Internal communication is key to fostering diversity and inclusion in companies


Diversity and inclusion experts present critical aspects of internal corporate communications.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

In an interviews series with 20 managers responsible for diversity and inclusion (D&I) from different industries in Austria and Germany, Daniel Wolfgruber and Sabine Einwiller from the University of Vienna investigated the communication factors that contribute to the promotion and maintenance of an inclusive work environment. The D&I managers were asked about their role in the company, the development of communication strategies and measures, and internal company coordination. The survey period ran from October to December 2020. The results provide scholarly insight into internal corporate communication and D&I management, how the two departments/divisions work together, and the communication actions taken to pursue D&I management goals.

What has been implemented in the USA and Canada – as historical immigration countries – since the 1950s/60s, has only been actively practiced in Europe for a decade: diversity and inclusion initiatives in various sectors of society. Due to globalization and migration, people of different origin, gender, age, religious affiliation, etc. are moving closer together, including and especially in the work sector. In order to create and promote inclusion in the workplace, diversity management is used, which aims to increasingly include employees with different backgrounds into formal and informal company structures through organizational measures and programs.

Diversity and Inclusion: Two separate, yet intertwined concepts

The buzzwords "diversity" and "inclusion" are on everyone's lips these days, but what exactly lies behind these concepts? "Diversity in organizations refers to the differences among organizational members based on mainly observable (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, physical impairment) and non-observable (e.g., education, sexual orientation, religion, psychological impairment) characteristics. It thus stands for the reflection of a diverse society in an organization's workforce", the study authors explain. Inclusion, or an inclusive work environment, is achieved when employees sense that "that their unique contribution to the organization is appreciated and their full participation is encouraged". It is therefore a matter of creating a working climate that recognizes and values the diversity of the workforce and utilizes its potential.

Making diversity and inclusion management tangible

In their research, the authors address the aspects of D&I management and internal corporate communication. Between October and December 2020, they conducted semi-structured interviews with 20 experts in the field of D&I management from various industries and company sizes in Austria and Germany. The interview material was transcribed after recording and analyzed using a qualitative theory-based method. The study provides insights into the cooperation between D&I managers and their colleagues from internal corporate communication as well as the communication channels and strategies used to promote diversity and inclusion in the corporate culture.

Cooperation is essential - but in reality, it is limited

Internal corporate communication staff participate in the implementation of D&I measures by sharing their expertise as communication professionals. According to their statements, half of the D&I managers interviewed work closely with internal communication experts, the others only occasionally, such as in the development of communication strategies, in the establishment of guidelines for diversity-sensitive language or in the design of messages on current D&I topics. Since cooperation between the two departments does not take place on a daily basis, but is fundamental to the success of D&I messages, the study authors recommend increased involvement of internal communication experts in D&I management, who (should) support their colleagues in every step of D&I measures, from conception to implementation.

A variety of communication channels are used

Various communication channels and modes are used to convey messages that are supposed to promote inclusion, as the D&I managers reveal. The in-house intranet is very popular and is used by almost all respondents. The second most common medium is the employee magazine, which is often distributed in digital form. Less than half of D&I managers use posters, info screens, handbooks, or other documents (for example, on codes of conduct or anti-discrimination policies). "Signposts signifying unisex toilets are controversially discussed but described as a strong communication tool to keep the discussion about gender (identity) going", respondents stated. E-mail circulars and newsletters are used less frequently.

Apart from media-based D&I communication, face-to-face communication between D&I managers and staff remains an indispensable part of the internal D&I communication strategy. In particular, internal events such as talks by experts, workshops or town hall meetings are essential forms of D&I communication, as they inform the workforce about the relevance of planned and launched initiatives on the one hand and enable an exchange on D&I topics on the other. According to the respondents, the active endorsement by the board through D&I communication is also necessary for D&I management to be successful.

(Success) Stories sensitize and inspire

Women's advancement, maintaining an inclusive work environment, and economic objectives are a vital part of the D&I management strategy in the interviewed companies. Projects focusing on gender equality and social justice are usually framed in the form of storytelling. This involves the presentation of (success) stories from the company's own workforce (CEOs, managers, employees, trainees) who embody at least one characteristic of traditionally underrepresented groups (for example, trans people). The idea behind storytelling is to make employees aware of D&I issues and to inspire them.

In conclusion, the survey of 20 D&I managers highlights one thing above all: The human element in corporate communication management. "Regarding message content, the appreciation of the person as he or she is plays a central role in inclusion. With regards to the collaboration between organizational units, mutual appreciation and valuing the other's expertise is key", the study authors sum up.

Publication details

Wolfgruber, D., & Einwiller, S. (2023). Diversity, inclusion, and communication: The role of internal communication in creating an inclusive work environment. In N. Rodriguez-Salcedo, Á. Moreno, S. Einwiller, & M. Recalde (Eds.), (Re)discovering the human element in public relations and communication management in unpredictable times. Advances in Public Relations and Communication Management, Vol. 6, (pp. 81-97). Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited. doi:10.1108/S2398-391420230000006006

Daniel Wolfgruber was a Predoctoral Researcher at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna until February 2023. He recently successfully defended his dissertation entitled The communicative constitution of the moral organization: Exploring the multiple roles of organizational communication in the context of ethics, diversity, and inclusion.


Sabine Einwiller is Professor of Public Relations Research and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.