COMMUNICATING DIVERSITY’S VALUE
Best practice ideas from professional insurance communicators
By Dave Willis, CPIA
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been an increasingly important topic of discussion—in society and in the insurance arena, as well. Carriers maintain departments and/or senior staff to intentionally manage D&I in their firms. Agents groups have initiatives to address the issues. And other organizations have brought together people around diversity and inclusion.
This past summer, amid civil unrest and protests over racial inequality and police brutality, the Insurance Marketing & Communications Association (IMCA) hosted an online event to bring workplace diversity and inclusion front and center. IMCA is a 98-year-old group representing 120-plus general agencies, specialty and regional insurers, brokerage firms, and others in the business.
During the event, insurance communication and marketing professionals candidly discussed best communication practices, lessons learned, and challenges ahead for organizations striving to build and sustain diverse and inclusive cultures. The group released a report based on the event that addresses the three discussion areas.
The report points out that organizations across the country are grappling with the idea of diversity as a human rights issue and are exploring more closely what it means to truly value and embrace differences in all settings, including the workplace. “Valuing diversity has the potential to impact all levels of an organization,” it says. “More diverse teams give businesses a competitive advantage and increase satisfaction as employees are encouraged to bring their full potential to work, offering a wider variety of skills and talent while driving greater creativity and innovation.”
Best practices and ideas
Event participants pointed out that effective communication is a company’s greatest tool in rallying employees toward embracing diversity in the workplace. The role of communicators is to give diverse groups a voice and sense of belonging within the organization while informing, educating, and supporting all employees to adopt inclusive attitudes. The report identifies nine points that drive solid communication around D&I:
- Start at the top. Executive commitment is vital. Top execs must show up, lead the way, and demonstrate how important open conversations are about complicated issues. While many C-suites still lack diverse voices, leaders must be invited to the table as allies, able to fully understand and articulate why diversity and inclusion are important. Executive leaders may find corporate storytelling focused on real-world employee experiences to be powerful. Some organizations create short videos where employees communicate their passion for and commitment to diversity; knowing that friends and peers are invested encourages others to get involved and consider the issue more deeply.
- Work from the inside out. With senior leaders on board, keep the workplace informed through email, blogs, and videos about actions planned and taken. When developing internal messaging, consider partnering with diverse writers/editors who can spot implicit bias or other non-inclusive language. Taking time up front to disseminate quality information internally lets employees act as message ambassadors. Providing unified, clear talking points ensures that peers and clients get a consistent message.
- Put in the work. When internal messaging is consistent and clear, employees can better reflect publicly the value of diversity and inclusion. Employees tend to be excited about working for organizations that embrace diversity and build it into the culture. Donating to organizations doing important community work can demonstrate commitment. Support talk with action. Investing in professional associations that employees are part of, like the National African American Insurance Association, can translate as an investment in employee development, inclusion, and diversity.
- Navigate external messaging. Many companies grapple with whether and how to address diversity externally because of perceived risk. Establishing internal initiatives first mitigates that risk. However, before using broad external messaging platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn, ask if the information is better suited for a more focused, internal audience. Sticking to facts and removing emotion without removing the humanity of a message helps provide clarity, especially where politics overlay many intertwined issues. Remember, external messaging is consumed by employees who want it to align with what they hear internally.
- It’s not just about race. Tunnel vision can derail efforts at consistent messaging and initiative building. Race is currently in the forefront, but many aspects make us different: background, gender, age, mindset, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and more. Keep the big picture in mind so others aren’t excluded based on a too-narrow focus.
- Embed diversity in recruiting and hiring. Communicating the importance of diversity and inclusion means reshaping hiring/recruiting practices. Collaborating with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other organizations to expand and diversify recruiting expands the hiring pool. Increase diversity too by launching internship programs with community colleges, enabling students with varied backgrounds to consider insurance careers. Follow hiring with high-quality training and mentorship that drive growth.
- Ask for outside help. With long-term strategic planning and initiative development, communicating the value of diversity will be more like a marathon than a sprint. Diversity consultants and professional speakers can help with training sessions, developing large-scale initiatives, creating diversity councils, leading executive development programs, or consulting about recruitment strategies.
- Facilitate employee discussions. Employee discussion groups, led by invested leaders, strive to facilitate confidential, small-group discussions about D&I issues. Intended as safe spaces, these groups are great places to actively listen and learn how to be a workplace ally or consider areas of possible personal and corporate improvement. Some companies use enterprise social networking services (e.g., Yammer) to help employees engage with one another. Best results come when people are allowed/encouraged to share their experiences.
- Build on employee interest and investment. People of all ages are passionate about diversity, but Millennials and Gen Z are especially excited about working for tangible change that makes a difference in the present. They often embrace the idea of service, and some companies are communicating the value of diversity by offering a set number of annual service hours that employees can use to celebrate holidays like Juneteenth or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A recent survey shows that 75% of Millennials will likely leave an organization that does not meet their expectations for D&I.
Hindsight and foresight
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. Looking back with more knowledge and a clearer perspective, session professionals could see where diversity communication strategies may have gone astray. Lessons learned after looking back include:
- Start the conversation earlier and act faster. When an issue isn’t being discussed, it’s easy to assume everyone is on the same page. That’s not necessarily true. Unsure of how to respond to last summer’s protests around race inequality, many in the industry waited to respond, frustrating and confusing employees. Promptly develop internal and external messaging that employees can share as a unified message when they’re unsure how to speak in the right way. It also can be difficult to know exactly where to focus effort and energy. Juneteenth is one area where some are unsure what to do internally and externally. Going forward, make it a point to add awareness days, external events or initiatives, or significant days for diverse groups to the internal communications calendar.
- Check your language. Words can divide as quickly as they unite, as some in the industry discovered through social media backlash. While it’s a legal requirement to ensure organizational language isn’t discriminatory, it’s also a moral issue with the power to show people inside and outside the company that it’s truly an inclusive and welcoming place to work. Choosing your language carefully also makes good business sense. For example, using the wrong language in recruitment can deter strong candidates from applying. Using non-inclusive language or failing to match inclusive language with action can also cause public embarrassment. When in doubt, have language reviewed by others with a diverse perspective. Going forward, viewing every part of an organization through the lens of diversity and inclusion presents challenges. Communicating and educating others about differences, and then delivering consistently inclusive messaging, requires ongoing effort.
Challenges IMCA members discussed include:
- Loss of momentum in culture building. Understanding the need to make room for every voice, it can seem daunting to maintain momentum needed to provide equal opportunity and representation to all. Keeping the big picture in mind requires continuous engagement and active listening. As workplaces become more diverse, keeping talent requires creating a sustainable environment of inclusion. Organizations must feel welcoming and open to the opinions of employees by offering opportunities for continued engagement.
- Communicating organizational values to clients. Clients are inquiring about partner stances on D&I. This will happen more often in the future, and vague statements unsupported by measurable action won’t cut it.
The report concludes by acknowledging that communicating about diversity opens the door to scrutiny of the places where we have more work to do. “It can be a fine line to walk, but it’s a topic too important to ignore. Businesses can’t afford to remain silent as society cries for change. Communicators must continue to create space, give each individual a voice, and tell the better story.”
For more information:
Insurance Marketing & Communications Association