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2020 threw plenty of curveballs at organizations and DEI teams. COVID-19 created new and urgent people needs while putting many companies on rocky economic grounds. And the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement meant people wanted to have difficult conversations, but didn’t know where to begin. We wanted to know how the most impactful DEI leaders tackled each challenge, so we sat down with DEI experts at the helm of some of the world’s largest and most influential organizations. Then we distilled their insights. This is a snippet of the full pulse report, State of DEI 2020-2021, available online and as a PDF.

PS – If you don’t have time to read it now, you can also sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver the report straight to your inbox in bite-sized chunks over the course of the next week.

The death of Black Americans at the hands of the police is not a new occurrence.

But the way George Floyd’s killing was captured in stark witness videos and shared virally, compounded with lockdown measures removing distractions for people at home, meant that George Floyd’s death struck an unprecedented chord in the US and far beyond.

The ripples felt from the untimely deaths of Black Americans followed people into work. They permeated public consciousness. And race was planted firmly on the corporate agenda, which was sorely overdue.

For organizations that had previously hung all of their diversity efforts on gender, it became very clear that businesses can no longer tackle one diversity issue at a time.

And while becoming an antiracist organization will likely be a priority for years to come, DEI leaders we spoke to urged us not to forget the importance of intersectionality. We must continue to create equitable workplaces that serve all underrepresented groups and the nuances of identity, like being LGBT+ as well as Black.

COVID-19 also added an entirely new dimension to DEI work — wellbeing. People worried about job security and were furloughed or laid off. The constant pandemic news contributed to a rise in anxiety levels.

Leaders had to make difficult decisions. It was up to managers to have difficult conversations and treat their teams with compassion.

Working from home became the norm and blurred the line between home and work life.

There were two sides to seeing each other differently.

Existing hierarchies were broken as employees dealt with the same WFH challenges.

But not everyone’s experience was the same. People juggling caring responsibilities with work needed more support and flexibility. Those who couldn’t work from home were furloughed or had to deal with the higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 to do their job.

This revealed inequalities and added different dimensions to the DEI radar. For example, how inclusive are we of workers who can’t work from home?

In response, organizations and wider society took on an approach anchored in empathy.

At least five DEI leaders we spoke to are extending their compassion and scope for advancing equity beyond the walls of their organization. One business advanced cash flow to give women-owned and minority-owned businesses a lifeline as the pandemic threatened to wipe out a disproportionate number of these businesses. They also offer a program that teaches women and ethnic minorities how to do business with a federal agency.

Other DEI leaders like Myra Caldwell also drew attention to the importance of corporate responsibility to the wider community.

In 2020, COVID-19 ignited a feeling of global collectivism for businesses by connecting people over a common crisis. The Black Lives Matter movement has had global reach, too. It erupted in the US but has prompted people to think about injustice and dark colonial legacies in countries like Belgium and the UK.

Some experts we spoke to told us about their own train-the-trainer systems that ensure DEI programs are localized and relevant no matter where you work.

DEI leaders are urging businesses to think global, act local. They are taking critical reviews to their organizations’ approach to inclusion to ensure they serve employees at a local level, and are sure not to prioritize a single nation’s culture.

If you want to download the full report and share it with your colleagues, get the PDF here.

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