3 tactics for promoting inclusion in employee communications

Even loyal employees will seek jobs elsewhere if leaders don’t foster a sense of belonging. In 2020 and beyond, execs and communicators must inspire the embracing of diverse workers.

Comms inclusion ideas

Feelings of restlessness can kick in for employees facing the vast unknown of a new year.

Trapped in their roles by institutional silos, ceilings and cliffs, some might now feel emboldened to leave. Budding talent and loyal veterans alike will go elsewhere after being repeatedly overlooked based on murky standards.

By observing how the decisions of managers square with stated policies, it is easy to know whether growth and acceptance can be enjoyed by all—or are reserved only for a few.

For the year ahead, communicators can resolve to help leaders foster inclusion, with three elements to watch for in cultivating a sense of belonging for employees:

1. Intersectionality

Introduced 30 years ago by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality sharpens society’s view of discrimination by acknowledging that it is rarely experienced within fixed categories (age, gender, race, religion, disability, etc.). Over time, people who are marginalized blend their encounters with different types of bias into their own unique condition.

Watch for these situations where intersectionality affects employee communications:

  • Tokenization. Avoid selecting an employee from an underrepresented group to stand as a lone symbol, without addressing the person’s lived experience or the structural inequality within the organization. Research from the Bentley University Center for Women and Business pointed to “women of color as an example of intersectionality, whereby as ‘double outsiders’—they’re neither men nor white—they feel they must adjust their communication styles to fit in with the dominant culture. The report found that the women were held to a higher standard than others and that their areas of expertise were often questioned, leaving them feeling demoralized and disengaged.”
  • Culture club. When culture is defined by a small group, it often signals an intention to exclude. That barrier, even when it blocks a large cohort such as older employees, may be experienced differently by each person. For instance, an AARP survey of adults ages 45+ found that 61% have witnessed or personally faced age discrimination in the workplace—with women ages 45+, African Americans, Hispanics and unemployed people more likely to feel they are singled out in ageist bias.
  • Picture imperfect. Careless choices about who is depicted in photos, videos and illustrations can make your employer brand stand out for the wrong reasons. Use imagery that respectfully presents people with diverse physical attributes and lifestyles, while keeping your brand’s purpose as the unifying theme.

2. Preferred pronouns and names

Journalists and corporate communicators already saw the AP Stylebook break tradition by prescribing the use of “they” as a singular and inclusive pronoun. When Merriam-Webster proclaimed the gender-neutral pronoun “they” as its 2019 word of the year, it did more than establish a linguistic precedent.

Both moves recognized that broader gender expressions have become part of everyday conversations. Here are ways to help managers practice gender inclusion in employee relations:

  • Opt in with ease. According to LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, you can encourage voluntary declarations of identity via human resources forms, email signatures, intranet profiles and staff biographies.
  • Model behavior. When top-level executives and senior managers declare their own pronouns, it clears the way for others to follow.
  • Demonstrate acceptance. During meetings and in written correspondence, address employees with their preferred pronouns and names.

3. Accountability

A cautionary tale emerged recently from luggage manufacturer Away, whose website declares its mission of inclusivity and access. From employee coercion to the surveillance of a private Slack channel used by LGBTQ staff, reports of the unicorn company’s dark side surfaced in an investigative piece published by The Verge.

Away’s “toxic company culture” had forced employees to seek refuge in trusted circles, described by one as: “Everyone kind of found their tribe and stuck to them, because you needed to have allies there if you were gonna stay there.”

Managers should evaluate inclusivity through the eyes of their employees, advises Sabrina Clark, an organizational transformation strategist with SYPartners.

Clark challenges managers to hold themselves accountable by asking, “Have I created conditions where every person can contribute in their unique, meaningful way and feel safe and secure doing that?”

Communicators can advance inclusivity by counseling leaders to drop harmful habits:

  • Ban filibusters and favoritism. During meetings, seek comments from a wide variety of people within the organization. Don’t skip people when recognizing accomplishments.
  • Lose the crowd. Make time for honest conversations in which the employee has the manager’s full attention.
  • No capes or halos. Share lessons learned from overcoming a misperception or failure. Humility is a strength.

From legal consequences to reputational damage, there are serious risks in ignoring diversity and inclusion in the workplace. However, there are also big rewards when barriers fall—letting all employees contribute to business problem-solving.

An open creative process yields more ideas to spark customer innovation, loyal employees whose joy is contagious, and an employer brand that competitors envy.

By fostering a culture of inclusion, you can create value that extends far beyond the new year.

Mary C. Buhay is founder and CEO of Buhay Advisors. You can follow her on Twitter.


2 Responses to “3 tactics for promoting inclusion in employee communications”

    Bill Van Eron says:

    Hi Mary,
    As one who synthesized all of what really matters and acted on it, inclusion was always one of several factors I applied. I appreciate where people grow up in normal families while noting how long it takes many to develop values, such as those I learned growing up in what most labeled as the poor projects in Brooklyn, NY. Sure, we were all poor as a shared reality, but we were all enriched by open dialog, caring relationships, a love for diversity inclusive of all genders, ethnicity, ages and perspectives on life and work.

    That values-compass that showed attention to others, purpose & attitude proved as a great way for me to enter design as my career choice. Design in NYC – the most demanding of all global work centers – enabled me to synthesize values & needs most companies miss, yet that were always authentic, empathetic, uplifting and trust building.

    I see many high level managers holding on to outdated management principles shaped in an age where change was a rarity and the ladder to climb was less inspirational than employees care to do today.

    Look at how long CEO’s have had Innovation on their top 10 priority list – decades. Also talent recruitment despite younger gens lower sense of any corporation being entrepreneurial enough.

    So…the more we look beyond ourselves to more consciously shape values that most across whatever defines all orgs stakeholder relevance ecosystem, the more that earned, inclusive significance will prove as a highly worthy biz all care to support, stay and realize their greater potential unleashed, as I did for HP, and many others.

    As I approach my retirement , I feel blessed to have mastered what all CEO’s have yet to fully absorb, if at all, yet crucial to true inclusive leadership as the only path to unlimited success. Dan Pink was right in his book “Why right brainer’s will rule the future” as I was able to realize working from 1978 – 2002 in left brain dominated HP. I helped their brand to live its meaning inclusively – no barriers. I support more people, especially women with conscious thinking or design attributes as vital to shape far greater trust, relevance and…OK, revenues soared for every project I led or catalyzed for HP as defined with greater humanity in mind.

    Keep up the great work. I wish I was younger as I see far more ahead than what I did for HP that exceeded $100B in my last 12 years there. I credit it all to the inspired “we” that collectively stepped up to make it all real and meaningful.

    Mary C. Buhay says:

    Hello Bill,

    Thank you for sharing your own experiences with inclusion. I am moved by the optimism you express for what may be ahead.

    Yes, diversity is important. But when structural inequality exists, representation isn’t enough.

    A lot of energy is needed to break barriers. That’s why we’re seeing record numbers of groups vulnerable to discrimination (e.g., women, people of color, older workers, disabled, etc.) putting their time and talent into starting their own businesses instead.

    A lifetime is too long to wait for incremental change.

    In legacy or large-scale businesses, inclusion, or the action that leads to real change, should be the aim.

    We can get there by holding business leaders accountable for their actions today, which will surely shape tomorrow’s power dynamics.

    Look past the fanfare of diversity programs and unconscious bias training. Closely watch succession planning and executive appointments. Are you seeing the blueprint for another 5-10 years of sameness in people and ideas?

    Members of underrepresented groups need allies, mentors and sponsors.

    Allies help create safe workspaces. Mentors offer guidance that can lead to clarity. Sponsors have the authority to advance careers.

    Bill, as you anticipate your next chapter, please consider becoming an ally, mentor or sponsor. Your knowledge and experience can help to shape the modern workplace!

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