"Belonging is everything" – The unifying power of communication in the workplace


Formal communication efforts made by executive personnel are critical to ensuring inclusion in the workplace.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

"We hired a woman of color for the first time and other employees did not like it. They always said that she does not fit into our company." Reports like these may sound like from another time when racism, sexism, and inequality were part of everyday life. However, a recent study conducted at the University of Vienna shows that employees with visible (gender, age, origin) and/or (rather) invisible (education level, sexual orientation, religion) diversity characteristics still do not feel fully integrated into their workplace. Communication researchers Daniel Wolfgruber, Lina Stürmer and Sabine Einwiller conducted a qualitative survey to investigate which forms of communication facilitate the development of an inclusive work environment, especially with regard to the topics of equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as which communicative initiatives employees demand from their employers.

The study involved 84 Austrian and German employees aged between 19 and 62 with varying diversity characteristics. The interviews took place in May and June 2020.

More than half of the study participants stated that they feel completely included in their work environment and have no need for further inclusive communication measures. This is exemplified by the following statements: "Yeah, gender-sensitive language is not implemented because it would simply be too tedious to read" and "I've never heard anything about someone being unhappy just because we do not have transsexuals at work... our strength is this international diversity. We do not have other [diversity] aspects. You cannot see them on the surface, they're not talked about, and no one should be interested in them." The individuals who felt included at work and who would prefer no change in workplace communication had no or just a few diversity characteristics, as they were primarily white men and women.

However, employees with observable diversity characteristics experienced their work climate quite differently, as they were continuously confronted with exclusionary communication and marginalization. They reported unfair promotion practices between genders and exclusionary informal/interpersonal communication, for example through clique formation. To provide a sense of inclusion and belonging and ensure the development of an inclusive work environment, companies would need to not only implement fair hiring and promotion practices, but additionally communicate the issues of "equality, diversity, and inclusion" firmly. Respondents wish for more formal communication on the issues by the top management, for example in the form of "formal interpersonal (and hybrid) communication in official meetings, open-minded and dialogue-oriented leadership (i.e., formal interpersonal communication), and diversity-related training and events."

Study author Daniel Wolfgruber comments on the findings concerning communicative integration measures in the workplace as follows: "Our findings powerfully demonstrate the importance of interpersonal communication about equality, diversity, and inclusion in formal contexts to create a sense of inclusion. From town hall meetings (Q&A's with executives) to team meetings to annual reviews and internal events, direct interaction in a formal setting is, all in all, more important for communicatively generating an inclusive work climate than mediated (e.g., e-mails, videos) communication on equality, diversity and inclusion issues or interaction in an informal context. We believe this finding is highly relevant, as the power of communication is often underestimated by both practitioners and scholars researching that field."

Publication details

Wolfgruber, D., Stürmer, L., & Einwiller, S. (2021). Talking inclusion into being: Communication as a facilitator and obstructor of an inclusive work environment. Personnel Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.1108/PR-01-2021-0013

In this qualitative study, 84 Austrian and German employees were interviewed between May and June 2020 about their sense of inclusion at their workplace. Conducting semi-structured interviews, the researchers intended to determine which forms of communication strengthen or weaken the participants' sense of belonging, what expectations employees have of their employers in order to create an inclusive work environment, and what role diversity characteristic play in these processes. The research specifically focused on communication about equality, diversity, and inclusion in work environments. (Image © Fauxels)
Daniel Wolfgruber is a research assistant (predoc) in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. In the course of his dissertation, he deals with the communicative constitution of ethically oriented organanizational cultures and cross-cultural differences in organizational values communication. (Image © Daniel Wolfgruber)
Lina Stürmer is working at the Department of Communication as a research and teaching assistant. Lina studied Journalism and Communication Studies at the University of Vienna (MA, 2021) and holds a BA in Social Economics (Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany). Her research interests include strategic communication, content strategies and persuasive communication. (Image © Lina Stürmer)
Professor Sabine Einwiller is the Professor of Public Relations Research at the University of Vienna's Department of Communication and Head of the CCom Research Group. She researched and published widely on topics of corporate communication and stakeholder psychology. In her research, she is mainly interested in the effects of corporate communication on their stakeholders, the management of stakeholder relationships and corporate reputation. In particular, her research focuses on the effects of negative publicity and crisis communication, complaint management, employee communication and reputation management and measurement. (Image © Sabine Einwiller)