As DEI gets a second look, what happens to DEI communications?

Earlier this year, the New York Times published DEI Goes Quiet, noting a shift in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) environment since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. But while public sentiment remains split, many companies are actually expanding DEI efforts (57%, according to a survey of C-suite executives).

Which leaves communicators in a tough spot: how to be inclusive in communications while also acknowledging that not everyone in the workplace is on the same page when it comes to DEI.

A few words of caution:

Beware of churning waters and changing currents: DEI language is constantly evolving. Values and culture shift over time, so what’s appropriate today maybe not be in another few years. Remember when “hearing-impaired” replaced the term “deaf”? Today, the suggested term is “person with hearing loss.” As our diverse world evolves, be mindful that language may change.

Try not to replace one word with ten: One of the unintended consequences of DEI language can be a tendency toward wordiness. A more appropriate use of the term mentally ill now is “person living with a mental illness.” OK, but consider “grandfathered in” (a figure of speech now considered off-limits). Coming up with a concise alternative is just about impossible.

Don’t lose the emotional connection: “The unhoused” is another term that’s now used to replace “homeless” – because being “-less” of something could imply a deficit. The sentiment is valid and respectful, but to some, the term “unhoused” could also sound impersonal and clinical.

Consider that including some may exclude others: The journalist Nicholas Kristoff recently made this observation: When we employ terms like “Latinx” and “A.A.P.I.” or we fret that it is offensive to refer to “the French” or “the college-educated” or we cite “people with uteruses” rather than “women,” the result is meant to be inclusive but actually leaves many Americans feeling bewildered and excluded.

Don’t try to boil the ocean:  Although DEI communication is important, we need to stay focused on what really matters. Try not to overthink it, and don’t try to fix everything. Do your best to be clear, concise, and fair in communications and accept that any communication might provoke a reaction in someone.

Some tips for communicating in the new DEI environment

The effort to create a more inclusive vocabulary – free of value judgments, shaming and cruelty – is both admirable and desirable. But like many well-intentioned goals, executing can be challenging. Here are some general guidelines for navigating this challenging terrain:

  • DEI is not “one size fits all.” What is acceptable to one person or organization may be offensive to another person or organization.
  • Aim for language that is commonly understood. Terms that people in your organization may understand (neurotypical, Latinx, intersex, PWDs, etc.) are not necessarily part of your audience’s vocabulary. Use terms that are in our everyday language – or, if that isn’t workable, provide a brief definition.
  • Context is important. In striving to neutralize our vocabulary, we risk draining richness and emotion from our language, which may not always be desirable.
  • Today’s acceptable language could be tomorrow’s taboo. In this highly fluid environment, general guidelines – as opposed to mandated terminology – for DEI communication may be the most practical approach. Codifying vocabulary can be a time-consuming endeavor that distracts from your strategic communication goals.

Bottom line is you can’t please everyone. With so many stakeholders involved around DEI, there’s no definitive answer to using the “right” words. Focus on the message and the context, use your best judgment, and be okay that missteps can happen.

Do you need help with DEI communications? Contact us today.