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It’s authentic communication that makes or breaks diversity management

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Without reaching the hearts and minds of all organizational members, D&I management won’t be successful. So, the one-million-dollar-question is: How to engage my employees? We analyzed the existing scientific research, but couldn’t find substantial knowledge. Therefore, a research project by the University of Vienna funded by the Academic Society for Management & Communication set out to investigate the role of communications in driving diversity and inclusion.

D&I needs strategic internal communications 

Driving diversity and creating a sense of inclusion is a long-term change process. It requires the commitment of the top management (without which it’s doomed to fail) and the collaboration of several departments. One of them is corporate communications. Both practitioners and researchers point to the importance of strategic internal communication for engendering and maintaining a diversity-embracing, inclusive culture.

Effective internal communication on D&I topics should be…

  • Aligned with the overall communication strategy
  • Aligned with the goals of the D&I strategy
  • Consider employees’ needs and desires in terms of communication design, type, and channel.

Getting everyone on board isn’t easy

According to the 20 D&I experts we interviewed, it’s essential to reach out to all members of the organization. In the best case, every employee feels addressed and can derive personal benefits from D&I measures (i.e., personal business case). This is easier said than done, as traditionally higher-status majority group members, afraid of losing their advantageous positions, cab be hesitant about new rules or quotas, or even reject them out of hand. Every second expert we interviewed had encountered “white male backlash” concerning female quotas and the use of gender-sensitive language. 

The experts propose handling the backlash phenomenon in various ways: ensuring the overt commitment of the management board, actively listening to those who feel at a disadvantage, and pursuing genuine dialogue with them. Empathic and transparent communication can help educate sceptics about the reasons for new D&I measures and convince them of the benefits. And sometimes, humor can help as well: 

» Even if I now appoint 30% women to management positions instead of 10% in the past, it’s still 70% men. And then I always smile at them and say: ‘Make an effort! You’ve got a little more competition, but if you’re really good, you won’t have a problem.’«

Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity, Volkswagen

Communication channels in D&I management

As mentioned above, internal communication is essential to generate awareness and support among leaders and employees for D&I measures. Communication involves both interpersonal communication (especially between superiors and their teams) and mediated internal communication (e.g., intranet, employee apps, magazines). The following graphic provides an overview of channels proposed by the D&I experts: 

Organization's D&I strategy and goals
Organization’s D&I strategy and goals

Interpersonal communication is highly effective

Our research found that a sense of inclusion largely depends on interpersonal communication, especially between superiors and their teams. Especially discussions about D&I issues in workshops, official meetings, and conversations with executive personnel are suited to foster the sense of inclusion. Those employees who feel less included often lack this kind of formal interpersonal communication.  

» Diversity management has a lot to do with corporate culture, and only open communication and leadership can create an inclusive culture. «

Julia Valsky, Erste Group Bank

Inclusive leadership 

Executives in particular play a decisive role in creating an open and inclusive communication climate. For this reason, it’s crucial to bring the right people into leadership positions and to familiarize them with the concept of inclusive leadership. But what does this mean?

Michàlle Mor Barak, one of the leading D&I researchers, explains: Executive personnel who lead inclusively involve their employees in decision-making processes, communicate transparently, and grant all members access to relevant information. They encourage them to participate and be proactive in both the team and the organization (Mor Barak, 2017).

Inclusive leaders have a positive attitude towards D&I. They also have sufficient cognitive abilities to successfully interlink different views. They value the uniqueness of all members and create a sense of belonging through supportive actions. 

Employees want more discussion and training

It’s always important to consider what employees expect in terms of D&I communication. The analysis of 84 interviews with jobholders revealed the following insights:

  • Employees generally expect and demand more formal rather than informal interpersonal communication about D&I topics (see above).
  • Employees who feel moderately or (almost) not included demand more regular discussions and training on D&I issues. These should address topics such as racism, discrimination, bullying, or sexism. 
  • Team-building activities were requested relatively often to reduce prejudice and improve the chemistry among team members. 

To sum up, D&I managers and communication experts are well advised to focus on interpersonal communication to establish an inclusive work climate. While mediated communication is a vital element to inform all employees, personal open discussion about D&I matters seems key to fostering an inclusive organizational culture.

» When we talk about a systematic change in staff behavior, you can’t do that with an article. … Real change can ultimately only be achieved through constant training, personal feedback, and measurable goals. «

Lucas Kohlmann, Henkel

About the research project

How can organizations successfully implement D&I management? And what role can corporate communications play? A research team from the University of Vienna funded by the Academic Society for Management & Communication conducted an extensive study in 2020/2021 to shed light on these matters.They surveyed 1000 employees among others and conducted interviews with 20 D&I experts. More findings here.