Courage for the Downturn: Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion in a Season of Layoffs

Season of Layoffs

Courage for the Downturn: Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion in a Season of Layoffs

Leaders are courageous. Without courage, one is incapable of leading. What does courageous leadership look like in a business environment? It could mean guiding a team through a major transformation. It could mean executing amidst a crisis (um hello….pandemic?). Courageous leadership also entails putting the team’s best interests ahead of the leaders. Does it sound like I’m on the verge of ripping failures in leadership? Winner, winner chicken dinner. More about that in a minute. But first…

Some say the economy is on the brink of recession. While the Fed continues to inch interest rates higher to starve inflation, many companies have decided to pull the trigger on preemptive layoffs. People I know and admire are networking like mad and circulating their resumes as I write this piece, hoping to counterbalance the proverbial pink slip in the hand with a graceful landing in a new environment. I sense that the recent round of layoffs in many preeminent organizations is just the beginning. There’s pain to come for many. And here’s the reality… If you work in business long enough, you’re going to get a pink slip or two. That’s part of the risk/reward of business. Some years arrive with bull markets and big payouts. Some years force one into full austerity mode, and, unfortunately, an endless cycle of interviews. I get it…

What really bothers me in all this is the lack of leadership I see when tough decisions are forthcoming. From lack of strategic intentionality to protectionism to toxic patriarchy, many business leaders look out for themselves and their cadre of buddies when cuts must be made, sacrificing talented women, LGBTQ+ persons, and people of colour to keep the existing “club” intact. I’m worried that the significant efforts to improve diversity in the workplace will take huge steps backward. I’m starting to hear people challenge the data around diversity and people saying, when I challenge their beliefs, “Show us the data, Victoria.” To that I say, “Here’s the only data point you need to see:” As I write this, females account for only 53 CEO positions among Fortune 500 companies and only 6 are led by black CEOs. Interestingly, a 2020 study of CEO’s conducted by the University of Paris found that “female CEOs illustrated greater empathy, adaptability and diversity more frequently than their male peers.” A similar study conducted by Catalyst showed “empathetic leaders have more innovative and productive teams, and are likely to retain talent.” Simple math, folks. Females in leadership demonstrate more empathy; empathetic leaders are likely to retain talent. And I don’t need to recount all the data and articles I’ve already written about the benefits of diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces on the whole.

Ultimately, retaining diverse talent helps a business thrive in stormy conditions and really explode with growth in a great economic environment. Could the most talented people in an organization be white males? While there are many, certainly far more than the mere 53 females CEOs at the top of F500 companies. That said, diversity in all forms is a source of creativity, passion, and transformation in our businesses. If males – particularly white males – are far more likely to survive a round of layoffs because of patriarchy than the supermajority of “everyone else,” then one could argue that the business’s future is jeopardized by elevating the club over talent and diversity.

Yes, layoffs are the culminating event amid a web of economic cycles, business needs, and market factors that are beyond our control. I ask for all leaders to be strategically intentional, plus bring a significant amount of common sense and empathy when layoffs are imminent. Who is indispensable? Who attacks challenges with creativity? Who brings creative solutions to complex problems? Answer these honestly, and you will honour diversity instead of excising it from your business.