Entrepreneurs

Communications in the Workplace: Do Your Words Fit Your Culture and Values?

The past year has been a lesson in patience and fortitude as we’ve braved a global pandemic, revelations about systemic injustice, and some of the most divisive politics in our country’s history. It’s also made clear just how much of an opportunity– and obligation– we in the workplace have to step up and lead by example with inclusion and kindness.

Who you are and what you stand for matters to people who work at your company and buy your products. Employees care about intangible benefits such as meaningful work, alignment to core values, and work-life balance– even more than salary— when evaluating a new place to work. This is especially true of Millennials and Generation Z, who together make up about 65 percent of the workforce these days, according to the Pew Research Center. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, 77 percent of potential employees learn about those characteristics of your company from your website.

That said, does your website reflect your culture as you’d want to a prospective employee? As competition for global talent heats up, you need to up your game in both conveying who you are and what you believe.

Consumers are more aware than ever of corporate social responsibility, and want the brands they spend money on to reflect their values. In the face of bracing revelations of our country’s economic frailty, racism in our criminal justice system, and a government that is slow to react, people are increasingly turning to influential corporations in hopes that they’ll throw their weight behind important social issues. According to The Sustainability Imperative from media firm Nielsen, top drivers for consumer purchasing behavior include trustworthiness, environmental friendliness, and commitment to social values. In fact, 66 percent of consumers surveyed say they’re even willing to pay more for sustainable brands.

With the future of your brand on the line, codifying your culture, letting the world know you are, and telegraphing your values should be at the top of your priority list. One key to success is reflecting those things in your messaging, wherever it appears. Words and language matter, whether they are on your website, in an ad, on social media, or in what others say about you in product reviews or on the news. And the more consistent those messages are, the better.

As a corporate leader, what steps can you take to align your message to your culture and values? Here are six simple ones my company and I have learned from our smartest customers as they align their core messaging and cultural norms using our platform.

Know Yourself

Before you can convey your culture to others, take the time to understand it yourself. Consider your core values, beliefs, strategic pillars, team strengths, vulnerabilities, and vision. Once your identity starts to take shape, audit your organization against those tenets to find misalignments. Talk about them openly and honestly with your team, and decide whether you need to change your message or your company’s practices.

Walk the Walk

Part of that audit should involve making sure who you say you are is who you are. Claim you’re “diverse,” but have trouble proving it when it comes to your upper ranks or pay scale? Tout yourself as “transparent” but don’t disclose details that help job candidates calculate their options? Say you don’t tolerate jerks, but lose resolve when it comes to holding a rainmaker salesperson accountable? Suss out where your culture claims are strong and where they wither under scrutiny, and make the necessary adjustments so you can walk the walk.

Say What You Stand For

Be bold and clear about who you are and what you stand for. Say what you reject. Make it known and repeat it– on your website, in job descriptions, in company memos, and in the media. Find opportunities to reinforce it through your actions, whether charitable donations, volunteer days or advocacy. Carefully consider the lengths you are willing to go, and where you may not be able to make good on commitments.

Put Kindness at the Center

Make kindness a central feature of your culture. If the last year taught us anything, it’s that who you’re with means something when the stakes are high. Living through a pandemic exposed some ugly behaviors and many cracks in our corporate culture. In a recent survey of 1,000 professionals conducted by my company, we learned that one-third of respondents have been on the receiving end of toxic workplace communication. There’s room for improvement for all of us, and organizations that place kindness at the core will have a leg up.

Make a Place for Everyone

Another thing we learned in the survey is that, while 32 percent of White respondents report getting toxic messages, that number jumps to 52 percent for Black respondents. Depending on who you are, your work experience can be markedly different. This shows just how important it is not only to be kind but to be inclusive. From how we discuss ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation to the words we use to describe someone with a disability (versus a disabled person) or someone experiencing homelessness (versus a homeless person), words can either be judgment-free and include people, or they can condemn, hurt, and exclude them.

Codify your culture

Get on the same page with your fellow executives and codify your culture. Put it in writing in your employee guidelines and even in your brand style guide. Match and reinforce it with your core messaging and with your brand voice, tone, and behavior norms. And make it stick by rewarding behavior that’s consistent with, and taking corrective action when behaviors run afoul of those norms.

If I’ve learned anything from living through a global pandemic and one of the most divisive times in our country’s history, it’s that culture matters. And our words matter. Business leaders have an opportunity to step up and lead, now more than ever.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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