Illustration by Alicia Bramlett

Now is The Time For Corporate Leaders to Take Action in Support of Their Employees

A window is open for corporate leaders to redesign talent practices that spur widespread economic mobility — but this moment won’t last forever.

By Catherine Ward, managing director, JFFLabs

Let’s start with what we know: The economic realities of this past year are devastating, and the people who are suffering most are those who can least afford it.

In February 2021, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 6.2 percent and some 10 million Americans were out of work. Both of those figures are down from their April 2020 peaks, but they are still well above their pre-pandemic levels of 3.5 percent and 5.7 million, respectively, in February 2020. Moreover, the number of people who had to work part-time or reduced hours for economic reasons had increased by almost 2 million since the start of the pandemic. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers are particularly hard hit, facing unemployment rates of up to two times that of white workers. Women are also suffering major job losses — accounting for 58 percent of workforce exits since the beginning of the pandemic and 100 percent of the net job losses in December 2020. And overall, low-wage industries have seen the greatest job losses by far. Between March and December of last year, the earnings of the bottom 82 percent of workers declined by almost $840 billion. Meanwhile, people who have investments in the stock market have seen the value of their holdings rise by 15 percent; and the aggregate wealth of U.S. billionaires — all 660 of them — increased by over $1.3 trillion.

These facts and figures have been widely reported, but it’s important that we don’t tune them out.

Business leaders can reimagine and rebuild our ‘next normal’

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was talk of “returning to normal.” One year later, I think we can all agree that that’s never going to happen. Instead, a “new normal” will emerge, one that is yet unformed. And we’re the ones who can shape it. The good news is that business leaders like you are perfectly positioned to take action — action that will lead to a more just and equitable economic future. And that’s because you can engage in a whole series of activities that directly contribute to the economic opportunity and mobility of your employees.

Fortune 500 companies employ over 27 million people — more than 17 percent of the U.S. workforce. Who do you hire? Who gets promoted? Have you assessed your talent practices for bias? What benefits do you provide to your lowest-paid workers? Workers’ skills and abilities play the largest role in determining their lifetime earnings — how do you help your employees build new skills and prepare for the future? Are they competitive in the market when it’s time to move up — or even move on from your company?

Those questions all refer to the ways in which you, as business leaders, can meaningfully contribute to the economic well-being and career mobility of your employees. Through your actions — through your commitment and focus — you can play a direct role in improving the lives of all workers.

Now is the time for visionary corporate leaders like you to reimagine and rebuild talent practices in a way that emphasizes equity, puts people at the center of business strategy, and creates widespread economic mobility, particularly for those who have suffered most from the economic fallout of this pandemic.

In early 2021, JFF convened Fortune 1000 leaders to explore this issue and chart our path forward

For two days in February 2021, more than 150 Fortune 1000 leaders came together at JFF’s annual Impact Employer Summit to unpack the magnitude of this moment and look for solutions to the wealth inequity crisis that U.S. workers face. Executives specializing in talent management, social impact, and operations worked alongside thought leaders and business visionaries like Adam Grant (bestselling author and organizational psychologist) and David Gelles (New York Times columnist) and Shelly Bell (founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures), as well as CEOs Stewart Butterfield (Slack), Dan Schulman (PayPal), Michael Bush (Great Place to Work), and Byron Auguste (Opportunity@Work). We heard from workers about their experiences, and we rolled up our sleeves and applied practical recovery strategies in peer-to-peer working sessions. And along the way, we continued to build a thriving community of Impact Employers — corporate leaders dedicated to building a better workplace, one that puts equity at the center of hiring and talent advancement strategy.

Several themes emerged that reveal how these corporate leaders are approaching this moment, and how all employers can invest their time and energy to bend our economy toward a more equitable post-pandemic future:

  • We must have the courage to tackle unprecedented challenges. This moment is extraordinary, and we need to tap into a new set of tools to lead through it. We know what practices will create more equitable opportunity and upward mobility; and a committed community of changemakers is on the rise. But we also know this is not enough. An essential ingredient to our success will be courage — the bravery to fully commit to a new vision of economic opportunity, and the tenacity to work boldly toward that vision each day.
  • We must place our humanity at the center of our decisions. It seems as though everything is enabled by an algorithm these days, and it’s true that technology is helping to boost productivity, efficiency, and scale. But the true differentiator in creating a more equitable economy will be the degree to which we can look beyond our screens and connect to our shared humanity. To address inequity, people in positions of privilege and power must get closer to individuals who are facing racism and discrimination and are otherwise locked out of economic opportunity. They must make an effort to understand and empathize with people from underserved populations, so they can include them in efforts to develop talent practices that unlock career opportunities and economic mobility.
  • We must act with urgency — our window to rewrite the rules is open now. Vaccinations are underway. It’s widely expected that the U.S. economy will come roaring back to life as people start making their way out into the world again. But when it comes to economic opportunity, do we want to return to normal, or do we want to build a new normal? Employers have a brief window to rewrite the rules for the better.

Interested in unpacking more key themes from the Impact Employer Summit? Watch the videos from the event on JFF.org/impactsummit and stay tuned for weekly insights and takeaways on LinkedIn.

Let’s look back at this moment as a time when we led with courage

We all play a role in creating the future we want to see.

If you’re wondering what you can do to start putting equitable economic mobility at the center of your company’s talent strategy, check out JFF’s Impact Employer Talent Framework. It’s the backbone of how we think about equity and mobility within corporate talent strategy. It looks at the components of traditional corporate human resources processes — such as recruiting, retaining, rewarding, and advancing talent — and expands that model to include people-focused benefits — benefits that support inclusive economic mobility while also contributing to meaningful improvements in the bottom line.

This is our moment and our opportunity to reimagine and design a better future on the other side of these crises. But it will not last forever. We must take action now if we want to recover stronger from the challenges we face.

In this video originally featured at JFF’s Impact Employer Summit, Cat Ward, managing director at JFFLabs, kicks off the summit with a bold vision for attendees, framing for key social and business issues, and details on the dynamic event. Learn more: www.jff.org/impactsummit.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org