More than a buzzword, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is the key to creating workplaces in which every employee can develop, grow, and thrive. As an organization develops its DEI strategy, its HR team will likely shoulder much of the responsibility for bringing everyone onto the same page of understanding and action. To do this, HR must be prepared to lead the way forward with an effective message that not only communicates the importance of DEI but does so clearly and with empathy.
The Role of Internal Communications in DEI
It’s invigorating to see so many businesses joining in the crucial work of building and promoting diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Between 2017 and 2020, the number of global organizations “planning moderate or heavy investment in diversity and inclusion” rose from 29 percent to 62 percent.1 Although the growing recognition of DEI is certainly worth celebrating, leaders still need to do a lot of work to make an impact, starting with how they communicate about DEI to the rest of the organization.
As organizations throughout the world implement DEI initiatives, HR must set precedents for inclusive communication as an important part of making DEI an active, living part of the workplace. Most importantly, communication about DEI can’t be a top-down mandate. To get everyone on board with DEI, HR must build trust through several key strategies, such as “transparent and inclusive communication” about these initiatives and “creating a work environment [in which] everyone’s unique attributes are valued, respected, understood, and used.”2
When it comes to DEI, HR is often tasked with doing double duty: spearheading both the company’s initiatives as well as managing internal awareness and action campaigns. HR does much of its work via employee communications, which boil down to what’s directly related to human resource functions (information about benefits, setting career goals, following the employee handbook, etc.). But for some areas — such as DEI — HR must leverage internal communications, which target “an internal audience that encompasses not only employees but management and board members.”3 Much broader in scope than external communications, internal communications cover areas such as mission statements and branding strategies, as well as DEI initiatives.
Employee communications focus on getting employees to act (sign up for benefits, follow the organization’s handbook, set career goals, etc.), whereas internal communications involve convincing the people within an entire organization to think a certain way or — even more challenging — to change their minds. Accomplishing this goal requires several key skills:
It demands a precise skill set, ranging careful and empathetic listening, clear and concise writing, oral and visual communications expertise, intellectual and emotional agility, and an almost journalistic sense of objectivity that enables telling a story straightforwardly with none-to-limited personal opinion.4
Empathy and Two-Way Communication
Listening to employees with empathy means inviting all voices into the conversation and imagining how everything being said will be received by the different demographic groups represented in the workforce. This approach facilitates two-way communication that “builds loyalty and drives improved productivity.”5This approach may feel counterintuitive in organizations with more rigid hierarchical structures, but HR won’t be able to change anyone’s mind or get them to buy into DEI initiatives without building trust and showing employees that the company truly does care deeply about being inclusive.
In order to build trust, listening with empathy must be coupled with action. There’s no quicker way to lose employee trust and fan the flames of resentment than to ask for employee input and not act on it. After gathering employee feedback (from town hall meetings, for example, or via surveys or one-on-one meetings), HR needs to take action by discussing this feedback during company-wide meetings, by actually making changes, and by explaining company decisions to employees (especially when deciding against making certain changes.
Communicating with inclusivity means working toward two different goals:
- Communicating the organization’s DEI commitment and strategy
- Communicating in a way that makes everyone feel welcome, included, and supported
In other words, communication is both the message and the medium. By taking into account how people with diverse perspectives will receive that message and incorporating an inclusive voice, HR reassures employees that it has really been listening to them and that it understands and values who they are as individuals (not just as a collective).
A Cyclical Process
In order to deliver communication about DEI in an inclusive voice, HR professionals must not only practice empathic listening but also educate themselves about their biases. The work of identifying and uprooting biases in individuals — let alone in an organization full of diverse individuals — is a cyclical process of listening, learning, and accepting responsibility.
As people-focused, inclusive communicators, HR professionals have a special responsibility to feed their brains with as much positive and diverse input as possible. Doing this effectively involves identifying and combating the complex causes of biases:
- Cognitive factors: Human brains naturally want to take shortcuts, which include categorizing the world to achieve top efficiency.
- Personal factors: Past experiences shape future interactions.
- Social factors: Humans are vulnerable to the repeated messages around them.
These factors combine to create the mental landscape that can, in the classic example, make someone see a man’s behavior as “assertive” and the same behavior from a woman as “aggressive.”
What creates and feeds biases? What categories do those messages create in each person’s efficiency-oriented decision center? What experiences influence how individuals listen and act?
Just as travel grants perspective by exposing people to different communities, customs, experiences, and environments, exposing people to more voices and greater representation in their input streams (social media feeds, bookshelves, television shows, podcasts, etc.) helps them fill their empathy wells. It’s harder to see a group as a monolith after hearing many voices from that group describe their personal experiences.
Once new information is absorbed, it’s time to digest, grapple with, and internalize it. This opportunity for self-reflection is the time for people to ask themselves several key questions:
- What about this is new to me?
- Why is this not my experience?
- What are the next steps in implementing, amplifying, and fact-checking this new information?
When DEI initiatives are implemented successfully, people don’t just take in that new information — they also engage in the work of unpacking it and bring those new voices and messages forward in their own interactions with others.
Words have tremendous power and impact. When someone receives feedback that they’ve communicated something disrespectful or harmful, it’s important for them to recognize that mistake and resolve to do better. By circling back to step one — listening — to begin the process again, they engage in conversation and revisit the breadth of available options for addressing bias and building inclusivity.
Empathy-based communication, cultivating connections, and educating the workforce about the importance of DEI make it possible for HR to foster a more inclusive organization. Through these efforts, HR can demonstrate its commitment to better workplaces and help create an environment that encourages employee growth and care for others.
1Claude Werder. 2021. “Overcoming Diversity and Inclusion Challenges: Strategies for Success.” Oracle website, www.oracle.com/explore/global-hcm/Brandon-Hall-diversity-success. .
3Michael Collins. 2019. “Does Internal Communications Belong To HR Or Corporate Communications?” Forbes website, March 15, www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2019/03/15/does-internal-communications-belong-to-hr-or-corporate-communications/?sh=24b13b7c1604. .
5SHRM. undated. “Managing Organizational Communication.” SHRM website.