As organizations communicate with their staff, they must be mindful to make sure messaging is inclusive. Part of that strategy is acknowledging what’s currently happening in the world.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many associations can only communicate with their staff virtually. While organizations want to provide a unifying message to staff, new research indicates that some communication may not be inclusive to all staff—and may even do harm.
Eva Pietri, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the IUPUI School of Science, conducted research in April—as many employees were in their early weeks of working from home—to look at whether certain communications from managers felt inclusive.
Pietri, whose research typically focuses on communication for diverse populations, said she wanted to look at how the messages would come across to black female employees. The research looked at messages from white managers and black managers directed at the subset of employees.
Pietri’s research showed that the messages most well-received were those that talked about the company caring about the employee, making an employee’s work-from-home life better, and the employee’s safety.
“Messages included things like making sure everyone had a Zoom account, providing computers to staff that didn’t have them, emphasizing employee safety and how that was their top priority,” Pietri said. “We did find that the things participants appreciated most focused on employee safety and making sure people had the resources they need to be successful.”
Where things hit a snag is when messages didn’t just acknowledge that everyone was struggling but also included information about the manager’s own personal struggles. While it was posited sharing their own struggles would create closeness between staff and managers, it made a difference who was sharing the message.
While employees were receptive to the message when the person was of the same race, a white manager discussing their personal struggles did not go over well with the black recipients in the research. “We either found that it was harmful or didn’t have any effect,” Pietri said. “They perceived [the manager] as less of an ally.”
While the research is still preliminary, Pietri said it suggests that managers need to recognize that different populations are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“Be careful about focusing too much on a personal struggle,” Pietri said. “Be willing to acknowledge there is variability in who is harmed.”
Her newer research will be fine tuning which messages work best, though she suspects ones that acknowledge that staff may be experiencing the pandemic differently will rise to the top.
“So many things are changing in our society,” Pietri said. “When we ran this study, it was right at the time the CDC started releasing differences on health disparities with COVID-19. We reasoned that, given the context, messages associated with personal struggle might have been perceived as ignoring what was happening.”
Pietri noted that current research is informed by past work and recognizes that being thrust into the virtual environment requires a new look at traditional concepts. “With the work we have done in the past, we have looked at who in leadership positions promote this diversity and inclusion,” she said. “That’s not a concrete ask that they can take in today’s virtual environment.”
In addition, she said previous work has shown that video can convey messages better than text, as genuine empathy shows through in that medium. “If someone is likable, you see more of the likable traits,” Pietri said. “If there is warmth, that really comes through.”
As organizations move forward with their communications, be mindful to acknowledge what’s happening so messaging is inclusive of the entire staff. “If they don’t recognize the human impact of what happens, what impact will that have?” she said.
What kinds of messaging has your organization been sending to staff during the remote work period? Share in the comments.