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3 Research-Based Strategies to Reduce Employee Backlash Against Workplace Diversity Initiatives

Diversity initiatives in the workplace (like Microsoft’s plan to hire more Black managers) are common and important tools for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. Unfortunately, some organizations hit roadblocks when employees from traditionally advantaged groups—such as male or White employees—push back against these efforts (like in the Google Memo).

So, what can organizations do to maximize support and minimize backlash towards diversity and inclusion initiatives? Here are 3 research-based strategies.

1. Frame Workplace Diversity Initiatives to Include Everyone.

Some organizations take a multicultural approach to diversity, which emphasizes employee differences and how those differences are helpful. However, non-minority employees might resist this kind of message because they feel overlooked in this approach to diversity.

Organizational leaders can make non-minority employees feel included by taking an “all-inclusive multiculturalism” approach, which emphasizes how minority and non-minority employees all contribute to a diverse workplace. For example, imagine a workplace multicultural event where employees are asked to share dishes from their ethnic background. Instead, leaders can re-frame the purpose of the event as sharing food from family recipes, allowing both minority and non-minority employees to feel that they can participate in the activity.

For diversity initiatives in the workplace that do not directly include all employees, such as mentoring programs designed specifically for women or racial minorities, organizational leaders can discuss how these efforts contribute to a stronger work environment that benefits all employees.

2. Focus on Employees’ Individual Choice

Leading organizational scholars have proposed that diversity initiatives in the workplace may fail when people feel that they are being controlled. Instead, consider motivating employees in a way that shows respect for their individual choice and autonomy.

Research finds that in order to reduce prejudice in the workplace, an autonomy-promoting approach—which emphasizes that people can choose how they behave to reduce prejudice— is far more effective than the message that people should control their prejudice because of laws or workplace policies. Other ways for organizational leaders to show regard for employee autonomy and curb feelings of being “policed” include directly involving managers in the diversity initiatives, such as asking them to lead the targeted recruitment or engage in mentoring.

3. Get Allies on Your Side

Allies are people from traditionally advantaged groups who work alongside people from traditionally disadvantaged groups to advance justice. To get more employees from traditionally advantaged groups (e.g., men and/or White employees) to support workplace diversity initiatives, organizational leaders should enlist the help of allies. People from traditionally advantaged groups are oftentimes key stakeholders in organizations, but they may fail to participate in diversity initiatives when they feel it is “not their place.”

However, enlisting the help of allies to promote a diversity program can be particularly effective because, compared to people from traditionally disadvantaged groups, allies experience certain social benefits when pointing out prejudice. For example, research suggests that men view men who confront sexism as more credible than women who do the same. Drawing on the privilege that allies have is thus crucial to garnering employee support for diversity initiatives.

When rolling out diversity initiatives in the workplace, organizational leaders should be mindful of how backlash from traditionally advantaged employees can undermine the very climate these efforts aim to build. Framing diversity initiatives to include all employees, emphasizing individual choice, and getting allies on board with these initiatives can boost the success and sustainability of these initiatives