Change at Work

Equity in the Wake of COVID-19

In times of stress, it’s easy for bias to emerge. Make sure you’re proactively creating an inclusive culture.

To cope with COVID-19, many organizations have been forced to switch to a remote workforce, almost overnight. But as Rachel Marcuse, COO at ReadySet, points out, it’s all too easy for bias to slip in. To ensure your team continues having productive, inclusive conversations in a remote setting:

  • Establish consistent and proactive internal communication. In an effort to calm people, many employers are sending out emails with the general message “wash your hands, only the weak will die anyway”—which isn’t considerate of people who are older or immuno-compromised. Instead, if possible, share mental health resources and update policies related to sick leave.
  • Make space for discussion and learning. Biases may start to emerge within your organization, so now is a good time for virtual trainings on topics like xenophobia and discrimination. Make a special effort to reach out to managers so they understand any changes to protocol or health disclosure.
  • Assume positive intent, but own impact. Virtual communication makes misunderstandings more common. If you see or hear something questionable, give people an “out” like “I’m not sure you meant it that way, but…”—but do follow up.

Read the Transcript

Rachel Marcuse:

Hi, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us today. Weird, weird times. Weird times to be doing this work, but I’m really looking forward to being with you here for the next 20 minutes or so.

So a little bit about me. I’ve been working around scaling organizations in a more inclusive way for the last nearly 20 years now. My last job, I worked in-house for Tom Steyer organization support that whole presidential thing, running HR for one of the largest desks to Democratic SuperPacs in the country and I’m currently the chief operating officer at ReadySet. ReadySet is a high-touch consulting firm and we specialize in making more equitable, diverse and inclusive environments.

I do want to talk for a minute about what I’m not. What I’m not is a health professional or a mental health professional. I have done a lot of crisis intervention work and so I do use that when. But we’ve got to remember that when we’re talking about COVID-19 stuff, I just always want to remind us that we want to come back to those professionals because this is such an emergent situation. It could get better, it could get worse. What I’m going to be focusing on today is the equity and inclusion angle when it comes to the crisis and how a lot of that really relates to for some people an existing reality and for some people a very new reality with just remote virtual work, whatever we’re calling it.

So I have a question for you. I know we’ve all been thinking a lot about our team’s physical safety, right? We’re all virtual today because we want to make sure that folks are safe, folks are taking social distancing really seriously for the common good. What have you been doing so far in terms of thinking about your team’s mental health? I’d love for you to just put in the chat things that you’ve done, things that you’ve been thinking about at your organizations to take into consideration how your team is doing from a mental health perspective.

All right. Just go ahead and put that in the chat box. Daily check-in, great. Implementing group. Oh, it’s moving so quickly. Routine pulse checks, love it. Virtual check-in. Ooh, multiplayer games for some fun. Dedicated wellness time. Self-awareness training. Oh, I love it. Meditating before a meeting. Virtual happy hours. Oh, amazing. I’m loving all of these things.

Jane Garza:

Really amazing. We’ll capture this as a list to share it out later so you can all share in one another’s content.

Rachel Marcuse:

Yeah, this is fabulous.

Jane Garza:

These are great.

Rachel Marcuse:

And we’re going to also see some of these reflected in the next couple of slides, but you have a bunch that I haven’t thought of, which is why I love doing these kind of workshops because I learn new things.

Oh, theme clothing days. Yes, I’ve been thinking about doing like a onesie day. That seems like a good idea, our Tutu Tuesday kind of a thing. A lot of us have little kids or a few of us have little kids and my daughter is all tutus all the time right now. Fabulous.

So I want a name also here that the epidemic, the crisis can affect people in different ways. we’re not all facing some of the same challenges. It may be affecting parents, differently, caregivers differently, people with existing mental health issues differently, folks who are immuno-compromised, folks who are older, et cetera, et cetera. So the mental health implications aren’t the same for everybody, really important that we’re talking about this stuff.

So sort of related, but different, I want to talk about what we’ve been seeing in the world when it comes to bias, when it comes to racism, xenophobia, discrimination. What have you been seeing either at work or just out in the world through the news? What have you been hearing about when you’ve been on CNN or on other news sources, checking your Facebook feed? What have you been hearing about in terms of bias going on in the world? So, I hadn’t put that in the chat side, but…

Getting verbally attacked for being young and out in public, so we’re seeing ageism in both directions, young people and old people. What else are we seeing? A lot of ageism we’ve got. Asian flu. We have a lot of references including from the president around how this is the Chinese virus, happened to originate in China. We’re seeing xenophobia blaming Asians. Yeah, I see another Chinese virus. Yeah. So we’ve been seeing people making assumptions about where the bias came from and who’s to blame. Absolutely. Absolutely.

So we have been seeing a lot going on. We’d seen a rise in hate crimes. We’ve seen Asian Americans be physically assaulted. We’ve seen verbal harassments all over the worlds. We’ve seen TSA agents involved in verbal harassment prior to some of the sort of more stringent social distancing. We were seeing Chinese restaurants really suffer because of a perception of Chinese people or food being unclean.

What’s happening here is that news of the coronavirus is really, really amplifying a lot of existing stuff that’s already been going on, right? There’s something called Sinophobia, which is a specific form of bigotry that’s hostility against China. It’s people with Chinese descent or Chinese culture and that goes back to the 1800s.

That goes back to the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese laborers for coming to the US for 10 years. So we’re seeing an exacerbation of stuff that was sort of under the surface and we’re seeing new stuff come up as well.

We’re also seeing a lot of perceptions around ableism. Not all disabilities are visible. People who are immunocompromised and who have other underlying health conditions are more susceptible to this virus. We’re seeing, as a number of people have said a lot of incidents of ageism as well.

I see some people sort of getting into some of the organizational dynamics that you might be sort of witnessing at work as well. Because I guarantee you that though some of these more extreme forms of bias and discrimination are probably more visible sort of when we’re hearing them from the news, the physical assault is different, although also problematic when we’re talking about a verbal assault, but we have stuff happening in our workplaces as well. Someone mentioned on this list sort of extroverts and consensus of the loudest, the fact that the loudest people get heard in crises like this.

We can see this kind of dynamics from the outside world showing up in our workforces as well, in our Slacks, in our Zooms, in disparaging statements that are made, in erasing over different identities and ignoring folks who are going to be affected from the lived experience perspective in a very different way than other folks.

So what do we do about this? Well, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but at ReadySet we will focus on making more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations. We’ve been thinking about this work in the context of COVID-19, but prior as well how bias shows up in the workplace. So some thoughts, not an exhaustive list. We’d love to hear ideas from you as well in sort of what we can do.

The first bucket I want to talk about is about consistent and proactive internal communication. We want to make sure that we’re talking to our folks on a regular cadence. this is really emergent. It could get worse before it gets better. This is totally unprecedented. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We want to make sure that we’re talking to people. We want to make sure that we’re talking to our staff without ignoring some of the folks who may be most affected by this.

There’s a great disability activist, Charis Hill, who recently wrote an article where she quoted sort of what a lot of coms have looked like. She summarized this quote as, “Don’t panic, just wash your hands and only the sick will die anyway.” so we’ve seen that sort of show up in communications, internal communications, external communications. Not I don’t think for the most part in an ill-intentioned way and, of course, not using those exact words. But this idea that as we’re trying to destress people, take away some of the fear, we’re erasing over the reality there’s some people who are likely to be more affected. So let’s make sure that we include everybody in our communication.

Really encourage you to share mental health resources. I’m an HR professional. I was getting nervous about sending out resources that I don’t know super well, but national hotlines are always a really good one to include because they’ve been sort of vetted at a good, thorough level. Employee resource plan offerings, another really good option. Articles, helplines that have texting or virtual options as well. Or if you have mental health coverage in your health plan, that can be another really good thing to highlight for folks.

Revise your policies and communicate about them. At ReadySet now we’re on unlimited sick leave. We switched to that because it seemed like the right thing to do. We wanted people not to be stressed out if they got sick or if they were dealing with mental health issues. And really communicate about them. We want to make sure that we’re also talking to caregivers if/when school schools are closed. I don’t have childcare and so I don’t know when at this point, and so we’ve been revising that. That’s a huge challenge for us.

Second category here is about making space for discussion and learning. We want to have all staff meetings. We want to have dedicated spaces, office hours. We want to train folks and be talking about xenophobia, bias and discrimination. That’s actually kind of a good time in a weird way to do virtual trainings because folks are looking for connection. They want to talk to each other.

We also want to make sure we’re being really authentic and really clear on what’s known in this situation and what’s not right. We don’t know what’s going to happen and the worst thing that we can do as leaders, as HR people, as individual contributors trying to support our peers.

Another sort of bucket here are managers are so helpful in these situations. They’re the ones who are talking to the most people. They are talking to people more senior, more junior. They’re really on the front line, so let’s make sure they really understand the changes to protocols and what this is going to look like. Let’s make sure that they understand issues when it comes to confidentiality.

A lot of people make disclosures during times like this. If you’re in the US making a health disclosure results in needing to have a conversation about reasonable accommodations. Not everybody knows that, but that’s something that we have to be doing and we have to be training our managers on.

Get your managers to check in a lot. We want them to check in even more than they were before, especially if virtual is a new thing for your team. Incorporate emotions-based check-ins. This is just good management, Management 101 stuff, but asking their direct report how they’re feeling and really caring about the answer, asking their direct report what they can do to support them this week.

Some more thoughts for you, values. Jane and Bud talked about coming back to culture. This isn’t just about picking the right tools. This is about how we change the culture, how we stick to what works, how we make changes. Come back to your culture and your values. Is transparency a value at your organization? Let’s be really transparent about what we know, what we don’t know, what the expectations are. When we screw up, when got to go a different direction, let’s be really transparent about that as well.

That connects to giving folks the why, too. I have so many conversations with organizations where they think that senior leaders are doing all the secret stuff in the back room and it’s so exciting. That’s just because it’s not shared with the team. So we want to make sure that we’re sharing the why behind the decisions that we’re making. It can be really hard. We’re balancing business outcomes. A lot of us are really concerned about the recession with the ethics, with the health implication, with equity concerns. So letting folks know how we’re coming to the decisions that we are.

Rituals are great right now. You can change them up, you can create new ones, but they’re really important to give people that touch point, regular moments where everyone’s together.

How I ship, I could spend three hours on this. You’re going to see bias in your organizations. It’s going to happen. You’re going to see someone make a disparaging comment about an ethnic group. Name it. “I’m not sure if he meant it this way, but I just heard” or if you’re not comfortable dealing with it in real time, tell someone, tell your people ops or your HR department, tell your manager. You’ve got to get ahead of this because it’s going to get increasingly exacerbated in virtual format.


Jane Garza:

Yeah, and I think just the build on that point, I think the way you frame that is so important, is giving people the out and say, “I’m not sure if he meant it that way.” To start the conversation from a place that does feel like positive intent and a good starting point so that people can say like, “Oh, actually no, I didn’t. Let me back off of that and restate how I might say that” they’re not on their heels in the second [inaudible 00:13:26] say that.

Rachel Marcuse:

Absolutely. I think what we say at ReadySet is, “Assume good intent, but own impact,” right? Absolutely.

Jane Garza:

Yes. I also just want to ask people to start popping in questions into the Q&A or the chat so we can answer some questions before Rachel hops off when we start our next session.

Rachel Marcuse:

Thanks, Jane.

Couple more here. Advocate for training spaces. We talked about training. Now is actually probably a great time to talk about this stuff. Create opportunities for impacted individuals to talk to each other, employee resource groups, Slack channels, other ways.

Let’s try and do our best to address fear proactively. Let’s try and stay away from calling out specific groups. Let’s assure staff that we’re trying to make the best decisions for the business, but that we’re going to also be weighing health decisions, ethical decisions over some of the short-term business interests at this time.

Clear expectations from work-from-home. This is going to evolve. This doesn’t need to be a thing that you create a list one day and it changes, but let’s do those norms. Do those individual-level norms. Do those group norms. Try and find that balance between flexibility and consistency.

Consider some stipends if you have the money. Work-from-home is really easier for some people than other people. Let’s normalize those kids popping up in the background like that BBC video is going to happen. Let’s also acknowledge that it’s harder and different for some people than others.

I could spend an hour on running inclusive meetings, but just a couple quick tips. Check-ins and icebreakers are great. They got to feel genuine. If it doesn’t feel like part of your company culture, maybe this is an opportunity to make it part of your company culture. Use some humor, checking in on how people are doing at the beginning of meetings, especially during times like that. This, I think, is really important.

Remember that staff would take up less space in real life. Those ones who don’t say a lot in meetings maybe because they’re introverts, maybe because of social identity issues are even less likely to take up this space in the virtual format because we all love that unmuting dance that we have to do. Everyone hates that and the introverts are going to have an even harder time with that. So really encourage you to do is a speakers list to organize who’s on Stack, who’s going to be the next one speaking and to openly invite. “Hey, I’d love to hear from someone who I haven’t heard from yet.”

Last category for you because I know we’re running out of time. Social times that were important. You all had great ideas in the mental health prompt a little bit earlier. We’re doing Zoom lunches at ReadySet. We also, at our all-staff, we typically had food and so now we’re having people order in. That’s still allowed in San Francisco. We’ll see how long it’s allowed for, but it’s allowed right now.

There’s lots of other ways that we can be creative. Virtual trivia. People did some meditation. Lots of these opportunities for some fun, for some creativity and for abilities to connect. We know that working from home can be incredibly isolating, in particular for people who are not used to it. We know that isolation is connected to our immune system. So the more that we can be creating connection, the more that we can be supporting people, the healthier everyone’s going to be.

So not an exhaustive list. Those are some thoughts from us at ReadySet and some stuff that we’ve been hearing from our clients and our other partners. But I’d love to answer some questions or thoughts.

Jane Garza:

Yeah. We’ll be quick, so maybe we’ll end on one question. I think this one is such a big one. I’d love your thoughts on it. So how do you coach managers who are new to having these emotional-based conversations? Or maybe are trying to and they feel like they’re just kind of getting the like, “No, I’m fine,” but they know that there’s anxiety under the surface?Where do you start?

Rachel Marcuse:

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think that like with everything around people management, it’s all a relationship. It’s all relational. So I’m coming up with those kind of prompts that are going to feel authentic to the manager is really, really important. We don’t want to be having managers ask a very Northern California question. It’s not going to feel right in their culture, not going to feel right to them.

Rachel Marcuse:

So it could just be asking how the person is doing, waiting for the response, pausing for a minute, just to give them some more space. It’s an invitation. We don’t want to put people on the spot. People also may not want to tell you and that’s fine. It is harder for some people to bring their full self to work and so we don’t want to be putting people on the spot, either. I think it’s really a matter of managers giving those invitations. Also maybe doing a little bit of modeling of their own vulnerability, if they feel comfortable with that, can be a really useful tool.

Jane Garza:

Amazing. Okay. Thank you so much, Rachel. I was so excited to have you and I think this is such a useful talk with so many important tidbits that you can already tell because there’s so much chatter around, like, will we get this deck? So I appreciate you just filling everyone with all of these tips. I think they’re huge.

I think in the midst of trying to adapt to this, it’s really easy to lose the thread of the inclusion and diversity and equity of our people and how they’re being affected by it because it’s so easy to just focus on the remote work and technical problems and all that other stuff that’s going on right now. So thank you again. Really appreciate it.

Published March 30, 2020

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