Are You Making These Mistakes in Your D&I Communications?

Diversity and inclusion are back in the spotlight. Issues like immigration, sexual harassment and racial justice are in the news almost daily. But it’s not just today’s hot topic—it’s serious business. In a 2017 study of 245 global companies by Deloitte, 78 percent of respondents believe it’s a competitive advantage for a company to have a culture that supports diversity and inclusion.

We know communicating about your company’s commitment to diversity is important, so we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned about the biggest mistakes in D&I communications and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Communicating commitment without credible proof, programs or progress

Once a company makes a commitment to diversity and inclusion or refreshes its approach, there’s often pressure to communicate about it. But as soon as you begin communicating, employees will look for evidence of progress and begin asking what has changed. If nothing looks or feels different, employees may become cynical about the company’s intention. If a formal approach to D&I is new for your company, be sure to set clear expectations for how and when you’ll communicate progress.

Mistake 2: Developing messages for recruitment that differ from what’s being said internally

The seeds of retention are planted during the hiring process, and new hires will expect their experience at your company to match what they hear during recruitment and onboarding. Seventy percent of job seekers say that a diverse and inclusive work environment is important. So, if your talent acquisition team is getting candidates in the door partially on your company’s commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace, be sure their experience once on-board is consistent with what they’ve been told.

We’ve seen cases in which talent aquisition took the lead on diversity and inclusion messaging in the company’s outreach to candidates but didn’t coordinate with groups developing content for other audiences. The result was contradictory messages in materials aimed at recruits, employees, customers and investors. Aligning messaging does not require a major time commitment—sometimes a single meeting is enough to get everyone on the same page. From that point, ongoing dialogue can ensure all your audiences are hearing consistent messages.

Mistake 3: Failing to fully engage leaders in communication efforts

Just as corporate branding is not just “a marketing thing,” D&I is not just “an HR thing.” One key to D&I being embraced by employees and becoming a core part of your culture is visible commitment from company leaders. It’s not just handing talking points to the leaders and including them in a cascade; leaders need to internalize and personally commit to building a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Storytelling can be especially effective in this regard, but employees pay attention to what leaders do as well as what they say. The best-case scenario is when leaders actively hold themselves and others accountable for increasing diversity and ensuring employees feel respected and valued regardless of the dimensions of difference they bring to the table.

Mistake 4: Focusing too narrowly on metrics

Often, companies set diversity targets—aiming to increase the percentage of women or various ethnic minorities in the company. Targets are typically an essential part of any diversity program, but it’s best to avoid allowing progress toward goals to be the primary focus of communications.

Not all dimensions of difference can be accounted for in HR data. So, although it’s great when the percentages of under-represented groups increase, the focus on those available metrics can send a signal to employees that those are the only dimensions of difference that matter. In addition, the majority of employees are not responsible for hiring decisions. When the focus is quotas, it’s easy for employees to conclude that diversity and inclusion doesn’t involve them.

The ultimate goal of most diversity and inclusion efforts is not just a diverse workplace, but one in which all employees feel included—it’s about the culture, which affects each and every employee. When the emphasis moves from “diversity” to “diversity and inclusion,” there’s a call to action for every employee to build the desired culture.

Mistake 5: Relying on one-way communication vehicles without opportunities for feedback, dialogue or employee voices

One-way campaigns won’t work—period. The goal of D&I communications should be to facilitate understanding on the part of employees, and that requires listening, dialogue, opportunities to ask questions and venues where it feels safe for employees to articulate concerns or examine personal assumptions and biases. Encourage leaders to engage directly with employees, and help managers learn how to deal with sensitive issues. Make sure leaders and managers know how to model empathy and are comfortable addressing sensitive issues.

Employees also like to hear from each other. Leveraging authentic employee voices can be a powerful way to build understanding and create “aha” moments in which employees get a glimpse of what the work experience at your company is like for someone who looks different from them. Never miss an opportunity to ask employees what D&I means to them and what they’d like to see (and hear) that might increase their pride in the company.

Mistake 6: Failing to recognize that diversity is defined differently across countries and cultures

The ethnic makeup of Germany is very different from that of Ireland or Brazil, and even across a country, the underlying diversity of cities can differ dramatically. If each workplace reflects the underlying culture, workplaces that are equally diverse might look very different. Be sure your communication efforts portray diversity in ways that will resonate with employees across all your locations.

The time is now

Numerous studies have shown that a diverse and inclusive workplace is a competitive advantage. Many employees, customers and investors are making decisions based on their perception of your company’s commitment to diversity. Their expectations are likely to increase.

It’s a generational thing. In the U.S., millennials, who will represent more than 70 percent of global employees by 2020, tend to expect companies to do more to create diverse and inclusive workplaces than older generations. One factor driving this may the diversity inherent in U.S. millennials: just 59 percent of millennials in the U.S. are Caucasian, and 27 percent have immigrant backgrounds (Deloitte 2015). This may create challenges in how you communicate about diversity and inclusion, and it ups the ante on developing programs that will lead to greater diversity and a more inclusive workplace.

Diversity and inclusion are in the spotlight. Working toward a diverse and inclusive workplace is critical, and it’s important to get the communication right. Reviewing your strategy to avoid these six mistakes is a good first step.

This article originally appeared on the ROI Communication website. It is reprinted on IABC.com with permission. 

By Catherine Forman and Lesli Gee for IABC.com