Cultural   Strategic Communication  

Engaging Employees: The Role of Organizational Diversity Communication and Cultural Intelligence

It comes as no surprise to any manager that no two employees are quite alike, either in their personal characteristics or the way they relate to their jobs.

There’s little that organizations can do about the former, but figuring out ways to increase employees’ engagement at work has been the subject of research for decades. Increasing levels of employee engagement has a host of benefits for all involved, including increased efficiency and profitability for the company and energy and resilience for the individual. It makes sense, then, that effective organizations put a great deal of effort into increasing employee engagement.

One such effort that has been gaining traction in recent years is embracing the differences between employees and actively promoting diversity in the workplace. Millennial and Gen Z employees especially have expressed high levels of concern about fostering workplace diversity, and organizations in the U.S. have followed suit. Like engagement, diversity efforts in and of themselves bring desirable benefits to companies and employees alike, such as increases in trust, growth and profitability.

Researchers from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) and James Madison University School of Communication Studies (JMU) wanted to see if there was a possible link between organizational diversity communication efforts and levels of employee engagement.

UFCJC Public Relations Professor and Director of Internal Communication Research Linjuan Rita Men, JMU Assistant Professor Yufan Sunny Qin, UFCJC M.A.M.C. 2018 and Ph.D. 2022, UFCJC doctoral student Renee Mitson, and Patrick Thelen, UFCJC Ph.D. 2019, tested a model including several factors that they believed could foster a sense of employee engagement. Full-time employees from corporations across several different industry sectors in the U.S. were asked about their perceptions of their organizations’ diversity communications (the efforts the organization makes to communicate their commitment to diversity in the workplace), their assessment of their personal cultural intelligence (their ability to work effectively in a culturally diverse environment or with diverse colleagues), whether they felt they currently worked in a culturally inclusive environment, and their levels of engagement in their positions.

Study results suggested several important links between these factors and levels of engagement. Diversity communication, cultural intelligence and a sense of an inclusive environment all individually lead to significant increases in employee engagement. Perhaps even more importantly, all three were found to be significantly related to one another.

Diversity communication and cultural intelligence were found to increase the sense of an inclusive environment within an organization.  This means that in addition to increasing employee engagement directly, diversity communication and cultural intelligence were able to also indirectly increase engagement through their creation of an inclusive environment.

Employees’ race was also shown to be important when it came to diversity efforts and engagement. While all employees had their engagement affected regardless of their race, the effect of an inclusive climate on engagement was greater for minority employees compared to their majority counterparts.

This study shows the importance of an inclusive climate, suggesting that it works in several different ways to increase employee engagement. An inclusive environment allows employees to feel safe and valued, which makes them want to engage with the organization more and give back in their roles. It also allows them to access their personal resources more effectively, helping things like cultural intelligence come into play. Employees then feel competent and autonomous in a multicultural environment, increasing their engagement.

In addition, an inclusive environment provides a mechanism for diversity communication to be effective. While this kind of communication did have an impact on engagement on its own, it was relatively small. The creation of an inclusive environment, however, made the diversity communication believable and gave employees something to buy in to, possibly leading to a greater impact on engagement.

This study presents several important takeaways for organizations. The creation of an inclusive environment can bring benefits to an entire organization, not just for racial minority employees. It’s mutually beneficial for companies to establish such environments; employees of all backgrounds can feel supported, heard and able to capitalize on their skills and resources, enabling them to be more engaged and effective in their roles. As the authors note, however, employees are actually paying attention to what their organizations say and do when it comes to diversity efforts. If they want to reap the benefits of an inclusive environment, organizations can’t simply pay lip service to the idea. They have to actually “walk their talk,” and make their efforts sincere and believable to their employees.

The original article, “Engaging Employees Via an Inclusive Climate: The Role of Organizational Diversity Communication and Cultural Intelligence,” was published online in the Journal of Public Relations Research on June 22, 2023.

Authors: Linjuan Rita Men, Yufan Sunny Qin, Renee Mitson, Patrick Thelen

This summary was written by Vaughan James, UFCJC Ph.D. 2023.

Posted: July 11, 2023
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