How to use storytelling to build a DEI workplace?

I was fortunate to have lived in South Africa for a couple of years as part of work. During those years, I met people of different colours and races. The blacks, the whites, the coloured, the Indian Indians, the South African Indians etc… A nation that’s as diverse as it could get. There is a reason South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation. Once the apartheid regime came to an end in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela and the new rulers of South Africa had an important charter – to make South Africa an equal place for all. It was one of the biggest experiments on building a diverse, equitable and inclusive nation.

Trevor Noah writes in his autobiographical, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African childhood, “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”

To build a DEI safe workplace, the first step is to appreciate and recognize the person or the group of people as a human being(s). This is where the power of storytelling helps to build a DEI safe workplace.

So how to go about it? The following are the 3 ways an organization can start and build its DEI initiatives.

Employee story groups – a safe place to share
Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team Authentic and transparent stories from leaders

Employee story groups – a safe place to share

To create a diverse and inclusive workplace, there must be a safe place for people to share and be heard without judgement. This is a place to hear out different perspectives in an engaged and empathetic manner. Personal stories of others can be an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, recognize the conscious biases and be aware of the unconscious biases. This creates a cascading effect that results in behaviour change.

An HBR article shares the following methods to use the power of storytelling to build an inclusive workplace.

  • Do a round-robin question in a meeting
  • Hold listening sessions
  • Host discussion-heavy book clubs
  • Schedule storytelling town halls
  • Include stories in blogs, videos, celebrations, promotions, and onboarding
  • Share survey results that show negative perceptions and harmful treatment
  • Have social forums and meetups
  • Develop dynamic social media campaigns that share stories

Most of the time, people underestimate what they have gone through or think that their experience is not worthy enough to share. They need to be reassured that the expectation is to share a real story but not something that is dramatic or perfect.

Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team

Employees get fired up on stories that come from their peers rather than leaders. But most of the time, organizations share leadership talks on DEI instead of employee stories.

Programs like this should also take into consideration of the various aspects like current geographical presence, ethnic and racial aspects, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, women in general and any specific groups like single mothers, mental health & wellness etc.

Another important aspect is to set a goal and track progress on critical metrics. It could be on demographics, diversity hiring at every level of the organization, retention and promotion rates of the focus groups, usage of the DEI resources etc. Periodic reporting at employee townhalls will show the commitment of the leadership and be helpful in raising the bar on accountability.

Leadership storytelling to build a DEI workplace

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook came out in open to disclose his sexual identity in 2014. This was the first time a leading CEO was open about being gay. His decision to come out in public was after receiving several letters from children struggling with their sexual orientation. He went on to say, “I’m not saying that I understand the trials and tribulations of every minority group because I don’t. But I do understand for one of the groups. And to the degree that it helps give you a lens on how other people may feel, I think that’s a gift in and of itself.”

Leadership commitment to DEI programs should go beyond approving such initiatives or giving a budget for that. They have a critical role in making sure DEI programs are given the same importance as any other business initiative. They can do that by playing an active role in the events organized by employee groups.

Being part of the employee groups, can help leaders with awareness, create meaningful connections with different interest groups, develop empathy and mutual respect.

Over time, most leaders take on professional identity and somewhere along the way drop their personal identities. Employees look for authenticity, transparency, and the layered character of their leaders to make them relatable. Personal stories of the leaders expose their personal self.

Some of the ways to dig into personal DEI stories could be,

  1. Think about the time when you had to fit in or feel pressured to conform
  2. An instance where you discovered your bias and how you overcame it?
  3. Were there situations that your background/privilege got you a different treatment than someone else?
  4. Occasions where you saw a bias play out
  5. Did someone in power help you at the workplace?

In summary,

When we share stories that show why we believe certain things and why we behave the way we do, we open up and show our value systems. We may not agree on all matters but acknowledging the other human being with compassion and empathy is all we need to drive change.

An organization that is serious in their DEI approach would start to see the following changes in their workforce,

  1. There will be a sense of warmth and empathy in the way we relate to people and their journey
  2. People start to be open up to diverse thoughts and become intent listeners
  3. Be thankful for being open in sharing their personal stories – this shows that one is heard
  4. Finding ways to improve the safe space for different employee groups

I learnt some valuable lessons on building an equitable and inclusive workplace from my experience in South Africa. I went around 2018, a good 15 yrs since the abolition of the apartheid era. While a lot could have been better, there are changes for good to the section of people who were in disadvantaged position during the apartheid era. If a nation with all the complexities in political, economical and cultural aspects can bring about this change, organisations that are serious can transform with the power of storytelling to build a DEI safe workplace.

10 Employer Brand Storytelling Strategies in 2022

In the US alone, there are a record 10.1 million open jobs as per US govt job data. While the UK faced the worst staff shortage since 1997 per a Guardian news report. A LinkedIn and Microsoft survey found 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer. These statistics point to the spike in demand for qualified people, while employers are in a spot to retain and recruit talent, making employer brand storytelling critical in 2022. In 2020, when COVID hit upon us, several companies took a knee jerk reaction by laying off a record number of people. 81 million people lost their jobs in Asia in 2020 while over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in March 2020 alone.

The need for employer branding

In 2 years, there is a role reversal happening as a record number of employees are leaving their jobs. The industry is calling this the “Great resignation” movement.

2021 was when the role reversal started. Internal employee surveys, exit interviews and industry surveys revealed some hard-hitting insights.

They were,

  1. Employees wanted to enjoy their job over working for a well-known company
  2. When a company led with purpose, their employees were more likely to work for them
  3. 41% of employees in America said, they would not work for an organization that failed to speak about racism

Besides, the traditional motivators like pay, ping-pong tables & free snacks lost their appeal. Employers are forced to transform their employee value proposition in a way like repairing the plane when it’s flying.

How to go about employer brand storytelling?

In the new normal, employers need to talk about the “here and now” vs how their company was cool earlier.

Hence employer brand storytelling needs to cover areas like,

  1. How an employer cared for their employees during the pandemic?
  2. What is it like to work for your organization, right now?
  3. What employees are saying about their employer?

Several pieces must come together for a cohesive and compelling employer branding strategy. It includes an organization’s purpose, values, employee value proposition, their take on inclusivity and diversity etc… It also needs to include channels to reach prospective candidates, content, formats, interview experience to name a few.

Here are 10 employer brand storytelling strategies for a solid employer branding approach.

Show how your company responded during uncertain times

The last couple of years has shown the importance of adopting a humane approach in times of uncertainty. It could be how the company managed through tough times, how a team faced a challenging situation and overcame it, or what the company did for an employee-specific life-or-death situation.

When candidates know about how a company cared for their people during the worst times, they come to realize the company values are real and not just words on their website.

Role-based storytelling

Instead of adopting the standard job description, asking real employees in a specific role to articulate what his/her day looks like, connecting how his/her job impacts their customer/organizations goal by talking in a language specific to the role can make an employer stand out.

This format of storytelling creates a deeper impact and connection with candidates as it will be far more engaging. Candidates will also know from the experience of their prospective colleagues how it is to perform in that role.

Authentic stories from leadership

When leaders come forward and share stories of their journey or their vulnerable moments, candidates relate with them and in fact will want to work with them. Today’s employees want to work for an empathetic organization, there is no better way to showcase the humaneness of an organization than stories from leaders.

Leadership stories go a long way in building a credible employer brand.

Stories of remote or hybrid workplace to build employer brand

A significant number of candidates want a flexible workplace and the option to decide where and how they will work.

Employers need to adapt content across the careers page to the job descriptions to show how remote/hybrid workplace is being practised.

Until the pandemic, offices that had cool features like open spaces, fully stocked kitchens, nap rooms and creative office perks were the rage. But now, it’s time to show how your employees are utilizing flexibility at work, what their home office looks like, how you are enabling them to work from anywhere and their life both within and outside the office.

What does it mean to be a working parent and working for you?

A lot of women left their jobs or were laid off during the pandemic for many reasons. Primary among them is taking care of family or difficulty in managing both work and family. Due to the spike in demand for jobs, they are an important constituent now.

For the working parent group, stories of how an employer is supporting them with flexible time options, adapted career paths or even how the meetings are scheduled in consideration of a working parent will speak volumes about the flexibility in practice.

Show stories on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in practice

A solid employer branding approach has an always-on DEI component. It’s not about flipping that logo to pink in February in support of women’s month or having a rainbow background in June to support PRIDE month.

With careful preparation and thoughtful execution, a company need to tap into their various interest groups to capture their stories. This will position the employer as inclusive.

Amplifying stories of employee rewards & recognition

Employee recognition and retention go hand in hand. Organizations that have solid employee rewards & recognition programs are better off in managing the current talent tsunami.

By capturing the stories of employees who succeeded at the workplace and were rewarded, companies can turn employees into their brand ambassadors. This helps organisations to attract talent from their employee networks, as they share it among their networks.

3rd party review-site based content

Prospective employees generally believe when employees share their stories on their networks or on independent review sites such as Glassdoor, Comparably etc.

These sites are considered to be collecting employee opinions without bias. Reviews on these sites carry more credibility than those on the career portals of the companies.

Companies need to take a very concerted effort in nudging employees to rate them on these review sites. By bringing in gamification elements to these programs, companies can influence their employees to review more often.

Capturing alumni stories for employer brand storytelling

We have seen statements like, “Once a Googler always a Googler”. But how often do organizations pay attention to their alumni or involve them as part of their employer branding?

When a company promotes the success of its alumni, their credibility as a trusted employer and a company to work for increases multifold. This shows their intent of caring about their employee growth even after they left them. Beyond that, there is also a goodwill and network effect that is bound to happen which adds a lot of value to employer branding efforts.

Articulate company values through employee stories

Almost every other company talks about their mission, purpose values etc on their website and careers blog. They are in general less humanized and are jargon. Companies can capture stories of values in action from their employees to clarify brand messaging. The same could be used in employee onboarding, career sections on the website and social media channels.

This should be an ongoing program across the year to create a value stories repository. To be holistic, stories also should be across the spectrum from sales to engineering and from entry-level to leadership.

In summary, while employer branding is a critical element in attracting talent, not every candidate or employer is the same. Candidates are becoming much more aware of what they want. In a market where candidates have the upper edge, employer brand storytelling can help in attracting the right candidates.

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