Vessy Tasheva is the founder of Vessy.com, which helps organisations develop D&I strategies.
Her 2020 Diversity in the Workplace Report, which looked at ten companies from ten industries, revealed that mental health was becoming an area of focus, while companies were struggling to make a business case for prioritising D&I.
Here she reveals the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and explains how organisations can make their workplaces more diverse and inclusive.
Your 2020 report highlighted mental health as an area of D&I, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected that?
Mental health had gone from 12th position in the 2019 report to 7th by February 2020, which was quite a jump. That said, from 7th position it changed to number one in April/May of 2020. In the summer, we used the mental health assessment platform MindCheck to assess a client, which showed that 80% of their employees were experiencing burnout. The platform shows you in terms of severity and as a percentage, to what extent people were experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and burnout.
What about their thoughts on D&I generally?
The report shows there is a contrast between the urgency and importance of D&I in organisations. Most organisations would say it is 10 out of 10, super important. But when you ask why, they struggle to articulate their specific need.
When I ask them to rate the urgency, they score it six or seven out of 10; sometimes eight. However, in the next breath, they say it’s something they’ll get to next year or maybe the next.
As COVID-19 hit in March 2020, and the resulting budget cuts and lay-offs, I was genuinely worried that D&I would be the first thing to go, and then what would we do to improve the working lives of underrepresented groups.
Did the Black Lives Matter movement lead to an upswing?
With Black Lives Matter becoming the focus in the summer, there was a groundswell in many organisations. Many that were not sure when they should start with D&I realised they could not postpone it anymore.
Faced with political unrest in almost every country around the world, as well as demonstrations over abortion rights and LGBTQ free zones, it created an urgency that was faster than what we would typically see. Companies in sectors not severely damaged by the pandemic, suddenly made budgets available.
So, organisations have decided that they’ll invest in D&I, but their understanding and planning is not where it should be?
Yes. I think we’re at a place where many companies know it’s the right thing to do, and we see a lot of virtue signalling – and warm fuzzy feelings beyond what you get with CSR – but what comes next is still a mystery.
Part of my work is helping them see how diversity and inclusion relate to their strategy and specific metrics and then how we embed it in the organisation. Even if the CEO or C-suite are big believers and advocates, and we have a grassroots movement, why should anywhere in between care; it’s not part of their job.
This is where the role of the chief diversity officer, the people team or D&I consultant who they can engage for impartial advice, is crucial. Their work is to embed D&I in the business strategy to make sense to everyone and become part of their job, no matter their level within the organisation.
How do you help organisations embed D&I successfully?
I take a holistic approach to companies. We look at their business strategy, people KPIs and culture, and create an action plan for the first three to 12 months. I also ask them to review where they are missing data. For example, some organisations don’t have exit interviews or company values. Or they have values that are being misinterpreted to the point of being abused.
Others may have conducted inclusion and engagement surveys etc., but it turns out that some of this data contradicts others they share with me. I take this and their level of D&I knowledge and seniority, and employee engagement, into account and advise them of where we need to start.
I have had clients where we cannot get into D&I because their necessary soft skills are missing in the organisation. And when I say soft skills, I mean things like being able to communicate effectively with teams if you are a leader; what good feedback looks like and the importance of performance reviews. It’s impossible to talk about inclusion and psychological safety if a leader does not possess these skills.
I also check to ensure the values of leaders and those of the business are aligned; and mirror the organisations’ D&I ambitions. I do a deep dive into the business and ask many questions about KPIs and its culture to help identify any red flags.
Do you think there’s a difference between organisations with a head or chief diversity officer and those without?
Yes and no. It signals externally and internally that D&I is important to the organisation. However, having a head of D&I does not mean they have the resources, support, influence, or by nature, the charisma to affect change. It’s a good start, but it doesn’t guarantee anything on its own.
What would help empower the role?
We could have a chief information officer, chief technology officer, chief information security officer, and somehow those don’t contradict, they complement each other. And I think it’s similar when it comes to D&I. We can have a chief of staff, COO and chief people officer and chief diversity officer work alongside each other on D&I. Obviously, they need to work together, with the Chief Diversity Officer reporting to the CEO and working closely with the CFO so that the organisation understands that attrition due to their low level of inclusion in the company is expensive.
Sometimes we see organisations where attrition is doubling in a matter of six to 12 months, but everyone is so focused on the sales numbers. What they don’t realise is that what they could make in revenue growth, they could save in attrition costs by investing a fraction from those millions in specific D&I programmes, initiatives. It is about creating a more enjoyable place to work for everyone.
Given that remote working looks set to stay, how will it affect D&I?
Autonomy is very important because so many organisations that have remote work are used to having a lot of meetings, and sometimes great culture has been established only in a face-to-face environment. We need to learn to maintain and develop the culture, even when we’re not physically together.
Also, in times of having fake news, many of the protests we talked about, COVID-19, political and social turbulence, everyone’s sense of trust, ability to empathise, hope for the future and sense of stability are being attacked – literally bombarded every single day.
The only somewhat stable thing we have in our lives is someone who has our back. If it’s our leader, that’s fantastic. That can be the ultimate differentiating factor of why we leave or stay with a company.
Finally, is there any other advice that you would like to give?
Self-care. There’s no way you can look after your team if you haven’t looked after yourself. Similarly, I cannot help my clients if I haven’t got myself in a decent place. There was a meme about needing one day to recover from the previous day and prepare for the next. And I think that’s okay. But the point is, do we recognise that we needed that in 2020 and it’s still just as relevant in 2021?
Even if you’re not a leader, in whichever function in the organisation you are, before whatever is required from you at work, you need self-empathy and self-care to protect, empower, and empathise with others.