A Black employee looking away dreaming standing in office
Fizkes, Adobe Stock.

Keeping Diversity as a Top Priority Amid Uncertain Times

Diversity and inclusion can make or break a business when it comes to seeking top talent and driving growth. Yet when recession and crisis strike, those initiatives often fall to the backburner, and some leaders inadvertently alienate employees, customers, and partners, says diversity expert Bärí A. Williams.

The coronavirus and the economic downturn, in particular, has hurt diversity in the workplace, says Williams, who is a startup advisor in the tech industry and author of the book, Diversity in the Workplace: Eye-Opening Interviews to Jumpstart Conversations about Identity, Privilege, and Bias. She describes her new book as a “guided tour of what it means to be a minority in the workplace.” 

For instance, the number of Black female entrepreneurs has grown 164% since 2007, but the COVID-19 lockdown has forced small businesses to slow and put plans on hold, and that could have lasting reverberations for generations to come, says Williams. “It’s very hard to catch up after something like that,” she says.

Williams, an attorney who spent years working in tech, including positions at StubHub and Facebook, says diversity is particularly problematic in hiring at startups, where 52% of tech employees are hired by referrals—a friend slipping a resume to a leader— and people tend to refer people who look like themselves or remind them of themselves. That ultimately means a lot of people are being shut out of that process, says Williams.

In fact, Black people make up just a small percentage of senior management at big tech companies—often 2-5%—though they make up 13% of the U.S. population. The number of Black people in management at all U.S. companies with more than 100 employees has not changed much over the past 30 years either, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If your corporate environment is not comfortable for and inclusive to people in marginalized communities, then it turns into a retention issue. When it comes to corporate layoffs in the pandemic, most of them have also been women and people of color. In fact, one of the first things to get cut amid shrinking budgets is HR and diversity efforts. Diversity becomes a “nice to have, not a must-have” during a crisis, and especially during a recession—both of which are happening now. 

Yet a diverse team allows companies to grow amid hard times. By actively listening to people from various backgrounds—especially those that have been marginalized—you can take note of their ideas and even spot certain cultural phrases, and vernacular, acronyms and colloquialisms, that people might not realize are offensive, says Williams. Take, for instance, the interface of an app. Can a blind person use it? Can a person hard-of-hearing use it? “If nobody is thinking about those things or beta-testing for those things, you’re going to end up with a faulty product, or at least a product that is not inclusive,” says Williams.

The recent race protests and the Black Lives Matter movement may help create a mandate for diversity in the workplace. “The protests will make people pay more attention,” says Williams. It’s not, however, simply an opportunity to change your Twitter avatar or put something on Instagram. “This is not a moment,” she says, “It’s a movement.” Company leaders must consider diversity as a four-legged stool. “You should be thinking about your employees, your customers, your board and your suppliers. If you’re not thinking about it that way, you’re not doing it right.”

Much of it starts with simply being aware, says Williams. That means being aware of what current events—like today’s race issues—mean for minority colleagues and how you can support them instead of talking about irrelevant things. “Be mindful of the fact that everybody is experiencing this in a different way,” says Williams. “Just a drop of empathy goes a long way.”