Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) concepts have gone beyond focusing on five key groups — age, ability, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQIA+ — to an essential concept to be applied across businesses. From equality and inclusion in the way we work to embracing previously taboo discussions on mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace, we’ve come a long way from previous years.
When speaking at a European internal communication conference at the start of 2021 on communicating about mental health in the workplace, I was asked by a session participant if I felt uncomfortable being professionally associated with the topic of mental health. I simply said that as a communication professional I needed to be able to support our human resource team in talking about key topics with our people.
Fast forward two years and mental health and well-being has become a conversational staple in many organizations alongside DEI. The way you communicate diversity and inclusion matters to your people, your clients and your bottom line.
The Role of the Communicator
As communicators, we breathe life into the culture of our company. We have a huge responsibility to get it right. We need to bring our workforce on the DEI journey, with the right visual messages, language and information, while keeping the authenticity of our workplace.
A significant gap between the conversations we have in an organization and what we do will degrade trust between employees and who they see as the senior leaders. This means making sure we represent and inspire people toward our ideal, while staying close enough to reality.
According to a report by Dynata, over one third of employees rate accountability and progress reporting to internal and external audiences and are the most important elements of successful DEI initiatives.
What’s the Risk of Getting DEI Wrong?
Poorly handled communication can result in employee, customer and media backlash, broken trust and brand damage. Start with a plan, get the right stakeholders and avoid the clichés.
Go for that woven messaging approach so your people see small indicators often and in the context of business as usual. Show that DEI doesn’t stand alone. For example, my team has a weekly run-down of all upcoming articles. The portfolio internal communication managers reach out to each other to check messaging and weave in different themes. In one instance, mental health messaging was subtly incorporated in a safety article.
10 Great Clichés To Avoid in Your Communication
Here are some of the cliché no-nos our Open Communication Group’s creative designers and employee communication experts plead that you avoid in your messaging and design:
- Jumping on the bandwagon: Celebrating something that your company has no achievements with.
- Multicolour magic: Inexplicable rainbow colors over everything to show inclusivity. Research by Radley Yelder in 2020 showed that nearly a third of companies (28%) use multicolors to communicate DEI.
- Stick figures: Don’t portray people in a simplistic, unrealistic way.
- Tokenism: Your one representation from a minority group suddenly has the voice of diversity in your organization.
- Everyone from every country: A person for each skin tone, all with the stereotypical looks represented, including someone in a wheelchair. Radley Yelder found 79% of companies committed this visual crime with stock images.
- High five hands: Too many hands. Too many arms.
- Stock images that look nothing like your people: Using multicoloured pencils isn’t any better.
- Identity-first language: Those awkward corporate statements that focus on the identity rather than the person.
- Avoiding intersectionality because it is too confusing.
- Excluding the majority groups from the conversation.
How Do You Know if You’re Getting It Right?
It’s challenging communicating complex topics in a simple way. Ask yourself these questions:
- Did you avoid the clichés above?
- Do you have principles in place to guide you?
- How closely are you working with subject matter experts in your organization? Your human resource teams, including culture, workplace diversity, employee value proposition, recruitment, learning and development and well-being teams, should work closely with you and drive the agenda based on initiatives, policies and programs they have in place.
- Does it align with your company values and purpose? It shouldn’t be seen as a stand-alone, it should be integrated into your culture.
- Are your messages woven throughout your communications?
- Have you tested it with enough diverse people? Take the time to test ideas and get feedback from key stakeholders before launching. For example, one organization used an image of a jigsaw puzzle to talk about autism and neurodiversity as a part of DEI. Unfortunately, the communications professional didn’t check with the subject matter experts. After the article ran, they discovered that puzzle pieces are particularly bad, as it gives some neurodiverse people the sense of incompletion.
- Are you creating conversations or telling people what to think? Don’t fame DEI as a problem. Start the conversation, sell the benefits and help people share their stories.
- Is it tailored to different cultural nuances? Equality doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing or the same approach. For example, in Australia, acknowledging the traditional owners of the land is very important in communications, but might be strange in another country. In Romania, the language is binary (masculine/feminine), which makes implementing an inclusive personal pronoun approach challenging. Colleagues in Saudi Arabia report that extra care needs to be taken to ensure messaging aligns with local laws.
- Is a sense of belonging a core theme? Psychological safety and other elements are important to the conversation. The goal is that everyone feels a sense of belonging. How do you get to a point where everyone feels like they’re on the same playing field and feels like they belong there?
- Are your people spreading the word? Do your communications make your people feel proud to work for your organization? Are they telling others?
According to a survey by Glassdoor, 57% of employees think their company should be doing more to increase diversity. Help them understand what you are doing and take them on the journey of where your organization wants to go.
Get Inspiration and Advice
DEI is a critical component to every organization’s culture. It’s complex and rapidly evolving. Get inspiration and advice to make sure you’re not falling into potentially offensive cliché traps that can backfire, hitting your employee trust, customer perception and bottom line.
While I hope this article has inspired you, please do reach out for more in depth conversations. I’d love to hear about the biggest DEI cliché you’ve seen or know about your most effective campaign.
Specializing in internal communications, Monique has worked in both marketing and comms for organizations as diverse as Special Broadcasting Services Australia, ANZ Bank, the Australian Taxation Office, Adjust GmbH and Open Communication Group. She is a board member of the IABC EMENA Region, and business mentor at the Mentoring Club.