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How to Avoid a “Diversity Backlash” at Your Company

How to Avoid a "Diversity Backlash" at Your Company

Business leaders are increasingly recognizing that workforce diversity is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to staying creative, adapting to new challenges, and keeping ahead of the competition.

But implementing new diversity initiatives, from training programs to recruiting efforts, can get tricky.

Choosing the wrong approach can result in employees feeling resentful of workplace diversity policies, efforts, and training. This attitude can can keep their minds closed to diversity initiatives, or even further cement existing biased behavior.

In order to prevent this “diversity backlash” and make sure your inclusion efforts actually work, you need to understand the causes and solutions of diversity backlash.

The Potential Causes of Diversity Backlash

The prospect of diversity and inclusion at work tends to make employees feel uncomfortable.

We think this Deloitte article sums up the reasons why:

“Diversity and inclusion are highly personal, emotionally charged topics. Discussing them requires us to think and talk about how we see ourselves and others, and how to include a vast array of identities. These conversations can often hit very close to home for us and others. They’re not easy.”

But the discomfort doesn’t stop there.

Professionals have found that their well-intentioned diversity and inclusion efforts sometimes backfire for the following reasons.

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Employees think diversity is a non-issue.

The fact is that a majority of your employees don’t know what it feels like to be discriminated against or treated as “other” — because they’re in the majority. In their experience, the issue of inclusion may not seem very pressing, and taking part in diversity initiatives can feel like unnecessary extra work on top of their regular work. That can lead to feelings of resentment.

Employees think diversity is someone else’s problem.

Other employees do acknowledge that discrimination exists. But, as we wrote in our post Biggest Misconceptions About Diversity Training, they assume that diversity training is intended for other employees — the ones who have been insensitive or unkind. As such, diversity training is still viewed as a headache as opposed to a growth opportunity.

Employees think diversity efforts are only for a few select minority groups.

In some cases, employees assume that diversity programs are in place for the sole benefit of only certain minority groups. These assumptions can be exacerbated when minority groups receive differing levels of attention from the employer. For example, certain ethnic groups may form their own resource groups, recruiting programs may focus on just one gender, or training may focus exclusively on bad behaviors that tend to affect certain groups disproportionately. When groups get special treatment, it paves the way for assumptions about favoritism and priorities.

Majority-group employees feel ignored.

When the majority of your employees feel that other groups are getting special priorities or attention that they aren’t getting themselves, they can feel ignored or even begin to accuse employers of “reverse-discrimination.”

People in minority groups are skeptical that diversity efforts are genuine.

There are plenty of minority-group employees who don’t think diversity initiatives will actually work, or that they’re being done in good faith. Many companies they’ve worked for in the past have probably treated diversity initiatives as little more than “check-the-box” exercises done solely for a show of compliance or damage control.

People in minority groups are worried about how they’ll be perceived.

Employees who have worked for your company for years may also be skeptical of new diversity initiatives for another reason: They’ve already worked hard to learn how to navigate your company’s culture and be successful despite potential discrimination. They don’t want their colleagues to assume they got extra assistance — and are unsure if they will be able to navigate the company’s new culture as it changes.

Employees feel overwhelmed by inclusion initiatives.

Employees often come out of diversity training feeling overwhelmed and worried (such as the Starbucks employees who underwent mandatory training after an incident that received national attention). They want to do right by their colleagues, and they’re even more aware of all the ways they can offend them or treat them poorly. But overthinking every interaction is tiring, and no one wants to feel like they have to walk on eggshells all day around their colleagues. These emotions can cause resentment for diversity initiatives to build.

Get the bonus content: An Introduction to “Reverse Discrimination” in the Workplace

Diversity Training to Prevent the Backlash

As you’ve just read, there are plenty of ways that diversity initiatives can be received poorly. But it’s also certainly possible for employers to introduce diversity initiatives in a way that their employees embrace and appreciate.

You can lay a solid foundation for successful diversity initiatives by using the following tactics:

Demonstrate a Business-Focused Commitment to Diversity

Leaders must demonstrate with their words and actions that they’re serious about creating an inclusive workplace. They must emphasize that establishing an inclusive workplace isn’t just the right thing to do; it also has very real business benefits.

This mindset helps employees take diversity training just as seriously as they would take training for another job-related skill, and this can pave the way for them to embrace the reality of discrimination — even if it hasn’t affected them in the past.

Emphasize That Diversity Benefits Everyone

Leaders should also emphasize that diversity initiatives aren’t just in place to help certain minority. They’re in place to help all employees.

First of all, diversity tends to help the organization as a whole, as we just mentioned, by helping it stay competitive.

More importantly, though, diversity initiatives should be about encouraging all kinds of diversity in the workplace — not just representation of protected groups. Even employees in majority groups have diverse backgrounds, diverse approaches to problem solving, and diverse lifestyles. Diversity initiatives should be about making sure everyone is heard and welcomed regardless of these kinds of factors.

Choose Diversity Training That’s Upbeat, Relevant, and Actionable

It’s inevitable that diversity training and inclusion initiatives will bring up some feelings of tension and discomfort for participants. However, diversity training certainly shouldn’t be a totally negative experience.

Look for a training program that takes an upbeat, positive approach to a serious topic, and one that gives employees tangible tools and scripts to use when they find themselves in difficult situations.

Diversity training should give employees tangible tools and scripts to use when they find themselves in difficult situations.

After their training, employees should understand that every employee has a role to play in making their workplace more inclusive. After all, diversity training isn’t just for correcting people who have behaved badly at work. A truly inclusive workplace requires all employees to proactively encourage fairness, lift other employees up so that they can succeed, and call out offensive or discriminatory practices whenever they see them.

Your employees should come out of diversity training feeling energized and enlightened.

If you’re looking for this kind of training for your own employees, we hope you’ll consider the Civil Treatment Workplace Initiative from ELI. ELI approaches workplace civility holistically. We believe that focusing on foundational skills such as listening, reacting to criticism, and apologizing can eliminate all types of bad workplace behavior, from bullying and rudeness to harassment and discrimination.

Our comprehensive approach also respects your employees’ time and reduces the potential of any type of diversity backlash.

If you’d like to learn more about our Civil Treatment Workplace Initiative or have any other questions, please reach out to us at info@eliinc.com.

4 Comments
  • I’m glad you mentioned emphasizing the benefits of diversity and how it can help an organization stay competitive. My company is trying to be more inclusive and be more diverse for race and sexual orientation. We should look for inclusion training that can help change our culture for the better.

  • Tyler says:

    Imagine being told you’re well qualified but not diverse enough. Then the job is filled by someone who is less qualified but more diverse.

  • Anonymous says:

    I quit my job today because of D&I. As a white man who has suffered a great deal of pain from racism towards whites and sexism towards men in my youth, I’m sick and tired of being told that white men can only be perpetrators and not victims. I feel like I’m being classified solely based on my gender and race. Up until the D&I efforts were put in place, we were a pretty diverse company, in which we all worked well together and no one ever focused on race or gender. It was work… If I want to hear people’s life stories and tell about my own experiences with racism and sexism, I’d go to self-help groups, not to work… D&I has destroyed one of the most meaningful aspects of life for me: work.

  • Doug says:

    Problem is, most companies these days only focus on one narrow realm of diversity: “demographic diversity”. This is “diversity” based on easily recognizable physical characteristics such as gender, race and ethnicity. For my employer and many others demographic diversity is the sole focus of DE&I initiatives. So of course it’s going to cause resentment. Along with the aforementioned “reverse discrimination”, which at my company is absolutely happening. (I’ve been specifically told I couldn’t hire a well-qualified candidate because he wasn’t “diverse” enough. In other words, he didn’t possess the correct physical characteristics. Not only is this wrong, I’m fairly certain it’s illegal.)

    Absent from corporate diversity programs is any talk of sociological diversity, economic diversity, and other forms of diversity that aren’t nearly as easy to identify. And in fact the biggest diversity problem is America these days is found in the economic realm, since lack of economic diversity is often at the root of most other diversity issues. I’m tired of hearing my CEO, who makes 400x the compensation of the average employee, lecturing me and others on the need to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive. “Yeah, you first buddy.”

    In addition there was really no racial hostility at my company UNTIL we jumped on the DE&I train. This focus on demographic diversity has only served to highlight peoples’ physical differences in a way that – ironically – has created resentment where it didn’t exist before. In years past I paid no attention whatsoever to the physical characteristics of the people I hired. I didn’t care about their gender, race or ethnicity. It was irrelevant. But now it has been turned into a job qualification itself. Which again is of questionable legality.

    Until companies address the root cause of inequality (economics), these programs will continue to do little more than flail and make good employees resentful.

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