How to remain diverse and inclusive while leading a business during COVID-19

By Rod Cartwright, Senior Reputation & Crisis Communication Advisor, Rod Cartwright Consulting

In 12 short weeks, COVID-19 has upended life as we know it – professionally and personally – around the world. The UK Government’s planning assumptions suggest lockdown of varying degrees of intensity until the late summer, meaning that this seismic disruption will continue for a prolonged period.


Image sourced by Nick Bolton from Unsplash, 2020.

A behavioural psychologist friend pointed out to me that reactions to this ‘new abnormal’ – corporately and individually – are largely following the five stages of grief model famously developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

The only differences, he noted, are that the ‘loved one’ (normality) we have lost is still there – as we seek to find a new, steady-state MO – and the certainties to which we cling after loss are currently far from certain.

The only remote comparison I have seen in my entire 25-year career was the anguish of the families of those onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Psychologists talk of closure and yet how could they grieve properly without actual proof that their loved one was gone? In a similar way, we are all trying to come to terms with the loss of the very normality that we are now trying to rebuild.

The COVID-19 experience is undeniably a universal one. As Michael Gove reminded us on confirming that the Prime Minister, had tested positive for COVID-19, the Coronavirus “does not discriminate”. Whatever we think of Boris Johnson as a politician, we can only wish him a speedy recovery as a fellow human being.

It’s certainly true that while the virus appears to disproportionately threaten older members of society, it is blind to gender, ethnicity, income, social status, geography and religion. That does not mean – I would argue – that we should be similarly blind and one-size-fits-all in our responses.

It goes entirely without saying that organisations of all kinds should be more focused than ever on ensuring that their response does not discriminate – even inadvertently – against any individual group. Organisations, like people, are human and fallible and we all need to be hyper-focused on the risk of unconscious bias unintentionally compounding existing social inequalities.

“With our very survival at stake, we just don’t have time for this level of detail, Rod” would be an instinctively natural reaction to this plea. But I’d still argue that it will be a fundamental part of that survival.

The reputational cost of a major discriminatory misstep could be immense at a time when people are praying for brands not to trip up. You could certainly do worse than hard wiring true expertise into your decision-making to avoid incurring the considerable opportunity cost of not doing so.

And yet, I would go even further. Avoiding even inadvertent discrimination and ensuring diversity and inclusion should naturally play a critical role in your responses to COVID-19. But you should go even deeper than that.

Certainly, we all need to actively acknowledge that race, gender, financial circumstances and social status will play a key role in the human experience of COVID-19. Yet, there is an additional layer we also need to consider carefully – cognitive and psychological diversity.

It goes without saying that for pretty much everyone, the experience of confinement to home, remote working and balancing family and professional commitments will present unprecedented challenges. But we cannot assume that simply because we’ve followed all the great HR, internal communication and employee engagement advice out there, we can then simply treat all our people equally.

As the novelty of endless screenshots of cheery Zoom team meetings starts to wear off, people’s individual responses will already be hugely diverse and deeply personal. The challenges for introverts of having to ‘perform’ during virtual video meetings. The struggle extroverts will be experiencing as they deprived of in-person human contact. These are only the most obvious examples.

It simply must go deeper, as you consider an approach which is diverse and inclusive in every possible sense. To make this entirely practical, you could do worse than asking yourself these sorts of questions:

  1. Are you truly seeking to understand your team members’ individual family, financial and domestic circumstances (even for those you have furloughed)?

  2. Have you considered the status of their individual mental health – both short and longer-term?

  3. Are you picking up or ignoring important signals in both these areas?

  4. Are you expecting and enforcing the same levels of productivity – both overall and for individual team members?

  5. Are people’s existing targets and KPIs the right ones or could they be re-jigged to reflect what ‘high performance’ means in the current environment?

My fundamental challenge is that everything you do and say should place an active acknowledgement of diversity in every sense at the heart of how you treat your people, customers, suppliers, partners and communities.

At the same time, your words and actions should be driven by a commitment to inclusivity that encompasses equally active consideration of psychology, personality types, cognition and personal wellbeing.

It may feel tough to take this on when the world is collapsing around you. But it could be one of the main determinants of survival for your organisation, your brand and – most importantly – your people.

P.S. Everything I have said includes and starts with you – individually. As they say during the flight safety check “Please ensure your own mask is securely fastened before helping others.” You are no good to anyone if you fail to take care of yourself.