There are two things that are absolutely certain in times of crisis: You will see the best of humanity, stories of bravery and compassion, and you will see the worst. Fear brings us together while simultaneously driving us apart.
Unfortunately, that truth has played out throughout the coronavirus pandemic. While we’ve heard uplifting stories of neighbors helping neighbors, racism and sexism, which are always realities in our world and workforce, have become even more concerning in the wake of a global health crisis.
Asian-Americans have been prevented from entering establishments because they might have the “Chinese virus”; they’ve dealt with harassment on the street and at work. African-Americans face a higher death rate from coronavirus because of long-held health care inequalities and societal discrimination. Women, regardless of industry, are taking on more unpaid labor at home, a burden so disproportionate that 14 percent have considered quitting their jobs to take care of their families. The list goes on and on.
As a manager, it’s your job to recognize how the confluence of race, gender, and current events might affect your employees’ work and productivity—because in all likelihood, they will. Allyship means taking into account the factors that impact how easily, and safely, someone moves through the world, and it’s vital to accurately assessing your employees’ needs and performance.
Karen Catlin, the founder of Better Allies, has been involved in the allyship space since, as vice president of engineering at Adobe, she started the company’s first employee resource group for women. Now in her second career, the San Francisco–based diversity coach, speaker, and author helps companies and leaders incorporate allyship into their workplaces. Catlin says these steps are essential to leading an inclusive team through crisis, coronavirus or otherwise.
Catlin says there’s no rule book for navigating crises as unprecedented as this one, but a good first step is to acknowledge where you might be at an advantage or disadvantage compared to others. The spectrum of privilege can and will vary within your community and organization.
If you can work remotely, for instance, you have more privilege than your neighbor, who’s a nurse, or your mail carrier. But even when working from home, you might have more or less privilege than your coworkers:
Do you have children, and is a partner helping you take care of them?
Do you have a designated work space?
Do you have a desk?
Can you spend time outdoors?
Are you the sole provider for your family?
Catlin has created a list of 15 COVID-specific privileges to consider when assessing your own advantages and recognizing the realities of others.
To address demographic concerns, let’s add a few more to Catlin’s list:
Do you fear going out in public while wearing a mask?
Do you fear public response to your race or ethnicity because of current events?
Do you worry you or your loved ones might not receive proper medical treatment because of racial or gender bias?
Are you pregnant and worried about visiting the hospital or going into labor during the pandemic?
Are you at a financial disadvantage right now, or always, because of your demographics?
Answers to all of these questions should be taken into account when navigating work relationships and the needs of your employees. What comforts might you have that they don’t, and what can you do to respect those differences?
“Even if you think more bias wouldn’t show up in your workplace, your employees of Asian descent are worried about it, and they’re worried about their families and friends,” Catlin says.
Check in with your employees
Catlin recommends that everyone in leadership positions talk to their employees about what’s happening in the world and how it might affect their ability to do their job. Although discussing topics like race and gender can be tricky, she suggests scheduling a 1:1 and starting the conversation like so:
I’ve been reading a lot in the news, and I’m concerned about how this might be impacting you and your family. How are you doing?
Make it clear that you’re always available to talk, and invite your direct reports to share any concerns they may have, both personal and professional. Catlin says to “Ask how they’re doing on a scale of 1 (I need a personal day) to 10 (Feeling great!), which can help you calibrate how to support them.”
Expect answers to include concerns over discrimination and prejudice (both at work and in society), stress about increased need to support loved one as a caretaker and financial provider, and worry over not having time or mental capacity to complete paid work.
Proactively set and manage expectations
Once you know what your team is dealing with, Catlin says you should set realistic expectations for productivity. Reasonable accommodations to help employees cope will vary, but she says you can suss out those needs with questions like, What’s one thing I or our organization can do to support you? Or, more simply, What do you need from me? More personal time, flexible work hours, and adjusted workloads are all up for discussion. It’s helpful to keep go-to resources, like information on health care and company-supported mental health services, bookmarked at a time like this.
Generally, a shift in perspective is also important. Catlin says emphasizing the “value of deliverables over hours in the seat” can help employees know it’s okay to step away for a few hours if needed. In other words, as long as a project is done by X date, the number of hours worked, and the time of day, shouldn’t necessarily matter.
Finally, consider talking about allyship to your entire team at an all-hands meeting. “You have to recognize racism is real, acknowledge it,” Catlin says, recommending leadership open up the dialogue the same way they would in a 1:1: I’ve been reading about X in the news, and this is how it could affect our business, our customers, and our team.
Affirmation is at the heart of empathy and allyship.