Our speakers, clockwise from upper left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Anna Robinson of Ceresa, Carol Henderson of Emory University, Jodi Davidson of Sodexo, Chad Nico Hiu of the YMCA, and Lori George Billingsley of the Coca-Cola Co. (Image by From Day One)

“People don't want to be recruited because they happen to be a black woman. People want to be recruited because the gifts and talents they have, their expertise, benefits the business that they’re going into. And if you want to keep them, act like you want to keep them.” 

Laying down that advice was Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Emory University. Speaking on a From Day One webinar last week, Henderson and her fellow panelists were addressing the challenge of keeping diversity at the forefront during an economic and social crisis.

Already there are echoes of the Great Recession of 2007-09, when those who suffered the most in terms of job loss and economic dislocation were women and minority-group members. As we find ourselves in another downturn, those members of society are most at risk yet again

Diversity and inclusion is not just about hiring diverse talent right now. In fact, many companies are not in a position to hire and may not be for some time. Yet there are many ways to ensure that years of progress don’t evaporate. Employers can focus on pay equity, coaching, and career growth, especially those disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Among the highlights of the discussion:

Reprioritizing What Really Matters

As we approach summer, employers will face multiple stages of reprioritization. In the spirit of inclusion at a time when many workers are feeling isolated, one of the top priorities should be to address their health and well-being, our panelists agreed. “One of the things that gives me a lot of optimism is seeing companies now pivot to addressing this,” said Anna Robinson, CEO and founder of Ceresa, a leadership-development platform. “What we're seeing is people in our program, who are typically mid-career, really worried about how to support other people, how to lead people who are facing mental-health issues.”

Our panelists noted the tendency, despite all the talk of “Zoom fatigue,” for some people to feel disconnected or left behind, which can have a disproportionately strong impact on people who feel marginalized. How can that be addressed?

“We're really leaning in and making sure that when you're having meetings, that everyone has an opportunity to speak up,” said Lori George Billingsley, global chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Coca-Cola Co. This includes employee recognition and acknowledgement, as well as building connectivity so that everyone feels that they are an essential part of what is happening. 

The YMCA has notably pivoted during this time, providing childcare for essential workers and health-care professionals. “Some days are harder than most,” says Chad Nico Hiu, director of diversity and inclusion at YMCA USA. In the midst of the crisis, many YMCA locations have adapted to meet community needs. 

“Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, has been foundational. [YMCA] has been able to ask people to #StayWithUs to continue to engage and partner with the Y to help us provide support for those most vulnerable during these challenging times,” Hiu said.

At Sodexo, the global food-service company, the company has implemented a bilingual text hotline where displaced workers can engage with leaders around the clock about what they need the most. They are also redesigning their LIFT program (Leveraging Internal Frontline Talent), which was created a decade ago, to meet the needs of today’s crisis, according to Jodi Davidson, Sodexo’s VP of global diversity and inclusion.

“When I think of inclusion, where do you put grief?” asked Emory University’s Henderson. “We have people who've lost folks based on COVID-19. Where do we allow that space to breathe so that there is a communal healing for those individuals? That's what I see with inclusion as well.” 

Leading the Way With Vulnerability 

If you’re into the science of human connection, now is as good a time as ever to watch one of the most popular TED Talks in the world, in which professor and author Brené Brown extols the power of vulnerability in leadership and our lives. Our panelists echoed one of Brown’s tenets: While vulnerability is uncomfortable, it’s better to lean into it. 

Courageous empathy is a parallel principle. After the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia, African-American communities have a renewed sense of dread and outrage. “I’m the mother of a gorgeous African-American son and this happened right before Mother’s day,” said Henderson. “We have to create spaces on our campus for courageous conversations about how the entitlements of some can become the death of others.” 

Emory has also been busy creating support groups for Asian communities on campus experiencing racism and discrimination from the COVID-19 outbreak. The YMCA’s Hiu, born and raised in Hawaii, said he encounters this on a daily basis. He described a recent team meeting when he was asked how he was doing: “I broke down. I started to just sob, which I don't usually do on a team call, never mind on Zoom. I didn't realize all this pent-up emotion.” Hiu’s team was supportive and empathetic. “They said, ‘You’re safe with us, Chad. We’ve got you.’ Inclusion is about meeting people where they are, not where we think they should be.”

“It starts with our leaders,” observed Billingsley. “You have to show vulnerability, you have to show the authenticity and the transparency.”

Allyship and Accountability

Some diversity-and-inclusion programs and company-wide initiatives can be time-consuming and costly. But some of the most innovative practices can be the most simple. 

“It’s time to get humble. It’s time to get back to basics,” said Sodexo’s Davidson. For her team, this means building allyship and accountability into the vernacular. “Inclusion never stops. At [Sodexo] we say ‘Ouch’ and ‘Educate.’ And that's probably not new. But it really does work. And it gives people an invitation to stand up for themselves and to become assertive about what their experience is.” Organizations need to create a culture where slights and disrespect can be safely called out. “If you create an environment where people see that is not okay, then it becomes now the new norm,” said Billingsley.

Robinson had some personal experience on this topic: “I started as a 22-year-old analyst in London, getting sexist jokes all the time. I had someone tell me, ‘You’re not as stupid as you look.’ I was like, What does that mean? I didn't even think about these as microaggressions, but with hindsight, these things are microaggressions.” She recommends a combination of awareness training (similar to Sodexo’s ‘Ouch’ and ‘Educate’) and documenting behavior in performance reviews. 

“If we're not holding people accountable to it in their reviews, then the behavior won't change. It doesn't show you are serious about it,” Robinson said.

Accountability does not have to mean shaming or ridicule. We can show people warmth even when they make a mistake, said Hiu. “Not everyone is a perpetrator. Sometimes people are just unaware. Let's distinguish between the two. Let’s not fault or demonize people who didn't know any better.” 

He added: “I always say, ‘Let's just try not to offend the same person two times in the same day, in the same way.’ If we don't do that, then we're good, because we can give each other grace and space to be humans. And today, let's be honest, we all just need more humanity, more compassion, less intensity, and more love.” 

While society’s immediate future seems far more uncertain than usual, our panelists agreed that now is a time of transformation when America’s inequities have been under a spotlight. Said Henderson: “I think what would be a tragedy–besides the loss of life that we've seen–would be to come out of this and still do things the same way you did before.”  

Thank you to everyone who joined us for this conversation. You can check out a replay here and see a schedule of coming events here


Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.