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:
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.
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.