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Ask the Expert

How has the pandemic changed the nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion work?

As appeared in the Cleveland Fed Digest's Ask the Expert

The pandemic, coupled with the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, has made organizations more aware of why diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is important. A lot of the awareness was driven by protests and the atmosphere of summer 2020. But the pandemic’s lockdowns also forced us to slow down in some ways, and the sobering media coverage often drove us to be more reflective of our own situations and more empathetic toward the challenges of others. I believe the level of self-reflection and empathy sparked by COVID-19 prompted more people to think hard about these issues, which has allowed more space for DEI and its valuable work.

Organizations, some that previously paid little attention to DEI, were suddenly very aware of how important this work is. Many boosted lagging efforts, others created programs where none had existed. As the number of DEI practitioners increased, consulting agencies with experience in DEI had a more fertile market for their expertise, but not all organizations sought help from external agencies; some simply assigned this work to current employees. In 2009, I was one of those employees thrust into DEI work. Though I did not have much expertise—I worked as a computer programmer at the time—I was leading my company’s African American resource network group, and my human resources department thought I’d do well at managing the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

In my time doing this work, I have learned that it’s very important to make sure DEI managers are adequately trained. Doing so helps ensure that companies avoid performative DEI—that is, having only superficial DEI elements without also doing the work to infuse DEI into the organization’s culture and processes. For example, resource network groups are sometimes confined to cultural event planning, as opposed to receiving the space to create programming that supports talent growth. DEI should be built into succession planning, with mentorship programs available for diverse talent, and cultural curiosity—an interest in those who are not the same as you—should be encouraged in leaders. Understanding people as individuals, and valuing their voices and different opinions, aids in both attracting and retaining diverse employees.

In a variety of ways, the pandemic has shown companies how important it is to be thoughtful about how employees experience the workplace. Here at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, we do “stay interviews” with a number of our employees, asking them what they enjoy about working here and how we can make working conditions even better. A lot of employee responses are related to workplace culture: “I stay here because I like the folks I work with. I believe people care about me and the work I do.” These matters are the work of DEI. We want to make sure our employees are diverse and our culture is inclusive, that everyone has opportunities to thrive, and that employees have a sense of belonging.

Today’s talent market is diverse; it’s also the most competitive we’ve seen. If a company is not practicing strong DEI, you can bet it is losing valuable employees and is less able to attract talented, top-tier candidates.

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