By now it has become apparent that Covid-19 is far from the “Great Equaliser” many hyped it to be. In both the US and UK, evidence has emerged of disparities in deaths from the disease based on race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. In Hong Kong, too,
The impact of the pandemic has been felt differently across the community, with ethnic minorities receiving inadequate support because of culturally insensitive policies, children with learning difficulties unnerved by changes to their everyday routine, and carers facing heightened pressure from juggling between work and family… the list goes on.
Meanwhile, businesses have had to make tough decisions about pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs, as lockdown measures strangled supply chains and slashed tourist numbers. From Bloomberg and CNN to The Guardian and Nikkei, numerous international media outlets have reported Hong Kong’s year-on-year 9 per cent drop in GDP in the second quarter. Then came the third quarter, when the city’s unemployment rate hit a 16-year high of 6.4 per cent.
While staying afloat is now the top priority for businesses, an equally pressing concern is whether their diversity and inclusion (D&I) commitments will take a back seat in the quest for survival.
This is a valid and legitimate question, since D&I policies are still viewed by some as “nice-to-have” corporate social responsibility fluff, or, in the case of a listed company, boxes to tick in an environment, social and coporate governance report rather than an integral part of any successful business.
It is also a real and immediate question many employers will have to face. When you decide to lay off employees or put them on furlough, for example, are you making your picks based on their abilities and the genuine operational needs of your business, or are you letting your prejudices – against pregnant women, people of colour, and those with disabilities or family responsibilities – drive your decision-making?
In fact, research shows that inclusive organisations fare better in times of recession. A 2019 study released by Fortune magazine and Great Place to Work, looking at data on nearly 2,000 publicly traded companies in the US during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, found that while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index suffered a 35.5 per cent decline in stock performance in that period, companies that remained inclusive boasted a 14.4 per cent gain.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Every business is, in the end, a people business, whether big or small, business-to-business or business-to-consumer. From your staff and interns to partners and clients, their sense of belonging, affinity and confidence towards your organisation hinges on how you treat them. A corporate culture that disrespects differences is bound to erode that connection, thus undermining talent and customer retention.
D&I efforts therefore are not a drain on resources, nor are they inimical to the bottom line. Indeed, unprecedented challenges call for innovative solutions and rarely does innovation arise from homogeneity. Instead, it flows from a constant exchange of different ideas and perspectives, which is only possible in a workplace that embraces diversity and encourages such interaction.
Imagine you run a pet product store and an accompanying online shop. The number of visitors to your store has yet to pick up even after the relaxation in social distancing rules, possibly because of a lingering vigilance about the coronavirus among some of your customers.
As you think of ways to boost your online sales, one of your part-time employees, who was born with visual impairment, suggests enhancing the accessibility features of the website, so that the visually impaired – an estimated 175,000 in Hong Kong according to government statistics – can access its content using screen readers and other assistive devices.
You reach out to an NGO with the employee’s help, implement the changes, and roll out targeted ads. Within a month, page views more than double, bounce rates go down and transactions from new visitors spike. You have officially forayed into an untapped market.
The story, though fictional, suggests that D&I practices can offer tangible benefits to businesses; that it may be easier to pave the path of recovery from the ruins of Covid-19 with a sustained commitment to equal opportunities than with a knee-jerk rollback of D&I investments.
Hoping to promote the business case for diversity, the Equal Opportunities Commission launched the Equal Opportunity Employer Recognition Scheme earlier this month. The scheme, the first of its kind in Hong Kong, seeks to recognise both private and public organisations with a proven track record of adopting inclusive policies for women and men, people with disabilities, carers and ethnic minorities in the workplace.
All in all, there are both ethical and economic reasons for employers to reaffirm and fulfil their D&I commitments even – or perhaps especially – in the aftermath of Covid-19. These efforts will only serve to bring in business, not turn it away.
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