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How to Communicate Diversity and Inclusion When You Aren't Quite There Yet

While sustainability and citizenship mean different things to different people, these terms are most commonly associated with a company’s impact on the external world, focusing heavily on social and environmental initiatives. However, businesses can do a lot of good (for the world and their bottom line) by equally focusing internally, on such things as their diversity and inclusion practices.

While sustainability and citizenship mean different things to different people, these terms are most commonly associated with a company’s impact on the external world, focusing heavily on social and environmental initiatives. However, businesses can do a lot of good (for the world and their bottom line) by equally focusing internally, on such things as their diversity and inclusion practices.

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic in today’s business landscape — and for good reason. There’s a strong business case for embracing a diverse and inclusive workforce. A Harvard Business School survey revealed that companies with more workplace diversity make up to 69 percent more in net income and revenue, with 91 percent of these companies reporting greater customer satisfaction. Diversity can also boost employee engagement, recruitment, and retention, specifically for Millennials, which make up more than a third of the workforce. According to a Deloitte survey, 75 percent of millennials believe an organization is more innovative when it fosters a culture of diversity and inclusion — and they are more likely to leave if a company does not meet their standards. Finally, companies that fail to address their lack of diversity and inclusion have been in the hot seat recently as employees fight back at the grassroots level. Who could forget the backlash Nike faced when its gender inequality was revealed?

The benefits of diversity and inclusion are clear, but even the best corporate citizens face challenges when it comes to execution. Cultivating diversity and inclusion in the workplace often requires a culture shift, which is not always easy or immediately attainable, especially for large, veteran corporations. As such, we commonly see companies express a level of discomfort when reporting on diversity and inclusion. Sometimes organizations are hesitant to report anything related to the subject for fear of being harshly scrutinized at best, or becoming the subject of a full-blown media exposé at worst.

However, communicating what you’re doing to address diversity and inclusion is no longer optional — internal and external stakeholders have come to expect it. So, how do you communicate about your efforts regardless of your current situation? How can you shed a positive light on your progress without it coming off as disingenuous or a PR spin? Below, we share five strategies to help any company struggling to communicate this sensitive but important topic.

1. Be transparent.

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Transparency is a key component in all communication efforts, but it’s even more important when you’re talking about an important subject like diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you’re doing, failing to be transparent — or completely ignoring diversity and inclusion in your communications altogether — could be perceived as shady. Celebrate your accomplishments, own your weaknesses, clearly communicate your challenges, and present a plan for improvement. Not only will your audience appreciate your candor, you will also demonstrate that you are taking your goals and commitments seriously.

In 2015, Salesforce performed an internal audit that revealed a pay disparity between men and women, not an uncommon problem for Silicon Valley tech giants. Instead of quietly covering it up, CEO Marc Benioff took this as an opportunity to push the industry forward. Not only did the company spend $3 million in paycheck adjustments at the end of the year, it also launched an equality website and publicly published its full diversity statistics. Although the numbers are still not great (men account for 70 percent of the workforce and 75 percent of the board of directors), transparency holds the company accountable for progress.

2. Set aspirational goals.

Transparency is a great first step, but it’s not enough to just publish your data and call it a day. Create and communicate specific goals around diversity and inclusion, and don’t be afraid to make them pie-in-the-sky. Even if you are currently struggling with diversity and inclusion, stakeholders want to see that you have an aspirational vision that you’re actively working towards achieving. The more ambitious the better, because a lofty goal will provide the North Star you need to embed diversity and inclusion within your culture.

3. Highlight outcomes, not good intentions.

When it comes to sustainability and citizenship, the age-old saying “actions speak louder than words” rings true. Once you set your aspirational goals, you must follow through. Your audience wants to hear about results, not good intentions — so highlight every outcome, even if you have to start small. This is where storytelling can be a powerful tool.

What happens if you don’t reach your targets? Be honest, take responsibility, and openly talk about your missteps or what you could have done differently. When companies avoid addressing their lack of progress altogether, their reports and efforts are often perceived as disingenuous. Companies must demonstrate — and celebrate — advancements in diversity and inclusion, which will, in turn, keep the positive momentum going.

4. Focus on cognitive diversity.

Don’t get hung up on hard numbers and demographic percentages in your communications — diversity and inclusion are much more than that. Broaden your perspective on diversity to include the blending of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives within a team. Studies have shown that teams with more cognitive diversity — differences in perspective or information processing styles — are more innovative than teams rich in racial and gender diversity. Showcase how you cultivate a collaborative environment where employees feel empowered to share their unique ideas. Furthermore, highlight specific examples of how your commitment to cognitive diversity has led to better problem solving and enhanced employee engagement.

Remember: A culture that is encouraged to think differently will naturally be more inclusive. Which brings us to our last but most important point …

5. Cultivate a culture of diversity and inclusion.

The key to good storytelling is authenticity, so the best way to make your diversity and inclusion story compelling is to ingrain and celebrate it internally. Develop a solid strategy for promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, which should include making it an integral element of your internal communications and culture.

Guided by stated values and actions, a company’s culture is the engine that drives it forward towards reaching its vision. Fostering an open-minded, accepting and inclusive community where differences are welcomed can be one of the most influential tactics in achieving your diversity and inclusion goals. A culture that thinks differently — and is encouraged to do so — will naturally act differently, be more inclusive and thrive through diversity.

This post appeared on the ThinkPARALLAX blog on October 24, 2018.