Specifically, in terms of helping women manage their work and personal responsibilities, encourage all employees to partner with their managers and their teams to come up with flexible work plans that will help them do their jobs and get through the next few months. All employees would include mothers, but also fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—which would expand the potential circle of care and support.
For employees who may be more hesitant to come back to the office or risk exposing themselves and their families unnecessarily until it is safer—work to understand how and when they would feel comfortable. Tailor next-stage plans to include milestones for additional health and safety measures on site or a complete return to the office after working remotely.
And as you look to postpandemic workforce development, make sure the processes and systems used to source talent don’t unnecessarily penalize applicants that may have had to take a break from work over the past year. This includes artificial intelligence–driven application screening programs that may automatically ‘flag’ breaks.
BLC: To what extent does corporate culture factor in here?
Yost: Corporate culture plays a huge role. We hear a lot about the need for psychological safety in the workplace. This is especially true during the pandemic and for underrepresented groups. Safety in the workplace means a culture of trust and shared leadership in which people feel free to talk honestly with their managers and their teams about how to get the job done while staying safe, continuing to develop and grow, and managing their personal responsibilities—and doing so without fear of repercussions. It’s also a culture that measures performance based on the work done, not on presence. It’s a culture open to adapting and experimenting with new, innovative ways of working and leading. Without that, it’s not only very difficult to understand the challenges faced by underrepresented groups; it’s nearly impossible to address those challenges in an open, supportive way.
Longer term, continue to reinforce the importance of a culture where it is safe to talk about new flexible ways of working, how to get growth opportunities, and how to support physical and mental well-being. And ensure the evaluation of performance allows for the unique career paths people might want or need to take as realities change, either on the job or personally.
BLC: How important is this issue from a strategic talent—and competitive business—perspective? Are there longer-term implications for how well a company addresses this challenge in the near term?
Yost: Again, it is ironic that as the commitment to greater DEI as a source of competitive success grows, underrepresented groups are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic and are struggling the most with work, health, and safety. Unless employers redouble their efforts to understand and address the unique challenges these groups face, today’s leaky pipeline will undermine longer-term DEI efforts.
BLC: What should directors be thinking about as they look ahead to the future?
Yost: There is no ‘going back’ to the way things were pre-COVID-19; however, there is an opportunity to combine the best of what was with the lessons learned during the pandemic to create an even more innovative and dynamic operating model and organization.
Flexibility in how, when, and where people can work and manage their lives will be a baseline expectation of employment going forward. In most cases, that doesn’t mean 100 percent remote, but it does mean being able to work on or off site depending upon what it is you need to get done and where you do it best. Before COVID-19, the ability to work flexibly could be a unique differentiator in the war for talent. Employers could offer it to hire people who maybe didn’t have as much flexibility where they were. Now, as one leader recently told me, it’s table stakes. If you don’t offer it in a meaningful way, you will not get the talent you want.
Organizations that were responsive to, and supportive of, their workforce throughout the pandemic will reap the rewards of employee commitment and market reputation. We aren’t out of the crisis yet. There’s still an opportunity over these next few months, as we recalibrate into the next stage of operating, to listen to and partner with all employees, but especially those in groups hit hardest over the last year.
For boards, that means taking the time to gain awareness of the realities many employees have faced, especially if those realities may not align with your experience. It means really understanding what has happened, and is still happening, across gender, race, sexual orientation, generation, etc. Then, encourage leaders to think creatively about how, when, and where work can be done—and what supports can be offered to attract, retain, and develop the workforce the organization is going to need to deliver on its strategic priorities.
To better understand and address the challenges underrepresented employee groups may be experiencing as a result of COVID-19:
• Go beyond representation metrics to understand the comparative levels of burnout, engagement, and perceived organizational support among diverse employee groups.
• Help managers master the basics of leading diverse and flexible teams.
• Adopt a consistent process of “high-performance flexibility”—determining how, when, and where work is done based on the unique realities of the business, team, and individual employee.
• When sourcing talent postpandemic, avoid unnecessarily penalizing job applicants who may have had to take a break from the workforce over the past year.
• Recognize that the “realities” of the board and senior management may be very different than the realities of rank-and-file employees—particularly, underrepresented groups.
1 Kweilin Ellingrud et al., Diverse employees are struggling the most during COVID-19—here’s how companies can respond, McKinsey & Company, November 17, 2020.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG LLP.