The Power of Language: Shifting DEI Conversations to Promote a Workplace for All

October 19, 2020 Sarah Mulcahy

5-minute read

woman on her laptopThe language we use daily, whether it’s realized or not, impacts the way employees feel about their workplace. And unfortunately, even in the most progressive organization, unconscious bias is still pervasive. What does this language look like? How can HR and business leaders use technology to overcome this unconscious bias and stop it in its tracks?

Steve Pemberton, Workhuman® CHRO, and Jesse Harriott, global head of analytics at Workhuman, addressed these important topics in a session on “The Power of Language” at SHRM Inclusion 2020. Against the backdrop of a year of social and racial unrest, Steve said, “There still remains this all-important question: What now?”

According to Steve, “it’s going to require a degree of allyship and understanding and a pivoting of the way in which we have historically approached these conversations in the workplace.” One important shift is to think of the workplace as a place where people can “connect, unify, and heal” – where different generations, perspectives, and ethnicities are already oriented toward a common good.

Recognition as a path forward

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have traditionally been associated with unconscious bias training. While this type of program has its place, Steve said it’s “often in response to a series of behaviors or a public incident that necessitates training for a division, a function, or even an entire workforce.”

What if we instead look at real-time, proactive ways to address bias? “To do that, we need to find a bridge between the world of diversity and inclusion that, in essence, begets equity,” said Steve. “And we want to offer the idea that it’s recognition that is the bridge between diversity and inclusion.”

Because a recognition program is built on genuine moments of human connection, it can provide unprecedented insights you can’t find in an HRIS or payroll system. Does one group receive more recognition than another? Are there differences in award values? What can we learn from the language used in recognition messages? 

Digging into the data

Across Workhuman’s customer base, there are about 5 million employees using social recognition. According to Jesse, all these recognition moments are providing critical DEI insights: “What we’ve seen pretty consistently is that the more recognition moments someone has received in the last 90 days, the more likely they are to report that their employer values diversity and they feel included.” The feeling of inclusion translates into team performance and improved decision-making.

Another key insight gleaned across these millions of moments is that after one year in a recognition program, Asian, Black, and Hispanic employee turnover drops 20% and female turnover drops 17%.

With enough volume of recognition moments, Jesse also shared how organizational network analysis can show “the connection points inside of a company. Women often having larger, cross-functional networks than men. They tend to be more gender-balanced – recognizing men and women equally – compared to men, who tend to recognize other men.”

Here’s another DEI data point: The reward amount that men receive versus women is typically higher. And females will tend to receive awards more often, but at about an 88% value to what a man will receive. “This is something we believe we have the opportunity to shift as we think about putting inclusivity into action,” said Jesse.

Taxonomy of bias

During the presentation, Jesse shared a new Workhuman taxonomy of bias developed from our database of recognition moments. “Sometimes people use language that’s unintentionally sending the wrong message,” said Jesse. A Deloitte study found 64% of employees reported experiencing bias in the workplace in the last year; of those employees, 84% categorize the bias as microaggression. 

“While someone is actively engaging in the act of writing an award and giving some praise, that’s the opportunity to really affect the change. People learn best when they’re doing. We want to provide opportunities and tools to start a mind shift and moment of reflection when they’re giving an award,” said Jesse.

Here are some examples of bias Jesse shared that can be detected through natural language processing:

  • Holding someone in low regard: These are back-handed compliments that imply the person giving the message has low expectations of the person who received it.
  • Gender role stereotyping: This is praise that reinforces the stereotype of traditional gender roles, and has nothing to do with the actual work at hand. 
  • Not in the same league: This is praise where you’re really highlighting the difference in status between yourself and the person receiving the message. 
  • Blowing one’s own horn: This is when you give praise or a compliment to someone who’s at a different level than you, but the message is focused on praising yourself in front of others. 
  • Tom Sawyer-ing: This is really saying, “Thanks for doing what no one else wants to do.” That can be a very undermining message and create a false perception in the future for what we expect of employees.

With this type of in-the-moment coaching, Steve said we can “stop the damage while it’s happening, before it even happens … and it creates a degree of sustainability too … a lot of equity efforts have not proven themselves to be particularly sustainable.”

By bringing recognition into the conversation, it allows everyone to take ownership of their part in creating an inclusive culture. “When we create that ownership at all levels, it allows us to usher in this language of access and opportunity for all,” concluded Steve.


The Why Behind DEI: How Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives Benefit Business

Brittany J. Harris: Embedding Justice Into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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