Tech in Culture EDI Alliance Partner Forum: Internal Communications

Author: Kathryn Mason

On Wednesday 28th July we held our second Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum. Following the candid and insightful discussions that took place in the first forum, which was focused on recruitment, it seemed natural to progress the conversation in the second forum to a focus on internal communications and engagement around Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).

A clear take away from the first forum was that many organisations (including ourselves) have found it challenging to figure out how best to engage and communicate with colleagues about EDI work.

There was also a shared feeling that EDI can be a sensitive topic, one that people fear ‘getting wrong’, appearing ignorant about, or saying the wrong thing.

It’s therefore tricky for organisations to know how, where and when to update and engage their team about various EDI-related initiatives, while also creating the spaces within which wider EDI conversations can take place, where everyone feels comfortable having a voice, raising concerns, or simply engaging with the topic.

A key observation throughout the discussion was that there really is no single ‘right’ way to be internally communicating about EDI. And importantly, that it’s ok to say “we’ve still got a long way to go”, or “we have a destination but we’re not there yet” – the main thing is that no matter where any of us are on our EDI journey, we’ve actively made the decision to start it. Communicating this alone will go a long way.

The forum was hosted by our Managing Director Ash, and the discussion was guided by EDI experts Lexie Papaspyrou from the Tech Talent Charter, Sunil Jindal from Diversio, and Gill Cooke from Three Mobile. Their insights, tips and expertise gave us all some invaluable and importantly, practical things to take away, consider and try.

Here, we’ve captured some of the many things discussed.

Confronting the reality

  • We all recognised that the sector we serve is relatively non-diverse. And everyone agreed that until we actively decided to diversify our own places of work, we were more often than not hiring people that reflected the organisations we work with, which only entrenched the problems the cultural sector has around diversity and representation.
    • Confronting this reality and making the active decision to start an EDI journey is therefore crucial to gaining the trust and confidence of employees that you are genuinely engaging with trying to address this challenge.
  • We discussed the challenges around communicating that this issue around representation is one that we’re trying to solve, while dealing with the realities of the sector we’re working with.
    • How can we demonstrate that we’re taking EDI seriously, while communicating that it’s a long-term problem we’re working on, without sounding like we’re making excuses?

Transactional vs Transformational change

  • The difference between transactional and transformational change was highlighted to help provide context to the various strands of EDI work being done.
    • Transactional change reflects the policies, processes and institutional structures that are in place to support EDI agendas.
    • Transformational change is the focus on shifting mindset, behaviours and culture. This is where the language around ‘inclusivity’ and ‘belonging’ comes in.
  • We discussed how you can’t have one of these without the other – they move at different paces but are very much dependent on one another.
  • This raised a question around whether transactional change is causing ‘Change fatigue’ amongst employees – this became the next topic of discussion within the context of internal communications challenges.

Change fatigue and virtue signalling

  • It can be difficult to demonstrably communicate that you’re keeping momentum behind your EDI efforts, beyond the initial work that’s been done to get the ball rolling. 
    • Some employees might be cynical towards EDI work, particularly in the transactional change context, because it can take longer for leadership teams to establish the structures, policies and frameworks required to facilitate this kind of change. 
    • So it can be challenging to tell employees that “we’re currently working on x, y, z” without some sort of cynicism, disengagement, or passive resignation to your efforts. 
  • There is also the danger that by trying to openly communicate with employees about the work you’re doing, without yet having tangible results with which to demonstrate progress, you might receive accusations of gesture politics or virtue signalling. So how can we tell our workforce about the conversations and process-changes happening internally (often at a leadership level) without appearing as if it’s just a tick box exercise?
    • Simply being honest with people about the fact that it’s going to take some time to see the rewards of such efforts can really help. 
    • And if you can communicate a set of goals against these efforts, then employees are more likely to engage with the work being done as there’s a sense of accountability. Even if that goal doesn’t end up being met, it demonstrates that there is a well-intended destination in mind.
    • Accusations of virtue signalling (and change fatigue) can be managed by taking the brave (and often scary) decision to put our heads above the parapet and define a clear starting point for ourselves, which can enable us to measure progress, set goals, and manage employee expectations. 
  • Accepting that you can’t please everyone at once is another useful step in addressing change fatigue. 
    • With everybody at different stages of both their own individual and their organisation’s EDI journey, you simply can’t engage everyone. Some people will think there’s not enough being done, while others will think EDI is the only thing your organisation is focused on.
  • Another tip shared was to think about the wider pool of people that need ‘engaging’. Try applying the ‘seat at the table’ idea when thinking about who it is you really want to be speaking to. 
    • Who is the person or lived experience that you need to bring on the journey? Those who are already engaged (albeit to varying extents) are already on the journey with you. The real challenge (for both companies and broader society alike) is engaging the people who either don’t want to go on the journey, don’t recognise that a journey exists, or who simply don’t care about the issue.
    • Thinking of ways to reach these people might also help address challenges around change fatigue amongst those who are already engaged – it demonstrates that you’re keeping momentum and making consolidated efforts to broaden your EDI efforts beyond what might feel ‘comfortable’.

‘What about me?’

  • This naturally led to a fruitful discussion about those who feel that EDI programmes have no relevance or benefit to them.
    • Often, organisations hear the ‘typical’ people that don’t fall under the ‘protected characteristic’ groups (most typically defined as the white, middle-class cis man) with those people asking “what about me?” or “where’s my employee group”. Because in many cases these people don’t think EDI programmes are beneficial to them.
  • This also led to recognition of the fact that the cultural sector seems to have acknowledged its challenges around ethnic diversity, but is giving less focus to all of the many other things that EDI encompasses.
    • It’s useful to remind ourselves of this both when we’re recruiting, but also when we speak to people about our EDI priorities and the things we want to focus on. When recruiting, look at every group of people that EDI encompasses, including and beyond ethnic minorities (e.g. neurodiverse, disabled, LGBTQ+) and question whether there’s a gap, or a particular group that’s lacking representation in your current team.
  • We talked about two different ways to help deal with the ‘what about me?’ challenge, both of which encompass the idea that if we make our EDI journey about everyone, then we’re more likely to bring people along with us:
    1. Demonstrating the commercial value in having a diverse workforce
      • There is a strong business case for EDI programs, as demonstrated by the latest Mckinsey’s report, ‘Diversity Wins’ – the third in a series of reports investigating the business case for diversity. A key takeaway from the report is that “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability”. Some insightful statistics:
        • About gender diversity: “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile”
        • About ethnic and cultural diversity: “In 2019, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36 percent in profitability”

2. Consider all of the different lenses through which EDI issues exist, which will then likely encompass everyone to some extent

        • By applying a different lens through which we look at (and talk about) EDI, we can start to engage the people asking “what about me” because the issues will feel more relevant to their own lived experiences.
        • This can include a wide range of EDI considerations, such as wellness, mental health, neurodiversity, disability, dyslexia, LGBTQ+, socio-economic background (and more).
        • By increasing the intersectionality of our EDI conversations, you can start bringing the ‘typical’ majority group on your journey.
  • This prompted the sharing of a really useful tip – tailor your messaging to the people you’re speaking to.
    • Think about the role and (assumed) preferences of the individuals you’re trying to engage with EDI-related topics. By considering what language, or style of ‘action’ these people will be most receptive to, you can increase your chances of a positive engagement.
      • For example, if you’re looking for input from an audit team, perhaps frame it as a task. When speaking to a design team, frame it more like a creative brief. Speaking to people about EDI within a framework/way of working they are familiar with will make EDI feel more like another part of their usual day-to-day.
    • As part of this, we recognised that those operating in the cultural sector will often respond better to storytelling narratives. While this is obviously very nuanced and everyone responds to things differently, it was useful to remind ourselves of the broader context within which we’re all working.
    • It can also be useful to communicate the focus of EDI-related initiatives as “how can we get the best from group x, y or z” as opposed to “let’s focus on [gender and ethnicity, for example]”. By casting the net wider – shifting the focus towards a socio-economic strategy, for example – you can help ensure that your EDI work is more applicable to majority groups, while still focusing on those who fall under the ‘protected characteristics’.

The benefits of data – Measuring, tracking, reporting

  • We discussed the role that data capture can play in tackling some of the issues outlined above, particularly around virtue signalling and the ‘what about me?’ case.
    • If we can communicate that progress is being made against the metrics we’ve defined (and already shared with employees) then there’s less room for people to question your motives, or make accusations of gesture politics etc.
  • If we can have a conversation that’s informed by data, then it naturally moves it away from being about individual experiences. This can then help you respond to internal cynicism, as your workforce is tangibly reflective of the changes you’re trying to make. 
  • Needless to say, data is also useful for inspiring confidence in those people who are already on your EDI journey. 
  • And for leadership teams, it’s a really useful and important way of tracking whether the changes being made are moving the needle they want to move.

Perceived ‘differences’

  • We discussed how there is an overriding preference for talking about physical differences (and assuming that people’s differences are physically apparent) within EDI conversations, with invisible differences often being left behind or ignored. 
    • This is a complex and sensitive issue that poses a problematic inability for those with invisible differences to self-identify as ‘different’.
    • The pandemic has perpetuated this problem, with remote work and changes in the way we communicate making these differences even more invisible. While we’ve all been, for the most part, operating remotely, the space for people with such differences to comfortably and openly talk about their experiences has become even smaller (not that there was really a significant space to build upon). 
  • A way to make progress here could be to create some detailed guidance about addressing people with both physical and invisible differences. It’s a long piece of work that will likely take time to get right, but by thinking about language choices and how we can put our company values into practice, we can start to give people a tangible means of activating and implementing our efforts to include everyone. 
    • For example, avoiding euphemisms and jargon, making a list of inclusive vs exclusive phrases/words, etc. 
  • Another useful way to address this could be to work with a third party who can help you capture and codify the various ‘differences’ within your organisation, using things such as staff surveys offering anonymous or named self-identification. Giving people a space or structure that’s externally driven can help make people feel more comfortable discussing these things.

Internal communications structures

  • We all had some form of EDI-focused internal communications structure in place – whether that be through committees, working groups, etc.
    • We discussed the challenges around ensuring that the focus of these groups isn’t skewed in one direction or another. Something that’s working well for some organisations is to break down the various strands of EDI  into smaller, more focused groups, to help progress the agenda on that specific issue.
      • This of course comes down to resources, people’s time etc, but it’s a clear and useful way to make sure that no one group gets forgotten. 
  • This also raised questions around how leadership teams are engaging with the things coming out of these groups, and demonstrating that they’re dealing and engaging with the various issues that arise.
    • Perhaps record the leadership team meeting where you address the issues raised (whether they’ve come from surveys, an anonymous bot, or group/committee feedback – just some of the ways we’re all inviting employee engagement) and circulate with the company. This is a really transparent way of showing that you’re responding to challenges while giving the team visibility of this work, and the effort/thought that’s gone into the decision making. 
  • Centering EDI around everything your company does (such as product, marketing, sales etc) rather than it being a question of “what do we need to do with the people” is also helpful. It shows that your EDI work impacts and is embedded into your company, rather than just being people/HR-focused. 
    • So having groups that aren’t directly/solely focused on EDI, but that have EDI as part of a wider agenda can be another way to engage people with the work.

Question of compensation

  • Our conversation then moved to one that has gained a lot of currency recently, and one that some anticipate will come to a head sooner rather than later – that being around compensating employees the the amount of time they’re giving to EDI work.
    • Not only can this move EDI away from being an ‘add-on’ to people’s day-to-day job, but it will also give people who are committing their time the recognition they deserve, and as such act as a motivator. It’ll also prove that you’re taking it seriously. 
  • This could be factoring it into people’s time – particularly for timesheet-driven places of work where people’s hours are scheduled against specific projects. So perhaps try allocating ‘x’ number of hours a week/month/year for people to focus solely on EDI initiatives. 
  • We also all agreed that it’s the same people within each of our workforces who are passionate about EDI, who sign up for the committees and who dedicate their time. So it’s important to communicate to them that EDI isn’t just seen as an ‘extracurricular’ activity, and to recognise that their efforts are meaningful and important. 
    • Embedding the value of people’s EDI work into their goals, development plans and promotion opportunities was another important tip shared.

Is there a danger of overcomplicating EDI, to the point that it doesn’t move?

  • The conversation came to a close with this somewhat controversial question posed, albeit one that certainly has a rationale.
    • We discussed the danger of dialling up the focus on EDI too much, or “ghettoizing” it within its own boundaries, to the point that it risks becoming a completely isolated strand of work that ends up moving people away from addressing the wider culture and behaviours of a company, which is what EDI initiatives are largely about.
    • Someone spoke about the work of a behavioural scientist, who is encouraging public institutions to move away from having separate strands of EDI work (such as committees, working groups etc) and instead to move towards embedding inclusive thinking into everything they do across the company. In short, EDI should be a central concept to every program.
  • The other side of this argument is that we’re simply not there yet. While living in a world where we don’t need to give EDI it’s own platform is where we ultimately want to be, we’re not going to get there until someone/organisations are actively driving it.
    • This was equated to the gender equality issue, which has certainly needed (and continues to need) a voice in order to see tangible progress being made.
  • So we discussed the importance of talking about EDI and opening people’s eyes, raising discussions around perceptions, assumptions, invisible differences, and all of the other things mentioned above, to really move the needle in the ways we want.

As our discussion evolved, one key thread emerged – the importance of storytelling. Wherever people are on their EDI journey, what became clear is that there is huge value in being able to share multiple stories in multiple ways. From lived experiences to hard data, ensuring that we can internally communicate the journey we’re on through a clear narrative can not only help engage our teams, but can add a layer of shared understanding.

And sharing people’s individual experiences feels like a really powerful way of communicating how and why EDI is important. It can enable a shared understanding of everything ‘differences’ might encompass, it can educate people about the invisible barriers being experienced by some, and importantly, it can create a culture where people feel comfortable talking about EDI,  which in turn can motivate them to engage with the work being done. This can ultimately drive progress and help us all move the EDI agenda forward.

Above all, this candid and practically-focused conversation reiterated that we’re all heading in the right direction, asking the right questions, and taking the right steps to ensure that our teams understand and are engaging with our EDI efforts.

 

The next Tech In Culture EDI Alliance Partner Forum is taking place on Thursday 30th September (read more about the Alliance and how to join).

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, just drop us an email, we’d love to hear from you: team@substrakt.com


Sunil Jindal is the UK Country Head at Diversio. Diversio are a data-driven platform that have managed to convert “inclusive culture” into an actual framework of metrics and their approach has been used at organisations internationally, in both public and private sector (find out more about their work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee_zYe6YKvk).

Gill Cooke is an authority on inclusion culture, leading engagement work at Three Mobile. Gill also founded and runs the STEM Connext  community, which puts on events targeted around EDI in tech.