2020 has been a definitive year for the HR profession and for inclusion. D&I experts from global inclusion consultancy Frost Included reflect on an extraordinary 12 months from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter and more.
2020 has been historic. These are four words, not written lightly, that underscore the importance of what we are living through. From COVID-19 upending the way we live our lives to the long-overdue racial reckoning instigated by George Floyd’s killing, it has been a year of profound impact.
But from an HR perspective, what does it mean for organizations, for diversity and inclusion, for the way we work and how we live together from now on?
As a team, we at Frost Included have gathered to reflect on this historic year and its impact on the HR profession. We look back at some of the profound experiences, encounters, and learning we have had in our inclusion work. We didn’t want to let our experiences of 2020 be lost as we all strive to get back to a sense of normality – whatever that might look like.
In March, Stephen Frost, Nick Basannavar, and Raafi Alidina were in Minneapolis with colleagues at the Forum on Workplace Inclusion, the U.S.’s largest such conference. As the pandemic began to dawn and the conference numbers started to dwindle, we had no idea that only two months later, Minneapolis would be leading global news for a very different reason.
Let us discuss three 2020 events from a D&I perspective that will shape the rest of our lives.
As the gravity and scale of the pandemic dawned, and as our company revenues fell off a cliff in April, before recovering later in the year, it was Nick Basannavar who said to Stephen Frost, “This is the moment you founded the business for.” We’re an inclusion consultancy. After years of growing polarization, would this crisis be the event that would shift HR and other decision-makers towards a more inclusive mindset?
For HR leaders, COVID-19 was in many ways a barometer for inclusion. Those who had planned or already worked hard at building inclusive cultures, such as global consulting firm AlixPartners, thrived in the face of adversity. Our client survey showed that in the majority of cases, inclusive employers prioritized the health and well-being of their people. HR functions were suddenly the most important in organizations, and caring for staff in crisis paid immediate dividends. Engagement levels increased. Digital adoption and innovation accelerated overnight.
For years, campaigners had lobbied HR departments for remote and flexible working, and then, suddenly, here it was. Suddenly, what was once a niche issue associated with women and childcare, in particular, was affecting everyone. Suddenly, requests for homeworking were a moot point. Inclusive cultures were now compatible with being physically distant.
Socially, COVID-19 revealed the fault lines in our communities. We contributed to the Labour Party review, led by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in terms of infection and deaths amongst ethnic minority groups. Initial government responses, led by some of the most privileged in our society, compounded the situation. Already wealthy organizations and people profited on the back of COVID-19. Simultaneously, there was a disinclination to listen to experts and an undermining of the pre-existing infrastructure and institutions that could have been bolstered, perhaps responding quicker and more effectively.
For disabled people, it was an especially critical situation. As Stephen Frost wrote in a June Forbes piece, people who were already vulnerable and dependent on medicines and others for care and support had those lifelines severed. Those in underprivileged social positions were most likely to be impacted by the economic collapse (e.g., hospitality sector workers). Free meals for impoverished children were fought for by a football player.
However, there were many positives to come out of adversity. We saw entire communities come together to shop for vulnerable people during lockdowns and visit those in need. Helen Corbishley never thought she would be delivering incontinence pants to elderly neighbors! As the year progressed, we saw “Captain Tom” at the age of 100 mobilize the entire U.K. to raise an astonishing £39 million for the NHS.
COVID-19 brought a leveling effect in (virtual) workplaces, creating positive stories for HR professionals. Seeing board members and executives on conference calls with cats climbing all over them, laundry hanging, and children’s TV echoing in the background helped to “humanize” organizations.
Finally, the number of people who now ask “how are you?” with a genuine desire for the truth and not just as an empty gesture is heartening. The world has had to take a step back, slowed down, and rediscovered talking to one another. We recognized that the world is, in fact, a small place and it has challenged our perceptions of who we are, where we can go, and what we believe in.
2. Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement
The killing of George Floyd then amplified and added texture to the issues sparked by COVID-19 – a profound engagement with racial and social injustice to a perhaps unprecedented global degree. This perfect storm has revealed and laid bare a virus within a virus that impacts society: institutional racism. And this has become a critical priority for HR leaders since the summer.
Louisa took calls every day for weeks from people of different backgrounds just wanting someone to talk to, and calls from HR professionals wanting help and advice about how to support employees and make a stand. It was overwhelming. But it helped to focus the minds of HR leaders, experts, and specialists. It helped to build momentum to take action on addressing the issues and creating change. It allowed opportunities for businesses like ours to make a difference.
BLM has manifested in calls for change in every aspect of our organizations, cultures, and communities. It’s become a lens through which we view major global issues – business, politics, health, culture, sport, publishing, or tech. While it’s been painful and difficult, it’s also been necessary and positive. The negative impacts of racism on our society, i.e., the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual, cannot be navigated unless they are challenged and dismantled. As the writer and civil rights campaigner James Baldwin put it, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Of course, as Rob Neil OBE points out, today’s social climate is nothing new for many people. We have been here before. In the U.K., consider the racially motivated murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, or study Paul Stephenson’s Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, or the heart-breaking New Cross Fire which took the lives of 13 people who were simply enjoying a house party in 1981. Each of these milestones serves as a stark reminder of the disparities and lived experience of Black people.
Yet, incredibly for some, today’s organizational attention on racial inequalities arrives as a brand new and unpredicted wave crashing up against an otherwise comfortable existence. Even as Black voices are being amplified, some have responded to discomfort within by expressing surprise, disdain, and even denial. We can summarise this as “backlash.” We have heard elected leaders in positions of relative power attempting to declare generations of legitimate study and established theory “illegal.” Such attacks have given rise, in some spaces, to a tide of backlash with hierarchical instructions to ditch terms like “white privilege” and “anti-racism.”
The main difference this time is that white people are becoming activated to a previously unknown degree. Organizations, with HR departments at the forefront, have been sparked into action, and are now thinking about their very structures through the lens of anti-racism. Strategy is being imbued with racial awareness. BLM has been applied within tech firms to debias algorithms and deracialise coding language. At AlixPartners, firmwide townhalls fostered dialogue about BLM and its impact both internally and externally.
As Louisa Joseph has reflected, these examples show that 2020 has been about witnessing the power of dialogue. These dialogues are built on asking powerful, thought-provoking questions, active listening, and then helping our people to find meaning in what has happened and a way to move forwards in a positive way. And as Marcia Hazzard adds, one positive has been the increased ability to create and seek out opportunities to have open conversations with others in which they can speak their truth.
However, there is so much still for us as HR leaders to do to achieve racial equality.
3. U.S Election
Donald Trump recorded the second-highest number of votes ever. Let that sink in. While the end result of a Biden-Harris win may be a positive for the disenfranchised, the climate and more progressive politics, the election revealed a deeply ugly schism in our communities that will take years to fix. As HR leaders, we need to observe these developments and understand their impact on our organizations.
In many ways, the election was a proxy argument for BLM and COVID-19 – or vice versa. Anti-vaccine, closed communities, and “all lives matter” on one side, and international-mindedness, participative approaches, and science-based rationale on the other. Kamala Harris becomes the first (and in her words, not the last) Asian-American and African American VP.
Biden and Harris aren’t perfect – far from it – but hopefully, they will restore some much-needed dignity and rationality.
In politics generally, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and other world leaders have been stricken by COVID-19 both literally and figuratively. It was the fallout that largely determined Trump’s fate. In the fate of the U.K. prime minister’s key adviser Dominic Cummings, we see the failure of a strategy that failed to be inclusive. When people don’t work collaboratively or as a team, they succeed in the short term only.
In this way, 2020 has also heightened our concept of leadership, whether of countries, organizations or of our own lives. From an inclusion perspective, Marcia has reflected upon how, as HR leaders, we can leverage this era of change to create more inclusion and challenge the structural inequalities that our society has been alerted to and now needs to face.
The year has been profoundly dominated by COVID-19, race, and politics. What’s historic is that all three phenomena have long-term impacts. In 2017, the Me Too movement came of age. In 2016, LGBT rights were reaffirmed in response to the Pulse nightclub killings. In 2020, a tipping point has been reached for people appalled by racially motivated police brutality.
From Tragedies Can Come Good
From the triple tragedies of the pandemic, racism, and political polarization can come good. Vaccines, community, and more flexible working. Greater consciousness, inclusion, and calling out discrimination and unfairness.
But in this extraordinary year, there remains a crucial barrier to greater inclusion. A barrier to the permanence in shift many of us are yearning for, and it’s inside our own heads.
When we are busy, fearful, and stressed, we operate in what Daniel Kahneman called “System 1” thinking. Only when we breathe, pause, and reflect do we consciously adopt “System 2” thinking. It is heart wrenching that it takes a pandemic or a murder to make us stop and shift gears. But only when we consciously include will we avoid unconsciously excluding.
2020 has been a definitive year for the HR profession and a decisive year for inclusion. With COVID-19, BLM, the U.S. election, Brexit, and social, environmental, technological, political, and economic polarisation, it’s been the most significant year we’ve experienced in our business.
As this unprecedented year draws to a close, we are presented with a choice in our collective journey. The disturbing option is greater polarisation, more racism and discrimination, and more loss of life. However, the positive choice is eminently doable. If we, in our organizations, can prepare our sails for the wind of change by first creating psychologically safe spaces, we proceed successfully. If we can welcome greater openness, build deeper trust, and invite healthy challenge amongst our people, we will close the empathy gap. If we are all empowered to listen and hear, to be educated and act, we can all be included.
Co-authored by the global diversity and inclusion team: Stephen Frost, Louisa Joseph, Marcia Hazzard, Helen Corbishley, Raafi Alidina, Nick Basannavar.