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Working From Home Poses Hurdles for Employees of Color

Some specialists on workplace diversity worry that as work shifts to home offices, efforts to advance people of color into executive positions will be blunted. More traditional candidates will end up dominating the conversation, they say, leaving others out.

Evelyn Carter, managing director at Paradigm, a consulting firm, cited a concept called distance bias to describe the dynamic that can occur in the virtual office. “You put more emphasis on people closer to you,” she said. “You don’t have connections where you don’t have proximity, so you maintain relationships with the people you already know.”

When employees gather online, it’s easier for some to fall through the cracks.

It’s harder to tell which employees have shrunk back in their chairs or otherwise withdrawn in virtual meetings, said Ms. Carter, who is African-American, but moderators should pay attention to clues like people with their cameras off and try to draw those participants back into the discussion.

Being visible is critical for people of color in the workplace and harder to achieve in a work-from-home environment, said Joy Fitzgerald, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the drugmaker Eli Lilly.

“To succeed, 50 percent is performance, 25 percent is perception and the other 25 percent, which is a force multiplier, is visibility,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who is African-American. “But if people don’t know you, they don’t see you. It creates a higher degree of complexity and challenge for underrepresented groups.”

With many companies not expected to ask employees to return to their pre-pandemic workplaces before 2021, the implications of the virtual office for people of color have become an increasingly urgent topic for diversity officers, human resource chiefs and leaders in the Black business community like Ms. Bryant.

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