How do organisations talk about “diversity”?

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The vast majority of organisations across Europe and North America use brief statements on their websites as a means to demonstrate their dedication to promoting diversity. Nonetheless, the definition of diversity can vary vastly between organisations. A common approach is to categorise diversity through demographics such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. These categories often serve as the focus of diversity initiatives and are frequently highlighted on organisational websites. They are also frequently depicted through photographic representations, yet not in an intersectional matter. For instance, it is common to see a photo of a (young White) woman under the category “gender” but not a picture of an (elderly Black) woman. Recently, organisations in the U.S. and Europe started to expand their definition of diversity to encompass all possible individual attributes, such as “viewpoint diversity,” instead of focusing on demographics only. Such dilution of diversity, however, could result in unintended consequences, such as reduced interest from people of colour in working for these organisations and decreased willingness of sexual minority individuals to disclose their sexual identity in the workplace.

Here is an example of a broad diversity statement from the insurance and risk management company Marsh:

We respect every Marsh colleague as an individual, and believe that diversity of thought, opinions, and skills help us improve the services we provide to our clients.

The rhetoric among organisations ranges from approaches that emphasise that diversity is valuable in general (identity-conscious messages) to no rhetoric or rhetoric that emphasises diversity is inconsequential (identity-blind messages). Another common rhetoric emphasises diversity as valuable for different reasons, including the business case (diversity enhances performance) and the moral case (diversity is ethical). When organisations emphasise the value of diversity, whether it is for business or moral reasons, it tends to result in increased employee attitudes and behaviours that support diversity, such as decreased discrimination, increased support for diversity, and engagement among minority groups. Additionally, identity-conscious diversity statements are more effective at attracting members of underrepresented groups without creating a sense of threat amongst majority group members. People of colour and cultural minority groups often prefer an identity-conscious approach to diversity over an identity-blind one.

There are, however, some caveats to the conclusion that emphasising diversity’s value is effective. This rhetoric type sometimes has undesirable effects, such as increased denial of discrimination and perceived disadvantage among majority groups and disengagement among minority groups. Nevertheless, evidence indicates that employees tend to react favourably to rhetoric emphasising diversity’s value. A promising approach to promoting diversity is the so-called contingent framing approach. It recognises the positive impact of diversity on organisations while acknowledging the obstacles that must be overcome. This approach has been found to inspire employees to contribute to diversity and inclusion efforts within the organisation. Although organisations and leaders can be hesitant to use contingent rhetoric due to the fear of appearing prejudiced, the fear is unfounded, as studies indicate that contingent rhetoric does not increase perceived leader prejudice. As such, organisations might consider using more realistic diversity rhetoric by emphasising that realising the benefits of diversity requires overcoming its challenges.

Suggested Readings

Leslie, L. M., Flynn, E., Foster-Gimbel, O. A., & Manchester, C. F. (2023). Happy talk: Is common diversity rhetoric effective diversity rhetoric? Academy of Management Journal.

Dover, T. L., Kaiser, C. R., & Major, B. (2020). Mixed signals: The unintended effects of diversity initiatives. Social Issues and Policy Review, 14(1), 152–181.

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