Furlough and bias: An open letter to business leaders facing tough decisions

In moments of stress, business leaders default to autopilot behaviours, with social structural prejudices baked into them.

by Roshni Goyate
Last Updated: 08 Apr 2020

Business leaders are facing some of the toughest people-related decisions of their careers. One for which there is no blueprint, no guidelines. It is a great unknown. Whether having to furlough staff, give out redundancies or simply lay them off, there is something those decision-makers need to be aware of more than ever: unconscious bias. 

In moments of stress, we enter fight or flight and we default to autopilot behaviours, led by our gut instincts with social structural prejudices baked into them. These are the moments when bias, conscious or unconscious can be most prevalent. And what could be more stressful than a global pandemic? 

At this time, marginalised people within teams are at most risk of facing bias from the leadership. People of colour, mothers, parents, carers, women over 45, people with disabilities – who already face barriers to progression at work – will most likely be disproportionately affected by these decisions. 

But there is an opportunity here too. In recent years, diversity and inclusion at work have gone from being a nice-to-have to a must-have for overall team productivity, happiness, sense of belonging and equitable opportunities for all. The choices made by leaders today could either set companies on their way or set them back for when we begin our humble return to some semblance of normality – though I think we can safely assume things will never go back to how they were. Nevertheless, there’s the opportunity to decide whether the company your employees return to after this distressing time will be as diverse and inclusive as it can be, or homogenous and exclusive. Here are some thoughts to take into consideration when making and sharing these difficult decisions. 

KNOW HOW BIAS SHOWS UP IN KEY MOMENTS

While many companies may not have up-to-date diversity data to work off in order to measure the retention of diversity during this time, there are key moments where decision-makers can check their bias: Have you decided to furlough a woman of colour while keeping on her white counterpart even when they are equally qualified and capable of continuing work? Are you choosing to make a parent redundant while furloughing their child-free counterpart at work? These are the kinds of biases already prevalent within the workplace and there is the risk of them being perpetuated during the pandemic. Nuance, rather than knee-jerk blanket decision-making is imperative at this time. 

CONSIDER HOW EXISTING PAY GAPS COULD LEAD TO FURTHER INEQUITY 

There is plenty of data to suggest that those who fall within the protected characteristics face a pay gap in relation to their white, male able-bodied counterparts. People of colour, parents and carers, women over 45 and people with disabilities already face disparity in pay due to structural oppression. They’re already beginning from way behind the starting line. Decisions made during the pandemic may perpetuate and have a structurally long-lasting detrimental effect on marginalised people and the communities they belong to. Although much is unknown about what life will be like post-pandemic, this is an opportunity to avoid replicating the systems that create inequity and inequality.

COMMUNICATE WITH CLARITY AND TRANSPARENCY

Leadership during COVID-19 isn’t about having all the answers – nobody has been in this position before. Now is the opportunity to show vulnerability and humanity in leadership. Check in with your staff. Communicate proactively. Make it a dialogue with your teams, not a top-down blanket broadcast. If you’ve made your decision with integrity, it may feel more natural to communicate with openness and integrity. Though not everyone will be pleased with the decision, there is an opportunity for leaders to act from a place of emotional intelligence that will allow them to say "I did the best that I could in an impossible situation".

Roshni Goyate is the co-founder of The Other Box, which educates and empowers people to work and live more inclusively. It works strategically with global companies on diversity and inclusion through training and workshops, with brands on partnerships and campaigns, and supports a community of nearly 3,000 creatives.

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Image credit: SEAN GLADWELL via Getty Images

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