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How mindful communication creates a more inclusive culture

Kerrie Murphy - General Manager, Communications, Ovato

You’d struggle to find a business these days that doesn’t list ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ as a company value. It’s starting to feel like another D&I concept that was all the rage a few years ago: “disruptive” and “innovative”. Like then, a lot claim it, few can back it up.
 
So, it is understood that when it comes to building an inclusive culture, you can’t just put out a few words and pictures and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. That’s especially clear this Pride Month, when there is noticeable uptick in criticism of brands jumping onto the bandwagon without having much to back up their new rainbow logo.
 
These should be hugely important values for any organisation. Aside from the being- fundamentally-decent factor, they’re central to the way you treat your staff, your customers and the wider community. For younger employees, diversity is a make-or-break deal. According to Glassdoor, 76 per cent of employees and job seekers said a diverse workforce was important when evaluating companies and job offers. The same goes for consumers - people are more likely to consider and purchase a product after seeing an ad they think is diverse or inclusive.
 
A genuine commitment to diversity should infuse hiring, marketing, organisational culture, CSR activity and board representation. And it definitely needs to be part of your communications strategy – both internal and external.
 
Language and communication are powerful drivers of inclusion and demonstrate your values as a brand. Many organisations are navigating changes to the way that we talk about gender in the wake of MeToo and a growing acceptance of the full spectrum of gender fluidity. Being mindful of the language and imagery you use is important for not only talking about diversity, but truly being inclusive.

Communicating at work

 Whether you have five staff members or you’re managing hundreds globally, your team is diverse in their experiences and expectations. The language you use in the workplace is important to make everyone feel respected, from meetings to emails and even informal chats in the kitchen while you make a cup of tea.
 
Sometimes this means being mindful of the words you use, even if they seem harmless. In recent years there’s been a debate about using ‘guys’ . Some argue that ‘Hi guys’ is a gender-neutral greeting, others disagree. For me, the dealbreaker was being asked if I’d call a solo woman “a guy”. Since the answer was no, it made me think I should retire it like other things I no longer say, such as “that’s da bomb dot com” and “booyah”. (This is a lie. I still say “booyah”. The 1990s were hella dope)
 
And even if you don’t feel the same as I do, like all forms of communication, sometimes it’s less about you and more about your audience. Consider how it may feel if you have a minority of women on the team, an employee who feels uncomfortable about being labelled as a guy, or a client who doesn’t identify with either gender. Making a conscious effort to say “Hi everyone” or “Morning team” goes a long way to making people feel seen.
 
As someone who enjoys overthinking an email, I can tell you corporate comms channels are also a minefield. Women get told to stop a bunch of things: over-qualifying and apologising, using the word “just”, exclamation marks or emojis. All sound advice on their own, but together the gist is basically, “write like a man”. And when you do take on this advice, you may get told you are aggressive or rude. Maybe the problem isn’t the exclamation marks, but a deeply ingrained workplace power imbalance. Who’d have thunk it?
 
You should definitely encourage staff to be confident in their ideas and communicate in a positive, constructive way with their colleagues. But they should also feel comfortable communicating in a way that feels true to their identity – whether that’s a lengthy paragraph ending on a smiley face or a to-the-point, one sentence response.

Giving everyone space to be themselves

Recently, both LinkedIn and Instagram announced they would incorporate use of pronouns on user profiles. Some organisations add it to email signatures. Sharing the pronouns you prefer will become increasingly common, in both professional and personal contexts. If you’re wondering whether it’s appropriate to share your pronouns, particularly if you’re cisgender, trans athlete Schuyler Bailar explains it well:
 
“Gender expression – how we look, how we act, the clothes that we wear – does not always equal gender identity, and sharing your pronouns helps dismantle this norm that people think gender identity always equals gender expression. It also creates a safe space for trans and gender non-conforming folks to share our pronouns too.”
 
Some might feel it’s a personal decision, not a professional one. However, LinkedIn’s research shows 70 per cent of job seekers believe it’s important that recruiters and hiring managers know their gender pronouns. Overall, it’s a positive step to making sure everyone feels comfortable to be themselves and share their gender identity at work – but it’s also important to recognise that not everyone will be ready or comfortable to take that step in the workplace. Sometimes, it can even feel like putting too much of the burden on the very people an initiative is supposed to support.
 
Building a truly inclusive culture means letting people know they have the choice to show up however they feel comfortable to – not mandating how they communicate their identity.

Reflecting the community around you

The Channel 9 #GetVaccinated campaign is a perfect example of how important visual communication is to get right - and how jarring a sea of white faces can be. The glaring lack of diversity overshadows the message and excludes many Australians from seeing themselves reflected in the story.
 
Portraying the diversity of your staff, customers and culture means selecting imagery and talent carefully. It’s easy to lean on images and people that look like you without even thinking about it, particularly when relying on stock imagery. Brands need to use images that show a genuine understanding of who you’re speaking to, and the values you want to embody. From website imagery to advertising talent and social media feeds, imagery should reflect not just ethnic diversity but gender, sexuality, families, age, ability, body types.
 
Again, it shouldn’t be a token gesture – customers can see right through that. It should be a consistent effort to reflect the different experiences of your customers across every communications channel. 80 per cent of respondents to a global survey say they expect companies to do a better job at capturing people’s true lifestyles and cultures, and 63 per cent prefer to buy from brands that represent people like themselves.
 
As we’re seeing more brands face backlash for their Pride Month campaigns and lack of demonstrable support for the LGBTQIA+ community, any business touting diversity as a value needs to look closer to home and make sure they’re offering tangible support. Real change requires concerted efforts driven from the top, but mindful communication is vital to make every employee and customer feel comfortable, supported and respected. Only once you’ve embedded this in your day-to-day interactions can you truly build an inclusive culture.