Let’s begin with the clarity that everything communicates. Your recruitment process communicates. Your social media and website communicate. Your internal e-mails, newsletters, and intranets communicate. The way your managers conduct a Zoom meeting communicates. The word-of-mouth of your employees communicates. The visible composition of your leadership communicates.
Everything communicates - even silence. Nothing conveys a neutral message and nothing lacks a message. And, it is one thing to put out announcements about DEI values and initiatives, but if your words aren’t substantiated by visible commitment and actions, this can backfire into a lack of trust and credibility.
Catalyst recently found that across 14 countries, 3/4 of employees feel their organizations racial equity policies are performative, not genuine. Among the indicators that DEI is non-genuine are: talk without action, virtue signaling in social media without follow-through, announcing plans that aren’t implemented and making big one-off statements while permitting everyday incidents of exclusion to persist.
While communicating the organization’s commitment to DEI is important, what’s more important is the integrity of the work happening behind the words. With that solid core, DEI communications can help to shift the organizational tone towards the language of inclusion, disrupt old beliefs and embrace new ones, and support inclusion and belonging.
Here are Ten Key Elements That Matter in DEI Communications:
1. Authenticity (From The Top)
Creating a culture of inclusion requires leadership commitment and demonstrating a visible awareness of bias. Catalyst found that leadership empathy is a key factor in whether DEI policies and communications are perceived genuinely. Leaders that intrinsically “get it” are the starting point of effective DEI communications and progress toward DEI goals. If you're not there, don’t fake it or your DEI communications will be all branches and no roots. Focus on getting leadership with you, first.
With authenticity, leadership can share their diversity priorities and tie this value to the overall organizational and business values. One approach is creating an equity statement or inclusion narrative for why it matters to your organization. Be aware that emphasizing the business case as why you value diversity can be off-putting because it positions diversity as a means to an end. Consider painting the vision of where you see the organization going and detailing how you want to get there. If diversity and inclusion are valued as a given, what does change and the future then look like?
Being transparent includes admitting where you are now and acknowledging the gaps in where you want to be. It means calling out unconscious bias and systemic bias. When leaders and organizations are transparent along the DEI growth journey, they not only model a learning culture as a basis of inclusion, but also demonstrate a willingness to be held accountable for change. Truth is something to be told, not managed.
The first step toward transparency is collecting the DEI representation metrics that allow you to know where you are, where you need to go and whether you’re progressing; an advanced step toward transparency involves sharing factors like pay and promotion. 67% of executives reported that their organizational metrics will measure societal goals and impacts on diversity and inclusion in the 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report. Being authentic and transparent can help reduce DEI risk.
3. Inclusive Language
The words you use in your communications can easily reinforce stereotypes and reiterate the status quo, so it’s critical your organization is consciously using, and reviewing its use of inclusive language. For example, you can reduce bias in hiring - and attract more diverse candidates - by ensuring your job descriptions give an open invitation to any qualified candidate with the use of gender-neutral language.
Inclusive language ranges from championing the value of diversity to ensuring language is free from phrases, tones and words that reflect bias, reinforce stereotypes or subtly discriminate or discourage certain individuals. Be sure to review written communication for bias: use the “flip test” to read between the lines. Does your communication reflect and support the DEI strategy?
4. Inclusive Imagery
The visual language of your organization speaks volumes. Does your imagery tell diverse individuals they belong? Does it reinforce status quo power dynamics or stereotypes, or pigeonhole ethnic groups? What does each photo convey about your organization? What visual story and power story is being told? Are individuals from underrepresented groups tokenistic side characters or are they given first-person voice and agency? Who is not represented and who is overrepresented? Consider the delicate balance between where you are and where you want to go.
Leaders perceive themselves to be communicating more consistently than they are. Only 15% of leaders feel they are not communicating frequently on DEI, while 30% of employees and 25% of HR professionals say their leaders aren’t doing so. Executives at “DEI-leader” organizations are nearly twice as likely (73%) as those at “DEI-laggard” organizations (38%) to regularly communicate the value of DEI.
Consistency does not mean churning out fluff - it means coherent integration across all of your marketing and communications and it means substance-rich updates: from sharing metrics to giving a status update on policy changes and actions to highlight underrepresented voices. Consistently communicate what you are doing relative to what you said mattered.
Your DEI communications should bring people along with you on the DEI journey - while being transparent about organizational intentions, strategies, actions and results. You may plan a cadence for the communication, but things like highlighting an issue being addressed or reporting against measurable objectives will carry weight. Whether it’s your quarterly update or annual report, consider what you want each piece of communication to achieve.
DEI communications are not a one-way conversation. Whether taking a DEI survey, collecting personal stories from varied backgrounds or inviting feedback on exclusion, listening and engagement should be inherent to stoking the DEI conversation amidst your culture and inviting voices to be heard. This may also include live town halls, Q&A sessions, intranet forums and live events, interacting with ERGs, and inviting fresh perspectives to share with the DEI committee.
8. Diverse Voices
While it’s critical that leadership's voice is prominent in DEI communications, it’s not a DEI dialogue without the presence of diverse voices. Invite people to share their personal narratives, give underrepresented voices a platform, and spotlight individuals who demonstrate and can encourage greater allyship. Actively seek out, listen to and share a range of voices across the organization.
Organizations are now expected to have a voice on major issues: 60% of employees expect their CEOS to speak out about controversial social and political issues and 65% expect them to inform and shape conversations and debate on key issues. When companies are only reactive, they seem to be coming from the “not get in trouble” approach to DEI. But when communication is proactive (such as corporate advocacy) or metrics are shared voluntarily, it sends the signal that DEI is important to leadership. A best in class approach on how and when to weigh in on social issues is the framework described by Allstate’s CEO.
A compelling DEI communications strategy will not be effective unless your organization gets behind it with real intentional action. According to Catalyst, among the indicators that DEI is genuine are: taking both an external and internal stand on issues, being transparent about data, taking actual steps to remove bias, providing safe spaces for employees to report issues, taking visible steps to diversify senior leadership and bringing experts on board.
Everything communicates, but what communicates most are the actions you take in alignment with your DEI messaging. The most effective DEI communication strategy? Do the work that leads to the tangible outcomes that become your messaging.