Managing the aftermath: How diverse employees experience the pandemic

Two months after COVID-19 sent the US into lockdown, all 50 states are now in some stage of reopening their economy.

While it varies by state and even by locality, employees will begin returning to their workplaces and will find themselves in closer proximity to others than they have been in months. For many employees, the opportunity to regain some semblance of normalcy is a welcome change from the challenges and isolation of working remotely. For others, returning to work is a source of new worries that many leaders may be unprepared to address.

While there are common concerns about the pandemic that have been affecting the majority of us in similar ways, there are unique challenges being faced by some based on who they are. I’ve written previously about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, but new evidence of the disparities in how the virus is impacting people based on their race, ethnicity and gender is emerging, and this extends beyond access to health care. Particularly disturbing are the recent reports of racist attacks on Asian health care workers, who are “blamed” for causing the virus.

“When my daughter-in-law, who is a fitness instructor, told me someone called the gym she worked at in late February and asked, “You don’t let any Chinese people work out there, do you?” I began researching and reaching out to some of my Asian friends to see what was happening,” said Patricia Pope, CEO of Pope Consulting, a Cincinnati-based diversity and inclusion firm. “I know from experience that fear and bias move in the same direction.”

In late April, Pope hosted an online focus group study with 100 employees from multiple industries around the country to gather firsthand information about how COVID-19 was affecting individual work team experiences, especially among women and minorities. The initial research, before the focus group, revealed that a pattern of hate crimes against Asians was on the rise, including those directed at students.

Three groups — the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council; San Francisco State University; and Chinese for Affirmative Action — began to track such incidents.

The Pope study confirmed that indeed, minority employees and women faced special challenges during the pandemic.

Not a common reality

When study participants were asked to select four words from a list of 12 that best described their overall feelings since the pandemic began, some unsurprising differences emerge when you view them through a diversity and inclusion lens. Both Asians and African Americans, significantly more often than white respondents, reported feelings of fear, anxiousness, sadness, anger and skepticism.

Similarly, women reported special pressures as they struggled to balance full-time remote work with child care and home schooling. Respondents agreed that single mothers had even greater challenges, and 79% of the group acknowledged that working women faced double duty.

As one female focus group participant observed, “There’s an expectation from partners and children that you do it all. Work as if you do not have a family; yet take care of your family as if you do not work.”

The impact of health care disparities also loomed large in respondent’s experiences. When asked about how many people respondents personally knew who had contracted the virus, 75% of African Americans knew at least one to five people who had, while 44% of white respondents knew of no one in their personal circle that was infected. Clearly, African American employees may be more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one, even as they return to the workplace. The health disparities experienced by Hispanics indicate the same may be true for them.

Leadership implications

Encouragingly, study participants reported that their managers and peers were effective or very effective in how they have been responding to this unprecedented crisis. In fact, nearly half of the study group was in favor of some type of forum to discuss any workplace experiences they’ve had based on their race, ethnicity or gender resulting from the pandemic.

These data indicate that going forward, leaders should be prepared to address the needs of employees on an individual as well as collective basis, because daily check-ins often assume that employees are all dealing with the same kinds of challenges.

This new reality calls upon leaders to become “COVID-agile.” This means being especially present, listening with the intent to understand and showing a willingness to ask different questions, ones that might reveal the adversities employees have navigated. It also requires leaders to be vigilant for new signs of discrimination in the work environment and to act on them promptly. Now, more than ever, building a supportive culture for all employees requires leadership sensitivity and accountability.

For those organizations that will be transitioning employees back to the workplace, here are some new questions leaders might ask to gain a deeper understanding of employee experiences and needs:

  1. In what ways that I might not be aware of has this pandemic affected you?
  2. (If team members are Asian, African American or Hispanic/Latino): I understand that there has been a disparate impact in certain communities based on their race/ethnicity composition. Have you been affected because of this? Is there any type of additional understanding or support that you need from me?
  3. Since the pandemic began, are you experiencing any new difficulties with co-workers or others that you attribute to your race, ethnicity or gender?
  4. (When speaking with female employees with children or single parents): I’ve learned that many women/single parents have shouldered most of the home schooling tasks with kids, even though they too had a full-time job outside of the home. Is there anything I can do to better support your transition back to the workplace, especially now that the school year is coming to a close and many summer activities for kids are still in limbo?
  5. I know we have spoken about the implications of COVID-19 on our business, but would it be of benefit for us to have more team sessions where we discuss how we’ve each been affected by this crisis on a personal level?

As employees return to their normal work locations or even continue to work remotely, leaders need to keep in mind that this pandemic has caused us all to be in the same storm, but we are certainly not sharing the same boat.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, May 2020.

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