The last three months have been a whirlwind for many of us. As lawyers, we confronted a wide range of legal issues relating to contractual force majeure and default, employment law issues like the Americans with Disabilities Act, worker safety under OSHA, and unexpected new twists on emerging issues like privacy and cybersecurity. Now, many of us are looking to the future. We are trying to determine what the new normal will look like in a COVID-19 world. When and how should businesses and offices reopen? How can businesses ensure that their costs are competitive and allow for a return to profitability? How can they continue to keep their employees and communities safe when anyone, anywhere could be unknowingly carrying the virus?
There is a societal cost, hidden beneath the COVID-19 activity. That cost is people, and specifically, around diverse individuals and populations. While everyone, notwithstanding income bracket, education or color of their skin, can get COVID-19, the virus has had a disparate impact on some populations. As white-collar workers, many lawyers were able to work remotely, staying safe in our homes, while grocery store clerks, manufacturing employees, delivery drivers and others continued to report to work each day. Most of us had enough money to buy two weeks of groceries. We have health insurance and frequently, established relationships within the medical community. Even beyond that disparity, we are seeing news from cities like Chicago and Detroit indicating that the virus is impacting diverse populations much more severely and is exposing long-term inequities in access to employment, housing, medical services and other resources.
We are at a pivotal moment for diversity and inclusion (“D&I”). The decisions we make and the actions we take today will signal whether D&I is real to us, or just a corporate flavor of the month. Someone recently asked why I thought anyone should care about D&I when people were fighting over toilet paper. It is because people are hoarding toilet paper that we should care.
The toilet paper situation is the epitome of scarce resources, and highlights the need to think of ourselves as a community, not individuals. Our work colleagues who felt that their differences left them alone and isolated before COVID-19 will feel that even more acutely after weeks of remote work, and entire communities are being left behind in COVID’s wake.
Now, as businesses think about layoffs and furloughs, and as anticipated job opportunities for new graduations or people in transition vanish, we need to hold firm to principles of diversity. Business must comply with the laws against discrimination. But D&I is much more than legal compliance. As businesses and individuals, we need to continue our support for women and minority owned businesses by patronizing them. When businesses are hiring, they need to look for diverse candidates outside of their normal ‘go to’ recruiting venues and ensure that final interview slates reflect diversity. Those with resources need to reach out to communities where there is a need – hunger is a real need in many communities, as is the availability of low or no-cost legal aid. Those of us who are blessed with work need to connect with and mentor people who are looking.
So, here is a challenge for you.
Today, reach out and connect with one person who is different from you in some way. Donate to a not-for-profit organization that supports humanitarian relief in your community. Lastly, share your personal commitment to people and to D&I both online and at work. If everyone put diversity top of mind, imagine the difference that we could make and the future that we could build as part of the new normal.
Until next time…