Let me start by saying that I am not a diversity and inclusion expert. It’s a topic I care deeply about and, as I have learned more and more about the discipline of internal communications, have begun to think differently about.
Today, I have the pleasure of working with some of Britain’s best-known brands to apply employee engagement best practice to the topic of diversity and inclusion.
As individuals we can’t be more diverse, but we can be more inclusive. Diversity is a measure: it’s a way of thinking about and talking about what makes us who we are, and how that might be different or similar to the people around us. Inclusion is a choice: it’s a way of behaving that involves making conscious choices to accommodate the different characteristics of the people around you.
In a business context, diversity doesn’t necessarily drive greater performance. Diversity combined with inclusion is the secret to unlocking the full potential of people within an organisation.
The drive for a more inclusive culture – in the UK at least – was kick-started by women entering the workforce during the Second World War. Since then, we’ve been on a journey of acceptance as our society and the nature of our work has changed beyond all recognition. We now operate in a more global, more connected, more quickly evolving and more diverse world, beyond recognition of the generations preceding us, and likely to be laughably obsolete in the eyes of the generations to follow (just think how we today perceive the idea of smoking in the workplace!)
Thanks to courageous individuals who’ve rallied against the status quo, we’ve seen vast changes take place within organisations to change policies and practices, open their doors and their minds, and change the conversation about diversity and inclusion. There are others who still have further to go, but in general, we’re pleased to see the push for a more diverse and inclusive workplace as a priority in almost every brand we work with.
The increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion has undoubtedly made the working lives of most minority individuals better. However, in some cases, it has led to the disengagement of people in the majority. It is unfortunately common for us to hear cynicism from employees in response to well-intended messages about diversity and inclusion: it’s a tick-box exercise, it’s positive discrimination, it’s too much.
The benefits of diversity either aren’t understood or aren’t believed by this audience and, as a result, they can even become active detractors. Combine that with the increasingly extreme rhetoric in the press and on social media, and it’s no wonder one recent study found three quarters of minority individuals felt no personal benefit from their companies’ diversity programmes.
Whenever we communicate, we have to consider our audience. As human beings, their behaviour is mostly consistent, and predictable to some extent. Behavioural science is adding new insights to the field of employee engagement: from new iterations of the change curve to modern-day triggers of our primal fight or flight mechanism. We are ultimately selfish creatures, hard-wired to seek out similarity and adept at prioritising the things that benefit us as individuals. As such, the topic of diversity and inclusion is at a natural disadvantage: we’re asking people to challenge the way they think and rewire their autopilots to behave differently, and all for the benefit of someone else?!
Our challenge as communicators is to help people find relevance in the subject of diversity, and care enough to behave more inclusively. That requires us to rethink how we do things, using a broader definition of diversity and a more action-oriented approach to inclusion.
In our conversations on the topic of diversity, we use the Gardenswartz and Rowe model from 2003, which describes individuals with four layers:
PERSONALITY: This is a unique reflection of all our other characteristics, as well as being influenced by our upbringing, attitudes, family, friends and preferences. Everyone’s personality is unique to them.
INTERNAL DIMENSIONS: We have no choice over these, and they are mostly quite difficult to disguise. In some countries, these characteristics are protected by law, however the levels of protection vary, and people with minority characteristics are more likely to face discrimination both in and out of work.
EXTERNAL DIMENSIONS: We have a little more choice over these and can control to what extent we share information about them. They can still cause people to form assumptions or hold negative biases that may impact individuals at work.
ORGANISATIONAL DIMENSIONS: These arise as a result of our position in an organisation. Our professional profile influences how other people perceive us and what level of respect they place on our point of view.
The model is not exhaustive: neurodiversity, mental health and caring status are three characteristics that could be added. Social class is another factor that can have a compound impact on any of the above characteristics. Despite these gaps, the model is helpful as a starting point for a conversation around how different characteristics can have different impacts on our performance at work.
While diversity is relatively easy to measure (assuming that people will willingly share their personal characteristics honestly), measuring inclusion is harder. For any subject, all we can meaningfully measure is behaviour and sentiment. When applied to inclusion, that makes the success of employee engagement difficult to measure. Do more complaints to HR about poor behaviour mean that general behaviour has got worse, or does it mean that people are more empowered to call out negative behaviours when they see them? And how likely is someone to disagree with a survey question asking them if they believe behaving inclusively is the right thing to do?
We have to take a more strategic approach to discovering the behaviour and sentiment of our people. That means focus groups, sample surveys using more creative question sets and sentiment tracking across digital platforms in order to build a fulsome picture of how impactful your diversity and inclusion activity really is.
In many organisations, diversity and inclusion activity is led by employee resource groups of minority individuals and their allies who champion particular subjects and seek to raise awareness among colleagues and even instigate change in their business. That grass-roots approach can provide a safe space for people and create visible role models.
However, many organisations are now asking if their diversity and inclusion activity should be led centrally rather than by groups at the front line. Could equal pay being championed by a women’s network be the reason that men are disengaged with gender equality? Is it really fair to ask minority individuals to take responsibility for educating the organisation about the challenges they face, or should that storytelling take place more centrally?
We’re now working with large organisations to take a more strategic approach that applies the same ingredients we’d deploy in a strategy launch or change programme, to diversity and inclusion: defining a vision, planning out activity, using all the channels at our disposal, producing impactful stories and defining methods of measuring impact. This strategic approach is helping diversity and inclusion to feel more integrated and less vulnerable to cynicism.
In the absence of sweeping organisational change, representation of minority individuals at a board level is unlikely to improve within the next five to ten years. The Hampton-Alexander review is setting a benchmark for representation of women in senior roles at FTSE 350 businesses at 33%, and the introduction of ethnicity pay-gap reporting, as well as gender pay-gap reporting, is putting the spotlight on inequalities between people with different internal dimensions.
To plug the gap, it’s vital we find ways for leaders to use their position as the most influential role models in any organisation to be active allies for minority groups. The impact that a leader sharing their platform with a person of colour or someone with a disability could have, goes far beyond improving perceptions and acceptance within the business – it goes into wider society as employees take newly discovered learnings out to their friends and family.
The internal communications function does not own company culture – it can only reflect the culture that is defined by the behaviour of a senior leadership team. That’s precisely why leaders are so important when it comes to embedding a more inclusive culture.
The conversation about diversity changes when we focus not on what makes us different to other people, but on what we have in common. When we concentrate on listening to others, being curious about their perspectives and opinions, valuing their ideas and approaches and discovering the characteristics we share, we unlock the power of working relationships. We can have more honest conversations, giving and receiving feedback becomes easier and there is a greater level of understanding and integration between all members of the team.
Achieving new levels of integration takes an integrated approach. It can’t come from one-off campaigns or ticking boxes. It has to come from embedding messages about the importance of diversity and the benefits of inclusion in everything we do. Only by expanding the conversation and taking a planned, strategic approach can we, as internal communicators, achieve the full business benefits that we all know a more diverse and inclusive workplace can generate.
I’m heartened to see large organisations taking a more active stance in the field of diversity and inclusion. In a time of increasing tension between groups in our society, the influence of large organisations is more important than ever. New generations of people are looking for new sources for inspiration about how to behave and what to believe. More, respected voices championing the power of inclusion and taking a stand against discrimination can only be a good thing. Not only are more brands talking the talk, they’re also investing in walking the walk and offering genuine opportunities for those that need it most.
I believe in less than a decade there are some issues that will no longer be a topic for debate: pay equality, transgender visibility, millennial vs boomers. It’s my hope that these will be consigned to the shelf along with smoking in the workplace and countless other past social norms we now perceive to be irrelevant. Of course, new issues will arise in their place and that’s why anyone in a position of privilege – including minority individuals – needs to act as an ally. One of the most important allies any minority individual can have at work is an active and engaged internal communications and diversity and inclusion team, working together to create a safer and more productive environment for everyone.
That’s where we come in. At scarlettabbott, we’re partnering with teams from internal communications, HR, diversity and leadership to place new emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and communicate it in a way that really resonates with their entire audience. We’re applying the full force of our employee engagement expertise to a new topic and discovering a huge appetite to do different things and do things differently, and we’re excited to see the outcomes.