I recently had the privilege to speak at the Turnaround Management Association’s Annual Conference on the “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion – From Evolution to Revolution” panel. The panel was organized around Vanessa Fuhrmans’ work in The Wall Street Journalwhich highlighted the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on women and the potential long-term impact it could have on their careers.  

The research and anecdotes Vanessa cited in her articles resonated with me, mainly regarding how organizations should respond to a crisis like the pandemic and how applying D&I principles could help.

Like many of my fellow D&I practitioners, my work experiences have shaped how I advise leaders during difficult times. I’ve learned a lot serving as a D&I Leader at Merrill Lynch during the financial downturn, at BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and at Raytheon during government sequestration. But honestly, working at AlixPartners during COVID and the social justice protests in summer 2020 felt different than those prior events.

To understand how COVID and the protests would impact our workforce, we needed to think deeply about our culture and how we could recreate it in a virtual environment. From the outset, our D&I team worked closely with our leaders to rally around four principles that would guide our approach to stay connected with our people:

  • Acknowledge: Our firm had to identify the patterns we were seeing in terms of behavior and challenge ourselves not to make assumptions about how we thought our colleagues would behave in a situation like this.
  • Listen: Listening is necessary to learn these patterns of behavior. Critically, our leaders needed to put themselves in a position where they were truly listening, taking it in, and processing what they were being told, not simply from a place of waiting to respond immediately with an answer.
  • Be vulnerable: To open the conversation, the next step was for our leaders to share their own stories and experiences. This enabled interactions to be personal and authentic.  
  • Commit: It was clear early on that the pandemic would change the way we work long-term. Our leaders needed to be sincere and, very importantly, visible to demonstrate that getting the response to the crisis correct, both in the near-term and the future, was important. 

By embracing these four principles, we generated a two-way dialogue between our leaders and employees. Our staff felt more connected to the decision-making process and empowered to share their realities, and our leaders were more informed to make thoughtful decisions about how to support their teams.

Leaders should keep these principles top of mind while engaging a diverse workforce, especially during a crisis. Thinking about Vanessa’s work, for example, this course of action can be applied to understand how women in your organization have fared since the start of the pandemic: What were their experiences? How did those experiences compare with the experiences of their male colleagues? Were there differences across race, ethnicity, age, or caregiver status?

Applying this approach and being intentional through each step of the process will help you answer questions like these. This establishes and/or strengthens a foundation from which your culture and core values become more than colorful words on your company website and allows your organization to welcome openness and understanding as you work through the uncertainty and challenges that crises bring.