Brands must make all employees feel they belong – and marketers can help

Many organisations’ efforts at diversity and inclusion are short-lived and tokenistic – driving real change requires recruiting to reflect society and tolerating no harassment.

It is a widely held view that being at a company where you are valued, and where your contribution is the main factor in your progression, is where most of us aspire to work. Surely that, then, is the ambition of every company and the main emphasis of the company culture?

Sadly, many of our interviews for our new book Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work highlighted that this is not the case. All too frequently, we came across accounts of workplaces where any initiative designed to drive diversity and inclusion was either tied to one specific event – International Women’s Day, Pride, Black History Month – or consisted of a series of disjointed projects, possibly including a few hours of training, a parade of outside speakers and an attempt at mentoring that only lasted a short time.

Put social impact in your annual plan

The outcome of all this activity? Hard to pin down – and no-one could pin down exactly why all this time and effort didn’t generate change. Frankly, everyone involved was getting a bit tired and bored of it all.

If you are someone who falls into the ‘diversity’ segment, it can feel like it’s one damned thing after another and the dial doesn’t move. If you are part of the team trying to create a change, it can feel as if you are trying to take down the Alps using a teaspoon. Noise, weariness and a sense of a truly intractable problem makes you feel that things might never shift.

At no stage did these initiatives feel as if there was a drive from the very top of the organisation to make changes permanent or transformative. ‘Box-ticking’ was the phrase used to describe those places where inclusion has been acknowledged but not embraced. Our unique research for the book, conducted by Dynata, shows that 52% of people at work don’t fully believe that the leader of the business takes personal responsibility for diversity and inclusion. 

There are many reasons why this key issue hasn’t been a success story within companies and why there is still work to do. One of them is that the very senior teams know they should be doing it but aren’t sure how. Seeing it as an HR issue only is to abdicate the key role that the C-suite needs to play in driving change.

Yes, you may make mistakes, but creating the environment where everyone plays a role can minimise this happening. Because this is an issue and a cause for everyone in the company to be part of, as only with the active participation of everyone can you expect to develop workplace behaviours and a culture where people feel that thy belong.

Marketing driving change

Marketing teams can play a key role in this. You, after all, are the public face of the brand to your customers. You know everything about why people choose your brand above all others and the consumers that you serve. Your colleagues know that some of their friends and family will get a thrill from seeing the company where they work out there, talking to consumers. They see how you present your brand and they want to feel proud.

That is why marketing can play the key role in not just trumpeting a cause, but driving it; being truly reflective of the communities and customers that you serve, rather than thinking that you know what they want and expect from you. The role that marketing can have in playing back an insightful and involving vision is not to be underestimated.

If you are part of the team trying to create a change, it can feel as if you are trying to take down the Alps using a teaspoon.

Recruiting for diversity in your team is crucial to delivering authentically inclusive communications. If you choose to make your team a reflection of the diversity in your audience – or, if that isn’t possible right now, you seek out insight and input from those you aim to talk to – your voice and actions will be authentic and resonant.

It is also important to ensure that there is zero tolerance of behaviour that diminishes anyone’s sense of belonging to the company or to your team. Our research shows that one in three people in the UK at work have personally experienced harassment, bias or inappropriate behaviour at work; 37% have witnessed this, but this rises to 48% of people employed in marketing and public relations. Changes are needed, both to eliminate the behaviour, but also to allow people who witness such behaviour to challenge it safely. 

If everyone takes a stand, then our industry can change, and change for the better. McKinsey research shows that companies in the best quartile for diversity deliver 35% better returns. In the uncertain and volatile times that we are facing, this is more needed than ever. 

There are lots of case studies and shared experiences in our book, together with specific exercises for ensuring that no-one feels left out, how to challenge safely and how to get the most from everyone in your team.

Together we can create a better, kinder workplace in 2021.

Kathryn Jacob OBE is CEO of Pearl and Dean. Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom.

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