HR’s Guide to Communicating with Inclusivity

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are more than buzzwords; they’re the keys to creating thriving workplaces where every employee can develop, grow, and thrive. As your organization develops its DEI strategy, HR will likely shoulder much of the responsibility for bringing everyone on the same page of understanding and action. To do this, you’ll need to be prepared to guide the way forward with an effective message.

Communicating the importance of DEI goes hand-in-hand with communicating with inclusivity—it’s not only critical to DEI, but it’s also the first thing employees will examine to see if you are practicing what you preach. To help you get everyone on board with your DEI efforts and create a more inclusive workplace, we’ll cover the following:

"Between 2017 and 2020, the number of global organizations planning on investing significant time and money into DEI initiatives for the year rose from 29 percent to 62 percent."

The Role of Internal Communications in DEI

It’s invigorating to see so many businesses joining in the crucial work of building and promoting diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Between 2017 and 2020, the number of global organizations planning on investing significant time and money into DEI initiatives for the year rose from 29 percent to 62 percent.

And while the growing recognition of DEI is certainly worth celebrating, there’s still a lot of work leaders need to do to make an impact, starting with how they communicate about DEI to the rest of the organization.

Most importantly, communication about DEI can’t be a top-down mandate. “[A] key to success is connecting with people across your organization,” writes Claude Werder, senior vice president and principal HCM analyst at Brandon Hall Group, “And making the evolution of [DEI] the shared responsibility of everyone.”

According to data from Brandon Hall Group, “high-performing organizations take a holistic approach that includes establishing trust,” and among other recommendations, this approach requires:

As organizations the world over put DEI initiatives in place, everyone needs to work together to make DEI an active, living part of the workplace. Setting a precedent for inclusive communication is an important piece of this process, and it’s a responsibility that will likely land on HR. However, you’ll need different skills from other types of employee communications to successfully communicate with inclusivity.

How to Effectively Communicate with Inclusivity

Communicating with Inclusivity Requires Key Skills

When it comes to DEI, HR is often tasked with doing double duty: spearheading both the company’s initiatives as well as internal awareness and action campaigns. But there’s a difference between more routine employee communications and those internal communications.

Employee communications focus on getting employees to act: sign up for benefits, follow the organization’s handbook, set career goals, etc. But achieving the goals of internal communications is a more complex burden that involves convincing an entire organization to think a certain way or—even more challenging—to change their minds.

Because of this added difficulty, Managing Director and Chief Marketing Officer at CFA Institute Michael Collins writes that successful internal communications relies on “a precise skill-set” that includes:

"A consistent theme for building a successful, inclusive communication strategy is listening and inviting all voices into the conversation."

Let’s dive into “listening with empathy,” and break it down to understand how this skill contributes to employee trust and helps you become a better communicator.

Inclusive Communication Is Two-Way Communication

Listening with Empathy Builds Trust

When you listen to your employees with empathy, you imagine how everything you’re saying will be received by the different demographics represented in your workforce, and you also invite all voices into the conversation.

As SHRM puts it in their guide on managing organizational communication, “two-way communication plays an essential role in a comprehensive communication strategy. Listening to employee issues and concerns builds loyalty and drives improved productivity.”

While this may feel counterintuitive to organizations with more rigid hierarchical structures, you won’t be able to change anyone’s mind or get them to buy into your DEI initiatives if you don’t build trust and show them that you do, in fact, care deeply about being inclusive.

Listening Needs to be Paired with Action to be Impactful

Listening with empathy is only the first step to building trust. To guarantee trust, you need to couple listening with action. There’s no quicker way to lose employee trust and fan the flames of resentment than to ask for employee input and not act on it.

So whether you gather employee feedback from town hall meetings, surveys, or one-on-ones, you need to take action by discussing the feedback you received during company-wide meetings, by actually making changes, and by explaining your decisions to employees (especially if you decide not to make changes in certain areas).

Empathy Helps You Communicate Better

As we mentioned, communicating with inclusivity bears the weight of two different goals:

In other words, your communication is both the message and the medium. When you take into account how people with diverse perspectives will receive that message and incorporate an inclusive voice, you reassure employees on two fronts:

In order to deliver communication about DEI in an inclusive voice, you need to educate yourself on the biases you may be susceptible to and practice those empathic listening skills.

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Communicating with Inclusivity Starts with You

The work of identifying and uprooting biases in ourselves, let alone in an organization that employs any number of diverse individuals, is a cyclical process of listening, learning, and accepting responsibility.

1. Listen

As people-focused, inclusive communicators, we have a special responsibility to feed our brains with as much positive and diverse input as possible. Doing this effectively involves identifying and combating the complex factors that create our biases:

These factors combine to become the mental landscape that can, in the classic example, make a man’s behavior seem assertive while the same behavior from a woman comes across as aggressive.

So what’s feeding our biases? Who—and what—are we listening to? What categories are those messages creating in our efficiency-oriented decision centers? What experiences are influencing how we listen and act?

Just as travel grants perspective by exposing us to different communities, customs, experiences, and environments, the more voices represented in our input streams (social media feeds, bookshelf, television, podcasts, etc.), the more voices fill our empathy wells. It’s harder to see a group as a monolith when you hear many voices from that group describing their personal experience.

2. Learn

After absorbing comes digesting, grappling, and internalizing. In this opportunity for self-reflection, we can ask ourselves:

Nadine Fonseca, founder and CEO of Mighty Kind, an anti-bias publication for children, warns not to simply become receptacles for new voices and information, but also to engage in the work of unpacking what new voices are saying, and then moving these new messages forward in the ways we interact with people.

3. Accept Responsibility

Words have unlimited potential and impact, so what do we do when we make a mistake—when we receive feedback that something we’ve communicated was disrespectful or, to some degree, harmful? Fonseca recommends circling back to step one—listening—to begin the process again.

In this motion, we engage in conversation and remind ourselves of the breadth of options we have at our fingertips. So many words and ways to do better. In Fonseca’s words, “Let’s just do it.”

Listen, Learn, and Accept Responsibility

As you prepare to build bridges, cultivate connections, and educate your workforce on the importance of DEI, remember to repeat these three steps for becoming aware of biases and growing your inclusiveness: listen, learn, and accept responsibility for missteps. In this way, you can demonstrate your commitment to better workplaces and show your employees that you care about their potential for growth at your company.