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Why diversity efforts might be the next COVID-19 casualty

Women and people of color fill the jobs that are most often the victims of layoffs. Here’s why letting diversity efforts fall by the wayside could hurt the recovery.

Why diversity efforts might be the next COVID-19 casualty
[Photo: nevodka/iStock]
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Everyone I know from my community, and most that I know from any marginalized community (people of color, women, LGBTQ, differently abled), has heard some form of the two adages, “Last hired, first fired,” and “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” In essence, be prepared to do more for less.

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Nowhere is this principle more glaringly blatant than in tech, and with the COVID-19 pandemic making furloughs and layoffs necessary, the Band-Aid over a bullet wound of diversity initiatives is laid bare.

The numbers tell the tale. Already we have seen who seems to be bearing the brunt of this recession via pandemic, with women comprising approximately 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While there aren’t yet hard numbers on who has been impacted from recent tech layoffs at companies such as Airbnb, Uber, VSCO, and Lyft, one glance at the list of names published shows a large number of women and people of color. With representation in tech already so low, with black and brown people comprising about 9% of the employee base, collectively, with women making up about 35% of the employee base, and with women and POC making up the types of jobs—marketing, human resources, sales, and customer service—within tech companies that are often cut.

In the broader workforce, black and Hispanic workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, consumer-facing service jobs that limit their ability to work remotely, according to Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute and the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. As several 2019 McKinsey studies noted, women, black, and brown people tend to predominantly work in service roles, which are quickly being automated. Automation, AI, robotics, and job elimination were already tied, but the pandemic has exacerbated it, with companies finding they can derive the same productivity without the overhead.

There is a big risk in losing the small gains we’ve made.

For the last seven years, those with an eye on diversity in tech have watched every spring for tech companies to release their diversity numbers detailing how many employees in marginalized groups—people of color, LGBTQ, differently abled—make up the percentage of their workforce. For the last two years, several of these companies haven’t even bothered to release statistics, and it’s more of a long shot this year.

In the middle of a pandemic, we have seen some companies that have long espoused their diversity efforts start to pull back or cut their efforts completely. Recently, Google has taken some heat for cutting its “Sojourn,” a comprehensive racial justice training program created for employees to learn about implicit bias and how to navigate conversations about race and inequality. While the dialing back of this program was initiated in late 2018, according to seven former and current employees, Sojourn offered its last training to Google workers in 2018, and by 2019 it was cut completely.

Diversity is a “nice to have,” not a “must have,” during a crisis, and especially during a recession. It’s a function that is relegated to the back burner, particularly when one looks at the departments that most marginalized people end up in—marketing, human resources (including diversity and recruiting), sales, and customer service. Per the McKinsey study from April 2020, this is corroborated by showing that the most impacted by COVID-19 are women and people of color in service-oriented positions.

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The larger fear now is that when the economy bounces back, if certain demographics are relegated to service roles, which can be automated, and/or most disposable in a recession, will those jobs even return? What should employers do? Several options are available.

Leaders should factor D&I into layoff decisions

When conducting layoffs, be mindful of diversity and disparate impact among your populations. The first thing you should acknowledge? Due to historical and systemic issues, certain demographics are being hit harder by the pandemic than others—primarily the elderly, black and brown, and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and immune disease, which hit those populations hard. To be clear, those aren’t relics of just racial discrimination, but also have ramifications for those in lower-income communities, including rural areas.

To neglect diversity in this moment is to lose money you didn’t know you actually had.”

Let’s also consider the issues being faced by caretakers of children, who are also seeing their productivity wane due to part-time teaching while still working full-time. Often, those are women. All of these considerations should be taken into account.

In tech, the key is how to not backslide with the small gains that have been made in the last six years. To do that, leaders need to be mindful of how, and when, to make cuts. Employee recruitment is not a one-time occurrence. It is a continual process that includes interview stage, offer stage, pay equity, leveling and promotion, retention, and layoffs. It is a full life cycle.

How to make ethical and diversity-centered decisions in layoffs

To make sure you have an ethical, humane, fair, and diversity-centered reduction in force, consider the following things before you let people go:

What are your metrics for why someone should stay/go? Is this based on productivity and output or their financial price tag? What are the factors leading you to lay off this person (in a marginalized community)? Is it:
1. tenure
2. productivity and output
3. revenue generation
4. “culture fit”
5. personal relationships?

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If the layoff or furlough is based on costs, is this person the costliest and with the least output? Make the hard decisions by looking at the metrics of those that may not have the best output, but may be the personal choices of management. That isn’t a business decision, and you need to realize and own that.

How was their pre-COVID performance, and are there underlying issues negatively impacting that which are situational (and temporary)? Are we considering changed circumstances due to COVID-19 (e.g. homeschooling or caregiving, which makes output on different hours and/or reduced)?

Is there disparate impact among one or separate groups of people when doing layoffs/furloughs (i.e. are the majority of those being laid off over-indexing in certain groups–marketing, HR, sales, diversity, or customer service)?

Consider Alternatives to Layoffs

Let’s also consider that there are alternatives. You don’t have to just lay people off. Other options include:

Furloughing: Temporarily releasing employees is an option. During a furlough, an employer pays for the benefits of their workers, but not a salary. It also allows the option for the employee to return to the office when the economic climate improves.

Repurposing: There is an option to find another role an employee can fill or assist with until their function is needed again. If their function picks back up, they can return to their previous role.

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Consulting: Letting an employee go but retaining them as a consultant is an option. They can continue to make money, and the employer’s needs are still serviced, but without the cost of benefits. Should the employee’s old role be needed, they can be rehired.

Companies that double down on diversity in this moment stand to increase revenue and show differential use cases. The business case for diversity has been made time and again, but appealing to different demographics, particularly when you have a captive audience, would be the optimal path to profit, instead of letting the people who could give you those insights go, whether through furlough or firing.

To neglect diversity in this moment is to lose money you didn’t know you actually had.

Bärí A. Williams is vice president of legal, policy, and business affairs at All Turtles. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.