The Things We Say
Just yesterday, I was having a conversation with someone who nodded knowingly when I mentioned that we help organizations achieve their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) goals. “I bet they all tell you that there’s a guy over in the corner who could use a little training, right?” she asked with a giggle. I laughed too, but then I explained that no, DEI issues aren’t truly defined by individuals. While individual behavior does always make a difference – and many times over if that person manages other employees – DEI must ultimately be approached as a systems issue. She tilted her head in surprise – as an employee of a large healthcare organization, she’d never heard this before.
“Policies, processes, and the culture of an organization are all things that help define who thrives—and who doesn’t,” I explained. Now heads across the room were swiveling to look in our direction. In my experience, this is something people know, but it’s not often said. Changing the system feels to many as though it is too big of an effort, much too far outside the stated goals and mission of the organization. After all, organizations don’t exist in order to establish inclusive practices. They exist to address patient care or deliver technological solutions or manage financial portfolios or educate the population… or an infinite number of other possibilities.
But establishing inclusive practices – including assessing and promoting employees within a framework that acknowledges and addresses latent bias and discrimination – actually helps achieve those goals. “You can, and should, train for bias and racial equity,” I continued. “But are you also promoting people who don’t look like you?”
She was surprised, energized, and intrigued, and wanted to know more. At IBIS, we address many areas of systemic opportunities for change, from recruiting to career development to strategic planning and governance to marketing…and everything in between. “Want to know one area that we find comes as a surprise key element to many organizations?” I asked. She nodded. “Communication. How does DEI show up in internal and external communication?”
We recommend that leaders create a business case for DEI that is specific to the goals of the organization, and then—and this is crucial—communicate it until it is well-known and understood throughout the organization. In addition to having employees really understand the business case, we also look for DEI goals that aren’t hidden away on someone’s hard drive but instead are shared, public and known by all. Having a true conversation about them is important. While we don’t advocate for creating goals by consensus, we do think that listening to the viewpoints of everyone in the organization is an extremely important step in creating the right output and cultivating buy-in and engagement in DEI throughout the culture. People need to feel heard.
When communication occurs that undermines the goals of DEI initiatives – for instance, if it is disrespectful or abusive – we seek to guide leaders to model the way on stopping it firmly and publicly. A zero-tolerance policy on disrespectful communication provides the backbone for an inclusive, supportive culture in which marginalized voices aren’t silenced. Along those lines, there need to be plenty of opportunities for employees to call attention to breaches of inclusive practices, and to report those breaches without retribution. But first, they need to know what those standards are, so they are confident about how breaches of those standards look, feel and sound. Communicating expectations is a ‘DEI best practice’ for a reason: It forces people to be intentional about the boundaries and framework of the culture. It is nearly impossible—OK, it’s downright impossible—to overstate the importance of broadcasting leadership stance and approach to communications that are out of alignment with DEI standards. People follow the leader.
What does the leader do when there is a crisis, or disruption that draws attention to a DEI issue? The response to a crisis, both internal and external, should always be genuine and timely, and at IBIS we typically suggest the following three key components play a role in the response.
First, we recommend that leaders openly acknowledge what happened. When important events get pushed under the rug, the effects of those buried feelings can have a lasting negative impact on the culture.
Second, state that the event that brought everyone to this point is a learning moment for everyone involved, including the organizational leaders.
Third, share the changes that will be made as a result of this event.
Emphasizing both internal and external communication as part of DEI goal attainment is a topic that gets people nodding in agreement right away—but it’s not how most organizations tackle DEI challenges and opportunities. Equipping the communication team with DEI training right alongside the leadership team isn’t always a high priority, but we think it should be. It may be counter-intuitive to avoid downplaying DEI challenges, or to actively bring in lots of opinions, but in the long run it’s part of creating an effective and inclusive organization in which real dialogue is not only possible, but familiar. It takes, sometimes, a few steps back in order to see the whole picture. At IBIS, we help organizations of all sizes assess and improve their systemic approach to DEI. If you’re interested in a review of your organizational communication strategies, contact us.
Cedar Pruitt is a Senior Consultant at IBIS who specializes in inclusive leadership and culture in organizations ranging from innovative start-ups to competitive universities…and everything in between.