Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is a key issue in modern business practices and has been viewed through various disciplinary lenses. In a corporate setting, managing DE&I involves acknowledging and valuing the diverse attributes that contribute to each employee’s unique identity. These attributes include not only demographic factors like gender, age, and race, but also social and cognitive aspects such as cultural background, personal values, skills, and working styles.

From a managerial perspective, DE&I is treated as a strategic process. The goal is to harness the full potential and talents of all employees, thereby fostering an inclusive workplace. This not only enhances individual well-being but also drives the organization’s overall success by aligning with its goals.

The significance of DE&I is increasingly recognized globally, spurred by several key factors:

–Sociodemographic shifts
–The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
–Increased awareness of work-life balance, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic
–Rising expectations for business sustainability

Focusing on Italy, the Center for Employee Relations and Communication (CERC) at Università IULM has conducted research titled “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: State of the Art in Italian Companies.” This study includes both qualitative and quantitative analyses carried out in 2022 and 2023, respectively. It explores how Italian companies are actively engaging with DE&I challenges and opportunities.

The qualitative part of the study involved four focus groups and two individual interviews, gathering insights from 21 professionals who held either DE&I or internal communication roles across 13 companies.

The quantitative research was carried out via an online survey conducted between July and September 2023. It targeted professionals at Italian companies who were either formally or informally responsible for DE&I. A total of 103 responses were collected. The survey was designed to delve into various aspects of corporate DE&I engagement:

–Reasons for initiating DE&I efforts
–Goals set by companies in the DE&I domain
–Focus areas within the diversity spectrum
–Implemented actions and managerial methods
–Outcomes of the implemented actions
–Evolution of management approaches concerning DE&I
–Employee involvement at different organizational levels

The findings from the CERC study highlighted three primary functions of internal communication in advancing DE&I:

–Information Dissemination: Internal communication is crucial for informing employees about DE&I policies and practices. It helps ensure that all staff are aware of the company’s commitment.
–Supporting Cultural Change: Effective communication is vital for fostering cultural shifts within an organization. It supports the transition towards more inclusive practices and behaviors, which are essential for achieving DE&I objectives.
–Engaging with Internal Stakeholders: Listening to employees is a key function of internal communication. It helps companies to understand and address the specific needs and concerns of their workforce regarding DE&I.

Tools and Initiatives for Effective Communication

The study highlights several methods that Italian companies are using to formalize and communicate their DE&I commitment:

–Official Declarations: Written statements that institutionalize the company’s commitment to DE&I.
–Events and Activities: Both physical and digital events play a significant role by facilitating relational and experiential communication, enhancing engagement with DE&I themes.
–Digital Platforms: Utilization of corporate TV, intranets, and apps to create spaces and content focused on DE&I, ensuring continuous engagement and accessibility.

Addressing Internal Criticisms

The survey also shed light on the internal criticisms faced by DE&I initiatives:

–Perception of More Urgent Issues: Some employees feel that there are more immediate problems that need addressing, suggesting a need for DE&I efforts to be contextualized within broader organizational priorities.
–Cynicism Towards DE&I Efforts: There is a perception that some actions are superficial or trend-driven rather than genuine, which can undermine the credibility of DE&I initiatives.
–Denial of Discrimination: A segment of the workforce believes that discrimination is not an issue, indicating a gap in awareness or recognition of DE&I challenges.
From the CERC survey, external communication appears less relevant than employee communication. This prioritization stems from the understanding that a robust internal DE&I framework must be established before engaging with external audiences, to avoid the risk of “diversity washing.”

In conclusion, the success of DE&I initiatives is deeply linked to effective employee communication. It is through employee communication that cultural transformations within organizations are facilitated. Therefore, developing an inclusive culture internally is heavily dependent on leveraging strong employee communication strategies. This insight was also supported by the qualitative analysis conducted by CERC. The companies involved in the study emphasized that effective DE&I efforts require robust communication. Notably, in some organizations, the roles of employee communication and DE&I responsibilities are held by the same individual, further illustrating the integral role of internal communication in promoting DE&I initiatives.

Alessandra Mazzei is Director of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at Università IULM in Milan, where she is also Coordinator of the Bachelor Program in Corporate Communication and Public Relations. Her main research interests are: employee communication and engagement; organizational voice, silence and dissent; whistleblowing; diversity & inclusion; and internal crisis communication.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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