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Podcast: Internal Comms as Diversity and Inclusion leaders

Podcast: Internal Comms as Diversity and Inclusion leaders

Jonathan Davies


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42 mins read

Tue, Jul 7, '20  

2020 has proven to be a year of change, but change can’t be driven forward without a movement.

The recent waves of demonstrations against racism ignited by the murder of George Floyd have reopened the wounds of millions of people worldwide, and have shown us that if anything, there is but a long path to walk towards equal justice and opportunity for all.  The truth of the matter is that historical issues of this magnitude demand a complete paradigm shift, and businesses have a large responsibility to shine a light on the problems that afflict our society, recognize their mistakes, analyze what can be improved, and set the right course to help bring about change one step at a time. 

In this episode, we are joined by Vessy Tasheva, founder of Vessy.com, a culture and D&I consultancy operating from Dublin. Vessy was named one of the most influential D&I Leaders worldwide by Hive Learning in 2019, and carries with her personal and professional experience which offers individuals and organizations alike an essential reality check. Join us for an enlightening dialogue about what the future holds for the organizations eager to improve, and join a global movement to help bring change. You can listen, watch the podcast, or read the full transcript down below. We hope you appreciate this conversation as much as we did.

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Jonathan: Welcome to the Internal Communications podcast!

Vessy: Hey, thank you for having me. 

Jonathan: We got in touch because I've been getting a lot of requests from Internal Communicators within my network who’ve been asking me about diversity and inclusion. It’s a very big topic in our company. We've had kind of a wake-up call given the current circumstances, and our company really wants to take an active stance in doing something about this, but we don't really know where to start. I said, well, I can't really help you because I'm a very plain, boring white male. I have nothing to add on this subject, but thankfully I know somebody who's really good at this.

It would be amazing if you could introduce yourself to our audience because I think everybody’s curious to hear who’s in front of them. 


What is allyship?

Vessy: Absolutely. Hi, I'm Vessy, founder of vessy.com. I've been working in the D&I field for a good few years, with big brands in North America, and Europe.

It was my personal journey that brought me to this a long time ago, with my public coming out when I was in university. I guess I was championing diversity through my own example. And later on, starting to work with companies, consulting them on how to empower their employee resource groups, or how to work with their leaders, how to foster inclusive leadership, and so on.

I'm going to challenge you on what you said that you can’t do anything because you're like the white male, or something like that. You know, it's very hard for the underprivileged, or underrepresented to drive the work on their own, and specifically because they don't have the privilege to represent that, especially in leadership positions.

We can chat more about the role of allyship, and what that could look like as well, in terms of first steps. I think we need to look at the values of the company and check whether we do live by those values.  Are those values about integrity? Do they talk about respect? Do they talk about trust? Maybe innovation, or a sense of belonging. Anything that can help us give an entry point for when we're introducing diversity and inclusion. Maybe it was present in the company. It wasn't explicitly said, but it is important to address it and make it clear in those statements.

There was a really nice definition that allyship is knowledge. It's knowledge, empathy, and action when they come together. I think by making such a statement towards commitment, we can show empathy, but we don't necessarily show knowledge, and we don't necessarily translate it into action.

It's very simple for them. Of course, you don't need to rush into action if you don't understand what you’re dealing with. First, a really good point for any D&I work is to ask what’s the level of inclusion in your organization. Do people feel like they belong? We look at the engagement surveys, and we create inclusion surveys. We look also at the business strategy of the organization because that's one of the actions where we really want to go. D&I is not something for a few enthusiasts or for employee resource groups, it's for everyone.

It's very important because it's the right thing to do  because it’s very impactful for the business. So as quickly as possible, we need to get to the point where we connect D&I and business – and they become one thing. 


Ethical business is an inside-out process

Jonathan: Very good point. I did some digging and, for example, Harvard Business Review definitively found that the first teams perform better. That's already a purely economical reason. Are there other particular reasons outside of just team performance where companies can really benefit from it?

Vessy: Yeah, absolutely. One of them is employee engagement. We have better retention. We have more productive teams when people are more engaged, and people learn faster. When we feel calm, curious, connected, clear, headed, confident at work – when we feel empowered, when we feel like we belong, naturally, we're more productive. Our energy doesn't go into things like “why did people treat me differently here? Like what's going on?” We stay more engaged because we feel appreciated. Of course, we want to stay there, so we don’t leave, and we learn faster, because we can be who we are.

We have the energy, and the attention span to focus on what we want and need. That would be one area: innovation. If we have empathy for our employees, we definitely have empathy for our customers. We can read between the lines, we can ask better questions to center needs and get better at understanding nuances. 

Now a lot of companies are kind of keeping it on that level, and they're like, yeah, yeah, we all hear it. We've read this or that article, and it's great. Then that McKinsey and Forbes article, everyone is telling us it's fantastic, but it's really complicated.

For every article where someone was encouraging me to do this or that, my revenue was growing 20%. It's not easy. So naturally leaders, we're very skeptical about that. Here, the thing is that we actually need to boil it down to a specific business case. One of the things that I do with clients and that is very important when you do Internal Communications, build it not only from the leaders but from every single manager, leader, every single employee in the organization is to understand how the business comes together.

One of the first things that I do with clients is we look at their business objectives to get her with their KPOs, and their culture to see how we can help them connect with results there? We create a program that's tailored for them on that journey based on understanding who are their personas, who are their most profitable employees and all we need to take into account. In some cases, do we want to look at the accessibility?

You have the submissions,  they're unique business by business. Industry by industry. Is it a family run business? Is it a tech company that was born a couple of years ago?

While there are certain things to have in mind in those first few steps and they can be somewhat to any first. So it's like let's look at your values – are those values also things that the leaders portray? How about everyone else, but not the leaders? Because sometimes we see that in organizations, where people misinterpreted the value. Let's say that that's our first step to look at the values: how much authority, the people who are leaving D&I have, do they, do they have influence in Jurgen?  These are good things to do at the start, but we need to work with the specific context of the organization. If we're looking for five steps, how to do D&I or something, sure, we'll get good advice, but we can't follow advice blindly.

Jonathan: Because it's far too specific to your unique environment of people. 

Vessy: Right. And I think we ended up with a generic reasoning of why we're doing it. People have heard that before. It doesn't sound authentic. It doesn't sound relatable.

You know, there is a difference, like if we say, you know, for your company, it's the right thing to do as people, but also as a business for those very specific reasons, and this is how it fits into the business strategy, and maybe product features we're working on new markets. We want to enter new personas, you get how it affects your job as, let's say, a product manager or a designer, or an Internal Comms person. We can communicate it, versus if we say this article is about the benefits of D&I on average – for any kind of organization in the world it’s very hard to relate to it.

If we're a good communicator, we know what we need to make it relatable and to put it in. That's absolutely crucial for D&I – to get everyone on board. It’s like eating healthy, but you know, there is a difference between knowing it's a good thing to do and actually doing that.

So D&I can be important, but it's not urgent. So defining where it fits into our business strategy, and people strategy is critical to driving the urgency. Otherwise, those efforts become very dependent on external factors. Like, do we need protests to be happening around the world to talk about racism and anti-racism?

Do we need to see more people dying, or getting pepper-sprayed to have those conversations? Do we need violence to drive urgency?


Language drives change

Jonathan: Yeah, I think this is something that certain people I've spoken with struggle with because they were confronted with what's happening ever since the George Floyd murder, and the protests that have erupted around the world against racism. They came to realize, actually this has been going for far too long. This has been like the sleeping elephant in the room, I need to do something about it. 

My organization wants to do something about it. In that sense, obviously there is momentum which is always necessary. And yet, at the same time, I think a lot of people feel that we know this change needs to happen from that top, right down to the core of the DNA of your organization.

There must be a way in for your core values, which I think is a great way to look at how we can be more serious about it. If you are going to be serious about D&I or let's say you made a public statement that you're going to be serious about this.

First off, the first thing that I learned from you is that it's different in every organization. It's unique to your own ecosystem. You have to find your own people in the business that fit, so that's a beautiful tip, but now here's the thing, especially if you're in a very large organization – it’s never a quick process. It's becoming faster because we're forced to, but it's still never quick. Are there other things that we can already do to actually get something going that will maybe help the rest?

What would you recommend there? 

Vessy: Yeah, I think it's great when organizations have employee the source groups, because it unites people, you know, firstly have a safe space to share about your experiences, find like-minded people, but it also creates some pressure on the leadership team.

You know, you get a sense of time. We cannot ignore that. You know, it's not just an individual here and an individual there having an opinion on that. It's like the employees wanted. It feels like more of a critical mass, and that can also drive urgency. That's something that's great.

I see a lot of value in having D&I leads naturally, providing them with enough seniority reporting to CFO, and to CEO. Worst-case to COO, and I'm not saying it's bad if they report to the COO, but if it's to like the VP of people, whereas COO it's seen as people's matter, rather than being directly related to the business.

It's very important that we see it as much as possible as equally. I think it's equally important. We should not compare that. Maybe in some periods we change, we focus more on one than the other, but they should definitely go hand in hand, because if we focus exclusively on numbers for the purpose of customers, or for the purpose of hiring, and we pride ourselves for having let's say that percentage of people, for example, people of  people of color, or women, and then we forget it's about people and it's about empathy.

We have more knowledge, but because we compromise on the empathy bid, it affects our decision making and our actions there. You said something where I was thinking about Internal Communications again. As Internal Communications professionals, you very much set the tone of how the organization speaks.

Let’s say, you, Jonathan, send a newsletter that sets an informal tone – it becomes a benchmark for how we talk to each other. I think it's also important to understand what the language is. Is it inclusive and accessible? Gradually, we don't have to necessarily go into announcing that Jonathan includes pronouns in his email, but that could lead to being interesting, people who start noticing. It can be a bit more organic, or when you talk about an activity related to pride month or whatever content related to queer people, the language that you use tells a story and sets the bar for the whole organization. It tells some people this is the language you should be using about people that you might not be exposed to daily. Maybe that's not who your friends are, and that's why it's important that they have a source of, knowing how to use the correct language. For the people who receive that same newsletter to feel that this doesn't portray them in a bad way, or that it doesn't use words that can be offensive, or outdated and so on. 

Actually, last night we were watching Disclosure. It's a movie about the presentation of trans people in entertainment and media, but mostly entertainment. It's really cool. If you watch that, it illustrates very well how much of an impact the story shapes the whole narrative for an entire community. In the movie, they go into showing a scene that became so famous from a thirty-year-old movie. But then exactly the same scenario was over and over presented whenever there was a trans person in any kind of movie for the next 30 years. Something similar happens in our organization. If you use a language that is not appropriate it's giving up permission for other people to think to do the same. I'm not saying you need to use derogatory terms. It could be other things that can be that that can still have a negative impact.

Jonathan: I think that's also a large part of it, and something that I always saw in the role of an Internal Communicators is to give guidelines and guidance on what is the right way to communicate in our diverse and inclusive environment.

I think a lot of people aren't aware that the way that they communicate can very easily be construed as, and maybe even sometimes, is racist. And if they're aware of this, if they can change this, if you have a helping hand in that, that already very much helps.

Vessy: Right? Let's say with the George Floyd case if a white person says accident, then I'll be like that's not an accident. We saw it. Do you know what I mean? If a person of color says, that was an incident, I think maybe I would still go for murder, but because you know, they personally really relate to the story [so they’re the authority on the subject]. I think it's important when people say it's a murder because it was a murder and you know, there's video footage.

In other cases, we can say we were not there. There is a judge to this side, a lot of law, but objectively we know exactly what happens. I think sometimes, one word can show us some of the biases that we have, and naturally, their implicit biases.

We don't do it on purpose most of the time to hurt other people. That's why as an Internal Communicator, it's very important. And I don't think we should be paralyzed, and thinking sh*t, I don't want him to make any mistakes. What if I make a mistake and I will just avoid any of those topics. No, like if we talk about those topics, and we're trying to figure things out, and we're open to feedback, that’s the best. Because I don't think the same way, no one was born with racism. No one was born anti-racist. It's a journey for each one of us.

Jonathan: Strong statement. I like that. 


Labels are the opposite of understanding

Vessy: I think to be empathetic to others, we need to have empathy for our own discomfort. If I feel comfortable not knowing, and making mistakes, that's the only way I can actually listen to you. If you give me a perspective that's new to me, and I don’t fight the discomfort, I will not learn anything. Naturally, I'll be defensive. It will be a natural reaction. That means I also don't have much empathy for myself. 

Jonathan: You said at the start when I said that I feel like there's not much I can do that you wanted to challenge me immediately on that. Now, I only ever step into this podcast and invite guests such as yourself when I feel there's something that I can really learn from them. I'm here to learn what it is that somebody like me, or somebody in my position could actually do to help further progress among D&I globally, within business in this case.

Vessy: Definitely take more episodes like this, and thanks for having me. I think having conversations and many of them, where you feel safe to ask any question and just knowing that no question is stupid. Just being conscious that if you’re in a privileged position and ask the underprivileged person to educate the privileged,  it puts an extra burden. You see what I mean? When naturally being privileged you have better resources, you have better access – and it's being also privileged. You're only privileged because it's taking away privilege from someone else. We need to own that. 

It doesn't mean that Jonathan's grandparents own slaves. It's not about that, but unless we have an active and clear position, then we are a part of a problem. Having conversations, but also being proactive and educating yourself, with so many movies, so many books on any of those topics, and you can read if, on a topic for one month. You also don't have to make a list. Start from somewhere, see what you're more passionate about. What is a topic that you personally relate to a bit more versus others? I think it's natural for us to understand, being gay naturally, I'm more interested in movies that have queer characters. It's more relatable. I want to see myself represented.

This is important for people who you love or are important in your life, or like colleagues you're close with, who would like to support you better. It’s not just I want to be a better person, or a good person because I think many people are so afraid of being called out as racist because they don't believe they're a bad person. They might be bad people, and they don't want to be bad people; but there is a difference because we can be really good people most of the time, which doesn't mean we're doing anything to stop racism, or to fight racism, or to check if we have racist standards in certain situations.

I think those things can kind of go ahead, and we need to reflect on it and understand, okay, I'm not doing it just to be a good person – I'm doing this for this specific reason [to stop racism], or what's the desired outcome here. The best marketing is when you know why people were doing it, it’s the same with Internal Communications.

We'll be doing this training tomorrow. People want to understand why me, why now? So when you want to be an ally, what are you hoping to achieve? I think that will set you on the best track for doing things that you're not just doing. Society expects them from you or your friends. You’re required to do the training. You were doing it because you for yourself have the answers. 

Jonathan: I think that that's one thing that I learned from the previous conversation that we also had about this topic is that I'm really diving deep into D&I, and wanting to enable that further.

It's very much a journey of self-discovery as well. Exactly what you just said. I essentially need to find my own why if, if this is like a very big position that I would want to take up, even if it's not for me. Clarifying that's helped. So for me, for example, I've really struggled with injustice. I just find across every spectrum of anything that rubs me the wrong way. I don't know why, but I know that I want to do something against it, and diversity and inclusion is one part of it. He who isn’t anti-racist is another part of it. But then, so is, I don't know, making sure that's, we're in a work environment where everybody can reach their full potential.


Understanding trauma

Vessy: I think that's very interesting what you said. Like sometimes we relate to something and not fully understand why. I'm just gonna speculate here. It doesn't mean it's true, but let's say maybe you experienced injustice. Let's say being bullied in school, or if your parents, for caregivers, were not fair to you.

It doesn't matter what the specific cases are, but it allows you to have empathy for others for experiencing similar pain, and that's very important. That also means that it requires being comfortable to experience the pain again. Does that make sense? So you have had that pain in the past and seeing how other surfing is facing injustice.

Now you can only be compassionate and empathetic if you allow yourself to feel that again because if someone really likes boxes, that's feeling and wants to forget about it, they don't have space for empathy because they don't want to remember how they felt in the past, and they certainly don't want to feel that way now.

In psychology and in psychotherapy, let's say the mind goes through like a split off and you become, you're more likely to become the oppressor. Because you want to distance yourself from being the victim in such a situation.

Typically we have that when kids have gone through a really hard upbringing, let's say if physical would be used; not only that obviously. It's a coping mechanism at the time, too. It's unthinkable for kids to perceive their caregiver or parents as a bad person.

Because the scariest thing is that your parents don’t love you. You're a kid, and you need a parent to love you. So the only explanation is that it's your fault, hence what's happening is the right thing to happen. When kids grow up, when we're adults, we have a choice, especially when we become parents.

Do we act like our parents, stick to the tradition, and then we're good parents by the example of our parents? Maybe we treat our kids similarly, let's say physical punishment or whatever, or do we actually take on the discomfort, embrace the pain, and try to get out of this by going through it. There are different layers there, but I think there was a strong correlation between those things. If we don't have empathy for our own experiences, and if we don't understand our own experiences from the past, it's very hard to have compassion for other people's experiences.


Diversity-based recruitment is the tip of the iceberg

Jonathan: Yeah, that makes absolute sense. I'm going to refer back to them the sort of free step that you just said before, where you have knowledge, empathy, and action. We've discussed the knowledge section where it's not just about the privileged asking the underprivileged. You’re in a privileged position.

Use it to do something. Educate yourself. Then the empathy side means they'll just have empathy for what's happening now and to whom. But also for yourself, understand your position in it, which I think is a very overlooked aspect, actually. And then lastly, on top of the action side. The aspects within that action side that I really want to ask you, which came from somebody who I've connected with on LinkedIn named Tyrone, and Tyrone posted an article about his own struggle against bias.

And I told Tyrone, I'm going to get this podcast guest – It's Vessy. She's essentially a consultant on D&I. It was a quick conversation. and I said, you know, I have a couple of questions that I know I want to ask her, but I read your post and I'm sure you would want to ask her something.

So, I asked him and he said, well, look, one of the things that I see a lot in companies, especially on the Internal Comms side of things is that they say “we want to invest in D&I, we are going to become a more inclusive environment. We want more diversity.” And then the first thing that they think of is usually let's change the way that we recruit, which obviously that's not a bad thing to think of. It's probably part of the problem, but then he says, then you hire more diverse people, but then you see that the retention rates among people. from a diverse background are much lower. And some companies say, for example, create affinity groups so that people feel more like a part of something. What he wanted to know from you is what kind of methods would you recommend to companies to actually retain that diverse talent that they hired?

Vessy: You know, when I spoke about measuring the level of inclusion, as a part it's very powerful. So most organizations do it through surveys. That's great. It gives you a score of where you are today, right? And you can see this group, that employee segment has that kind of experience compared to orders, but it doesn't tell you why and where they experience it, when and so on. Something that we do is, I do interviews with members of different employee segments, and it is really to get the context. If we were doing product research, we just don't send the survey and we're like, okay, now we have the answers.

Now we need to understand what are the root causes of having those results? What was the context? What forces took place? What were the contributing factors to this? Was it, let's say how their performance review went? Is it the form of the performance review? Maybe it’s the feedback from the peers where they say how they felt. Is it part of their hiring or onboarding experience where maybe they had some disappointments, or they had specific incidents that they struggled with, or maybe they heard stories, and they felt unsafe to bring up certain topics. Although they were not the ones experiencing it, it created some fears for them. So we need to understand those two, and ideally come up with a list. If the survey started telling us to what extent. An issue is prevalent. we need to understand why it's happening to who it's happening, what it can look like.

Those interviews are anonymous, absolutely confidential. So when I present the data then to the leadership team, they don't see, you know, Jonathan experienced this and this, they see, a person, let's say two of the three out of the five people we spoke to from this employee segment, have faced this challenge.

We're seeing patterns now. So we need to let's say redesign the performance review process. Let’s say there are no accessible toilets on the third floor for someone with a wheelchair, which is ridiculous.

If you have a meeting on the tenth floor, then on the third, and the only toilet is on the first floor. Know how much time you spend in the elevator? And it feels humiliating as well, so it could be things like that. It doesn't mean there are no facilities for you, but it doesn't mean they actually work for you.


Creating a custom system for your organization

Jonathan: Yeah. I think what you're saying is it's actually just not about starting an affinity group, and I'm sure there are other kinds of standardized best practice examples of this, but it's not about that. It's about finding out where you are right now and what your people need for that to become better and then doing something about it.

Vessy: I would say focusing on the problems first, then rushing into coming up with solutions again, you know, like in marketing terms, or product terms. We don't build a feature because we're excited about all of those features. We brainstorm about the feature, and once we know the specific pains, similar to communications, Internal Communications, or marketing, we need to understand the pain of our audience too, tell them how we're solving it. Otherwise, we're guessing what we're solving and we're guessing how it should be solved.

Let's say an affinity group and flare resource work. It's great. It has certain purposes. I think that a safe space is needed for people, but that doesn't mean like you can't rely on them. Please enter free time through volunteering to not only come forward and tell you what's wrong but also tell you how to fix it.

And again, where we started in the episode, we cannot put the burden on them. So it sends a very strong message when the leaders say you know what, we think things are fine. Or maybe we know of certain things that are not fine, but we actually want to understand objectively what's happening because we are the people in a privileged position, we don't know.

You know, it's like if you ask straight people if gay people were experiencing homophobia and straight people tell you it's fine. No, gay people experienced this homophobia here. How do you know that? It sends a very strong message where the parallel is like the straight leadership or just the leadership, hire someone to do that kind of work.

Your objective is to work with what's happening, find the cause, and then we can talk about how we can solve it and how it makes sense for the company to do it, in ways that are adequate and efficient for the industry, the size, the markets.

The way we would approach it in Amsterdam would it be different from Berlin or from Sofia in Bulgaria, or Boston.

Jonathan: Yeah. It's very true. I think that my overwhelming conclusion is that whatever you decide to do to improve D&I within your company, D&I is a personal experience.

It's a very personal per company per individual, per group. You cannot really take the one size fits all approach, which is a very good thing to realize for companies that really got that wake-up call now, and they're looking to change something. because it's time that they started realizing that we need to tailor our D&i approach to our unique environment, which I guess also comes with Internal Comms. Vessy, I want to thank you so much for your time. This was a really eye-opening conversation to me and thank you for taking the time to teach me these things and also our lovely audience.

Vessy: Awesome. My pleasure. 

Jonathan: I would love to have you back on the podcast sometime, hopefully by then we can talk about how things have improved and how things have changed for the better.

Lovely to see you, and until then, thank you again for your time. Bye. 

Vessy: Thank you.