Maintaining an Equitable and Inclusive Work Environment During This Health Crisis
We live in challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our work and learning environments and fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. Despite these challenges and the myriad adjustments we have all had to make, it has become increasingly vital that we maintain equitable and inclusive relationships—free of discrimination, unconscious bias, and retaliation—in our workplace. Whether you are a staff or faculty member, this is a great time to revisit the University’s nondiscrimination policies, including the Notice of Nondiscrimination, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Preventing and Responding to Discrimination, and Accessibility and Reasonable Accommodation for Individuals with Disabilities.
Everyone is encouraged to be mindful of non-verbal cues or unconscious bias that may exist or occur in the workplace—whether on-campus or online. Targeting colleagues who may have directly or indirectly been exposed or diagnosed with COVID-19, or who are showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, may run afoul of guidance from Human Resources, VCU’s nondiscrimination policies and federal nondiscrimination laws, such as the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
Here are a few helpful tips to consider when interacting with colleagues returning to work after an absence, whether related to COVID-19 or because of extenuating circumstances during VCU’s work-from-home operational status:
- Reflect on each individual’s circumstances, known and unknown, to generate empathy during encounters. Be mindful of jumping to conclusions or creating perceptions of others without knowing their current living or work environments.
- Express appreciation for the work someone is doing. Acknowledge the difficult circumstances we all face and express appreciation for individuals as people.
- Reflect on which of your colleagues may be marginalized by aspects of their identity or demographics related to COVID-19 or to an extenuating circumstance that has affected them at this time. Seek ways to increase your awareness of how you may be contributing to a colleague’s feeling of isolation or marginalization.
- Consider attending a course in diversity and inclusion to increase your awareness and support your efforts. IExcel Education is a valuable resource for programming focused on cultivating a University environment that is empowering, fair and supportive for all.
- Work to create an environment of respect, appreciation, inclusion and belonging during the pandemic and beyond. Consider your own behavior, including nonverbal cues and unconscious biases. You can serve as a model and encourage others by co-creating diversity and inclusion-related goals in performance reviews.
- Productively confront biased assumptions, comments, non-verbals and micro-aggressions related to COVID-19 or because of the current circumstances associated with the pandemic when they happen. Provide specific feedback, if possible. We can all help establish expectations for respect and best practices for inclusion in the workplace and connect this to VCU’s values and strategic plan.
If you suspect or witness discriminatory behavior by other employees, say and do something. When in doubt, contact any of the resource offices at VCU. Contact HR’s Office of Employee Relations (828-1510 or email email@example.com), the Office of Faculty Affairs (828-6162 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) or your designated HR Professional if you have questions on how to handle certain situations related to the workplace and this pandemic. You can also contact Equity and Access Services (828-1347 or email email@example.com) if you need assistance regarding what may or may not constitute a violation under VCU’s nondiscrimination policies. Inclusive Excellence can be consulted (828-8947 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org) to seek diversity and inclusion resources and education/training for individuals or units. You can explore course offerings at IExcel Education https://iexcel.vcu.edu/ or contact Jan Altman at email@example.com.
To learn more about COVID-19 and the various resources available to you as a VCU employee, visit the following websites listed below:
- Office of Employee Relations, COVID-19 Website https://hr.vcu.edu/covid-19/
- Office of Faculty Affairs, COVID-19 Website https://provost.vcu.edu/virus/
- VCU COVID-19 Updates: https://covid-19.vcu.edu/
- Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success, https://inclusive.vcu.edu/
- Equity and Access Services, https://equity.vcu.edu/
For more information on the federal employment nondiscrimination laws, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website for COVID-19-related publications.
Together, we can ensure that VCU continues to be a welcoming and inclusive work environment even in these dynamic and challenging times.
EEOC Coronavirus and COVID-19 Guidance. Source: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/wysk_ada_rehabilitaion_act_coronavirus.cfm
EEOC Webinar Press Release (March 27, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/3-27-20a.cfm
VCU Policy Statement: Notice of Nondiscrimination, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action
VCU Policy: Preventing and Responding to Discrimination
Paula Gentius, Ph.D., J.D. is the Interim Executive Director of Equity and Access Services in the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Crystal C. Coombes, LPC, CRP is VCU's University Accessibility Administrator and serves as the ADA/504 Coordinator.
Janice H. Altman, Ph. D. is the Executive Director of IExcel Education in Inclusive Excellence, Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success at Virginia Commonwealth University.