Back in early 2020, before many of us knew what a coronavirus was, it felt like capitalism might have reached a turning point, where the pursuit of profit and the responsibility to shareholders was perhaps giving way to a different, more holistic way of doing business. Evidence that even massive corporations, like huge ocean liners, were slowly shifting their direction of sail began popping up everywhere, from BlackRock’s Larry Fink urging companies to broaden the remit of their social responsibility, to Jeff Bezos, pressured by employees, pledging to tackle Amazon’s poor record on climate change.
When the pandemic struck, though, it seemed for a while that all this might be thrown into question. Maybe companies, with a new imperative of survival in a shellshocked economy, would cut any “extracurricular” efforts like battling racial or economic inequality or helping save the planet. Maybe all that would matter going forward was the bottom line.
So far there are hopeful signs that this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Covid-19, it’s been widely observed, is not a leveler—many more people of color, for example, are dying than are white people—but it did level some things, like throwing all the members of many companies into sudden, often non-ideal work-from-home situations without any warning. Companies have had to recognize the human needs of their staff in a way they just didn’t before, and these things have provided unexpected levels of compassion and connection: A CEO and an entry-level employee might both have parents in a nursing home; a workaholic boss might suddenly have kids at home and no childcare.
And then, in the wake of the pandemic, came George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement’s renewed surge in the US, and globally. One focus has become corporations: How much they do, what their leaders say, and whether they genuinely seem to care about equality or pay only lip service to it. If diversity and inclusion within companies were ever at risk of suffering from the pandemic’s effects, it seems the BLM movement moved them firmly up the agenda again.
Our Quartz/Qualtrics study findings
In July 2020, Quartz and Qualtrics, a firm that helps companies manage employee experience, designed a study to try and understand what workers feel about their lives as employees. We sought a global perspective, asking working adults in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, the US, and Australia. For the purpose of getting a view on current workplace situations, we excluded from the study people who had been laid off or furloughed.
Questions about the treatment of minorities made up a large portion of the questionnaire, and the results were instructive. Broadly, employees expressed the feeling that both the Covid-19 pandemic and the BLM movement had improved efforts on diversity and inclusion, or D&I, at their companies. But in many cases, workers from minority groups were less likely to think there had been improvements. There was also a difference in the base assumptions of employees: Those from minority groups were less likely to feel their companies were doing well on inclusivity in the first place.
Overall, 86% of respondents said that, in their opinion, their employer treated people of all races equally. But white employees were much more likely to express that view, with only 2% disagreeing, while 15% of Black employees disagreed.
Similarly, when it came the treatment of people based on their sexual orientation, we asked whether people were treated equally. Most thought they were, with only 2% overall saying that they felt LGBTQ+ people were not treated equally. However, of those who identified themselves as LGBTQ+ (which made up 11% of the total responses), 28% said they felt people with non-cis sexual orientations or identities were not treated equally.
Of course, some level of disconnect may be inevitable between people who have quite possibly been the victims of discrimination, and those who probably haven’t (though they might have observed it). What it points to is the need—already identified by many companies—for a huge effort of listening to those who have non-majority experiences; experiences which, by the very fact that they are non-majority, have often in the past been dismissed as outliers.
The other of the study’s findings on diversity and inclusion, perhaps more encouraging to companies which are really trying to turn things around, was in corporations’ response to the events of the last months. Two-thirds of the survey respondents said their company’s D&I efforts had improved as a result of the pandemic, a stat that is perhaps surprising given that most companies’ responses will have included huge practical upheavals, in which D&I would not of necessity have been a major focus. Employees of US companies were most likely to feel that these efforts had improved, with 70% believing they had, though it’s not possible to tell from the results whether this difference was because US companies have changed more, or because they had more to work on. Interestingly, there wasn’t any significant difference between minorities’ views on this improvement and that of majority groups.
Either because it came later, was US-centric, or for some other reason, the Black Lives Matter movement was actually seen to have played a smaller role than the pandemic in changing companies’ D&I efforts. Globally, 48% of workers felt that diversity and inclusion initiatives had improved in response to BLM, with a slightly smaller proportion—43%—of Black people agreeing that the movement had prompted change. The rest of responses were split between a large contingent of the total cohort who thought there had been no change in D&I policies, and a much smaller group who felt they’d gone backwards.
Do workers hold any power here?
The Quartz/Qualtrics findings are, of course, a snapshot of a moment in time. They don’t necessarily point to a lasting trend. But one fascinating strand we’ll continue to follow is that, in the case of Covid-19 at least, companies appear to have changed for the better in a way that’s curiously organic: A collective and quick response which couldn’t have been planned and is unlikely to be the result of one specific pressure, for example legislation or even employee protest.
Workers might feel that they have little power at the moment. In a job market with so few opportunities to move, those who are still employed might feel both grateful to be retained and scared to rock the boat.
But at the same time, the apparent collective improvement in the treatment of minorities points to something more encouraging. Perhaps, stripped of offices and work attire, meetings and in-person client liaison, corporate flights and conferences, companies are realizing that the people they employ are the business. Those people have a wide range of different needs but yearn to be treated equally, no matter their background or current circumstances. And so maybe the results indicate that workers have more power, right now, than they think they do.