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Nic Hammarling

Pearn Kandola

Head of Diversity

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Keeping diversity and inclusion on the agenda during uncertain times


During uncertain times, such as the recent fallout from the decision on the European referendum, leaders tend to opt for the ‘tried-and-tested’ policy, often to the detriment of their diversity and inclusion (D&I) work. But keeping D&I at the forefront of our minds is even more important for leaders when the future is looking unclear.

People are really fascinating in the way that they react to uncertain situations, and in our current post-Brexit state, uncertainty is becoming the norm for our working environments. 

As business psychologists, we know that when people are making decisions during stressful situations they are much less likely to rely on their logical thinking.

Instead, they become driven by the more emotional aspects of their brain processes. When employees are stressed or anxious, they tend to revert to a fight-or-flight response and become overly sensitive to difference.

This means that we revert to everything that is nice and familiar – which isn’t great for diversity and inclusion at all.

The problem of 'homophily'

A leader’s preference for people who are like themselves, known as homophily, could mean a worrying step back from the progress that companies have made around diversity and inclusion in recent years. Making decisions during the post-Brexit uncertainly could mean that we see more hiring of the obvious people leaders feel they can trust.

This is particularly concerning in light of the fact that, according to Reed, we saw an 8% rise in online job listings in the three weeks since Britons voted to leave. We must make sure this new influx is properly considered and that those recruiting do not let their unconscious bias win out.

There are also lessons to be learned from past economic downturns, which frequently go hand-in-hand with ambiguous situations. In these situations, the “tried-and-tested” is particularly likely to be the preferred approach for leaders making decisions about their employees.

This is why in economic downturns from the 1970s through to the most recent recession, economic inactivity and levels of employment are significantly hit for people from ethnic minority backgrounds, disabled people, older people and most noticeably, for women.

A further way in which economic downturns have more of an impact on some groups than others is through the type of contract that people are employed under. For example, zero-hours contracts are a seemingly attractive method to help businesses remain flexible and manage uncertainty. 

However, we also know that women are more likely than men to be employed on zero-hours contracts, and are therefore disproportionately affected when organisations manage uncertainty in this way. 

Organisations therefore need to be extremely careful not to allow feelings of uncertainly result in a reverse of the recent progress we have made around diversity and inclusion.

To help combat this, there are four key areas leaders should focus on during these times:

  1. Leaders must take action to reduce the psychological strain on their workforce. The higher the strain, the more likely employees are to make biased decisions. Communicating and involving people in decision-making situations can help them feel far more engaged and reduce their psychological strain. Making people more aware of the situation will also help keep their bias in check when making important decisions.
  2. Leaders need to ensure their employees are focused on controlling what is within their gift. Research has shown that in Western working environments, psychological strain is reduced if people are focused on problem-solving the issues that are within their control, or prioritising the most important matters at hand.
  3. Most importantly, when leaders are making decisions during uncertain times they are more likely to have preference for hiring employees just like themselves. It’s important not to give in to a gut feeling and opt for the familiar. This is especially true at times when the strongest workforce is needed.

Overall, organisations and those in charge need to focus their minds on logic and evidence during ambiguous times.

They must work to ensure that fear and uncertainty does not take over to the detriment of a diverse and inclusive workforce. 

At Pearn Kandola we have produced a series of videos giving advice and guidance on how to best manage business during uncertain times. View the ‘Brexit Series’ on our homepage.

Author Profile Picture
Nic Hammarling

Head of Diversity

Read more from Nic Hammarling