I recently heard someone describe internal communications as, “constantly having sh*t thrown at you.”
It’s true. We are at the center of organizational strategy, operations, leadership, brand, IT, and people/HR. We add context to motivate and inspire employees as they sift through a mountain of information while trying to do their jobs.
Another friend recently said to me, “You’re like the news media of our organization. What’s fake news?” Internal communications professionals decide what gets shared broadly, how it gets shared, and the spin on the story. But, who am I?
We have an incredible responsibility. It is easy to unintentionally hoard this power by making assumptions about what people need to know or choosing the most convenient channels in which to communicate.
I recently attended an interactive webinar on “The Equity Lens,” which is a part of the Chats for Change series hosted by the Department of Medical Education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. They defined equity as, “Everyone getting the support they need to thrive.”
Equity=everyone getting the support they need to thrive.
Internal communications deeply influence organizational culture. That culture is what allows people access to the information they need to thrive. That culture provides the security and confidence that allows employees to speak up.
During the webinar, the hosts Leona Hess and Ann-Gel Palermo challenged us to consider many questions about how our work helps or hinders equity. You can see the questions at the bottom of this article. From those questions, I’ve come up with a few action items for internal communications professionals who want to improve equity and inclusion at their organization.
1. Assess whom you include and whom you exclude with your channels. I work in a hospital. Our managers and administrative employees spend their days tethered to email. Our nurses, doctors, and support staff may check email, but spending time on email can distract from their real work--caring for patients. Look at organizational environments and create channels that integrate with them at all levels. Falling back on limited, “easy” channels is a form of power hoarding; we are reinforcing system barriers by keeping information among those privileged with the time and technology to find and view that information.
Falling back on limited, “easy” channels is a form of power hoarding; we are reinforcing system barriers by keeping information among those privileged with the time and technology to find and view that information.
2. Trickle-down communications work as well as trickle-down economics. A communications workflow often starts from the top and goes through many leadership approvals before distribution. Many messages must come from the top, but leaders work from a privileged place. What resonates with them may not resonate with employees. What they see as important may not actually make an employee work more effectively, nor does it automatically give the employee “the support they need to thrive.” We have a responsibility to question leadership. We also have a responsibility to question our own assumptions about what people need. As Daven Rosener of GreenMegaphone said in his recent article, we need to be “Audience Matter Experts.”
3. Organize, encourage, and own feedback channels. This ties into #1 and #2. To find out what people need to thrive, open up two-way channels that are accessible and integrated with workflows at all levels of the organization. Ensure these two-way channels are safe and accessible for voices that haven’t historically been a part of the dominant narrative. Set the foundation for sharing by encouraging leaders to show vulnerability. Fully support these channels with the resources to listen to marginalized voices and follow up.
4. Entertain every idea. This one is personally painful for me. Because my department is small, I am resistant to the idea that I must consider participating in or promoting every initiative sent my way. I admit that I am much more likely to squeeze your message in our fleet of communications if I know you and understand your role in our organization. But, my relationships are limited. There are likely other stories worth sharing. And remember, organizational strategy is defined from a place of privilege. Find the time to see what else is out there and how it can serve the needs of the organization and your employees. Practice ”yes, and.” Ask questions. Promote the employee voice. As Russell Norton of scarlettabbott said, “IC teams make great allies for minority groups in the organisation, offering a platform to voices that aren’t heard as often.”
Organizational strategy is defined from a place of privilege.
5. Standardize the path. As internal communications professionals, we always do our best to get the right information to the right people at the right time. Chances are that we will get it wrong sometimes. Therefore, it’s important to create pathways that make it easy for employees to access desired information, whether or not we’ve pushed it to their inbox or their bulletin board. The simplest example of this is having an organized and user-friendly repository of information (in many cases an intranet or enterprise social network).
6. Spend more time with the people leading teams. Lindsay Uittenbogaard of Mirror Mirror recently wrote about getting off the content “hamster wheel” because often, broad content isn’t relevant to individuals. How do we make sure our communications are relevant to different teams in our organization? We must rely on managers to fill in the gaps. Communications professionals can spend more time coaching and supporting managers to help them communicate with employees in ways that are meaningful and in the unique context of their teams.
It’s important to create pathways that make it easy for employees to access desired information, whether or not we’ve pushed it to their inbox or their bulletin board.
These are not new tactics for internal communications professionals, but they take on new weight when thinking about our role in advancing equity in the workplace. Ann-Gel and Leona suggested we think about our sphere of power and influence when pondering this work. The tactics above are ideal steps internal communications professionals can take, provided they work closely with leadership and are positioned with the tools and partnerships to make these things happen.
This is the work that can change not only organizations but the world.
What other ways do you see internal communications influencing inclusion and equity in the workplace?
Here are a few of my favorite questions from The Equity Lens webinar. You can download the full list by clicking below.
What is your purpose toward achieving racial equity? | How are we meaningfully including or excluding people (communities of color/POC) who are affected? | What gets in the way? | How is power showing up?
The ideas expressed in this article are my own and not that of my employer.