From a young age, my mother always preached “every disappointment is a blessing.” Perhaps this is where I get my sense of optimism. The disappointment and devastation from the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have challenged my optimism. It has felt impossible and truthfully shameful to attempt to find a “blessing” in the pandemic where many lives have been lost and others eternally changed.

On February 8, 2022, my sense of optimism was somewhat restored. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Adviser for President Biden (and perhaps overtaking Drs. Phil and Oz as America’s favorite TV doctor) provided a glimpse of hope. Dr. Fauci predicted that the U.S. is almost past the “full-blown” pandemic phase of the coronavirus and said he hopes that all virus-related restrictions could wind down in a few months.

Perhaps this signals a return to normalcy. For employers and employees, this signals a return to the office. More importantly, it allows employers to consider how to successfully approach Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) upon their return to the office. 

The Covid-19 Pandemic Exposes Workplace Discrimination.

Amidst the chaos that has stemmed from the ongoing pandemic is the exposure of workplace DEI deficiencies. While the pandemic exposed DEI deficiencies, it only pulled the curtain back on deficiencies that were already in existence. According to a General Social Survey analysis, from 2014 to 2018, 14 percent of Black people said they faced discrimination at work because of their sex, race, or ethnicity. This was more than other demographics. A January 2021 Gallup Center on Black Voices survey found that 24 percent of Black employees felt discrimination at work. LGBTQIA+ employees also face challenges when dealing with diversity in the workplace. A LinkedIn survey of 2,000 LGBTQIA+ professionals found that 31% have faced blatant discrimination or micro-aggressions at work. Likewise, women also experience discrimination at work. Another study found that 64% of women experienced micro-aggressions in the workplace. Studies have also shown that women of color continue to have a worse experience at work.

The Covid-19 Pandemic Provides “Relief” From Workplace Discrimination.

Studies show that when workers left the office at the beginning of the pandemic, they left behind many discriminatory and racist practices experienced at their workplace. Natachi Onwuamaegbu’s Washington Post Article highlights this notion from the perspective of black women employees. She stated that “[m]any Black women felt relieved to work from home, free from microaggressions. Now they’re told to come back.” For minority and women employees, the “relief” from these micro-aggressions will continue to exist so long as work from home continues. But what about experiencing “relief” when returning to the office? To achieve this, employers cannot be content with the status quo that is DEI as we know it and knew it before the pandemic. 

Avoid Picking Up From Where We Left Off: The Band-Aid Solution.

Although tempting, employers should avoid simply viewing the provision of a hybrid work option as a fix for DEI issues.  

Implement a Stakeholder, Rather Than Stockholder Approach for DEI. 

  • Employers should proactively solicit input and leadership from individuals who are not usually included in DEI decisions.
  • There should be as wide a representation of people in the room making the decisions as possible. It is important to make sure that all diverse employees are represented during DEI discussions and planning.
  • Redesign the workplace environment to support a diverse workforce.
  • Begin by identifying the desired DEI goal and work backward.
  • Focus on the “I” in DEI—Inclusion. Inclusion in the workplace is one of the most important keys to retention. When employees do not feel that their ideas, presence, or contributions are truly valued or taken seriously by their organization, they will eventually leave.
  • Caution: Avoid making too many DEI decisions too soon before new ways of working are tested. Don't be afraid to go back to the drawing board.