Enterprise & Market Resilience During COVID-19: The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives (Week-17)

Enterprise & Market Resilience During COVID-19: The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives (Week-17)

Key takeaways:

  • Listen more carefully to everyone around you and educate yourself so you understand other points of view;
  • Support resource groups set up by your employees and encourage groups to collaborate with each other on events and initiatives;
  • Stop discussing the problems and take affirmative action – use the actions you take to change the narrative so it is focused on business impacts and success.


More than 120 business leaders joined our seventeenth Enterprise & Market Resilience COVID-19 virtual roundtable at 8.00 am on Thursday 9 July. The aim of our weekly forum is to build a community of people from different industries who can share relevant materials and experiences of operating in ‘the new normal’.

This week’s discussion focused on diversity and inclusion: what impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on existing D&I initiatives and what should leadership teams do next to gain value from normalising differences in their businesses?

The speaker panel included David Levine, Ex Vice President, Disney Channels UK & Ireland and LGBTQ+ Diversity Champion; Grace Lordan, Associate Professor in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics; Harry Samuel, Strategic Banking Advisor, Ex-CEO, RBC Investor & Treasury Services; Olive Strachan MBE, Global Entrepreneur, ex-Chair of the CIPD and CIPD fellow; and Belton Flournoy Director, Protiviti and Founder of Pride in the City.

Belton Flournoy began by explaining the impact of having visible leaders who are open to hearing the voices of all employees. If people are happier at work because they can talk about their sexuality, then they will be more productive and their company will be more successful commercially by a margin of between 10% and 31%.

Research shows that 70% of people would leave their job within three years if they were unable to be open about their sexuality. Staying in the closet means people have to lie, so leaders must make it easier to tell the truth and make people feel as comfortable as possible.

The increased use of online meetings using Teams or Zoom serves to highlight the disparity of female and BAME participants versus white men. The lockdown has also taken away the opportunity for people to seek out people of the same gender or ethnic background in the office or discuss issues as part of ‘watercooler moments’. As the workforce returns to the office leadership teams should consider how to set up new connectivity frameworks to support different groups.

Experimental leaders

Grace Lordan was in the process of completing research into inclusion initiatives in the City of London as the pandemic struck. She interviewed 35 leaders who had a strong belief in how diversity and inclusion initiatives can make firms more creative and improve their P&Ls. 

Her conclusions were that while all 35 firms faced similar obstacles, leaders were adopting very different solutions. There is no one answer or silver bullet, but what these experimental leaders had in common were that they felt people around them could always bring ideas to their attention. They would also constantly question who is sitting at the top table - and whether the leadership pipeline reflects the diversity of the customer base.

See Grace’s research and report here.

Measurement is another important aspect: leaders should analyse what impact initiatives have had on increasing voice and diversity still further. Asked what obstacles are holding firms back, Lordan said that one of the main challenges is not taking the issue of ensuring the pipeline represents all voices seriously enough. The issue now is that shareholders understand the impact of diversity on performance, so are banging on the door for change. As part of her research, she is working on a metric that will link diversity and inclusion with P&L performance, which should help demonstrate value.

Harry Samuel added that it is important to separate diversity from inclusion, and that diversity is a means towards building a culture of inclusion. If people feel comfortable with how they are valued by an organisation, they will bring their best selves to work and feel genuinely inspired to contribute to the success of the company.

Having run companies providing financial services to organisations for decades, Samuel had seen more and more clients with diverse teams. Having the other side of table made up of exclusively white males is no longer tenable because you need to reflect who you are doing business with.

Understanding lived experience 

Olive Strachan MBE said that having worked as a consultant for 21 years, she had only met two CEOs of colour. Her experience of arriving in the UK from the Caribbean at the age of six over the past 50 years has often been painful: she has experienced racism all her life and when asking about black history in her senior school was directed to read about slave ships.

The leadership team is the beating heart of a business, and if there are no people of colour on a board who can understand such experiences, they will find it difficult to make the right decisions about diversity and inclusion. While initiatives to get more women on boards are relatively successful, the number of black board members is regressing. 

The other two groups that can make a difference are the media, which constantly portray negative images and stories about black people that perpetuate racism, and schools, which businesses could work with more effectively to coach and mentor young people into careers.

David Levine agreed that positive education for children about diversity and inclusion is vitally important. The Disney Channel had made great strides towards showing diverse characters and different family structures in its programming. 

It had also supported LGBT resource groups set up by employees as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives. Resource groups are a great way to motivate employees and are a first step to engage employees, Levine said.

Tackling unconscious bias

Asked whether unconscious bias is preventing organisations from managing effective diversity and inclusion initiatives, Grace Lordan said that most people spend just 20% of their waking hours thinking and planning strategically, and the remaining 80% in auto-pilot mode. Some of the discrimination in firms happens because people unconsciously hire in their own image.

Even when candidates of colour or different sexual orientation are hired, they tend to have similar age, education and life experience profiles, in the same way that people marry those with the same background. 

This is problematic for firms because diverse perspectives drive different thinking. It’s also easy to blame unconscious bias rather than build a deliberate strategy for change that strips away privilege. Those with the privilege of expensive education and family networks have CVs that write themselves, but someone outside that milieu who have nevertheless broken through shows extraordinary talent and may be a more effective hire.

Olive Strachan added that the Black Lives Matter movement has opened up discussions about what it means to be black and requests for training and resources that will help educate people. Recruitment companies have tended to provide candidates that match what companies have already so that they fit in well today, rather than considering the people they will need in the future.

Failing to take account of different viewpoints and needs can damage companies’ income potential, said Flournoy. A female leader he works with planned to go out for dinner with her house husband, who said they could only choose from three restaurants that provided baby-changing facilities in the male bathrooms, for example.

Giving a perspective from the recruitment industry, Leyla Tindall Managing Director, Robert Half Executive Search said that the firm is seeing more requests for BAME and women leaders, but that companies also need to do more to build an environment where candidates will even want to come in for an interview. They need to show that new leaders will be supported and have the right mentors in place when they join.

Harry Samuel said that onboarding people successfully, especially when they are working from home, is a key consideration. People can feel cut off from leaders when they don’t see them in the office every day and may also feel uncomfortable in virtual meetings when they are working from small flats or have children to look after. Leaders should consider setting up protocols and seek consent from staff to attend calls via video links.

Paralympic Gold Medallist and athlete mentor Liz Johnson concluded that while employers are all trying to do the right thing in terms of diversity and inclusion, the focus should not be on just one group of people: authentic inclusion and normalising difference should be the way forward for everyone. “We have to help people understand that difference is good,” she said.


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