Why you should clean up your D&I messaging, and how

It is simple and easy to say that D&I is good for business and also the right thing to do. This combined rationale is believed to convince different audiences. However, increasing backlash in recent years shows that positioning D&I does not work smoothly.

This article was first published in Profiles in Diversity Journal (Summer issue, Oct 2019)

Making strong points that D&I generates business benefits and fosters socio-ethical causes seems to offer a clever combination of messages. It appears to cater to audiences that are more receptive to moral, socio-ethical messages or to utilitarian arguments related to different, proven business contributions respectively. The signficant backlash in recent years and harsh dispute over group-focused attention show clearly that things are not converging so smoothly.

A new scientific study from Norway, a country with consistent high rankings in gender gap or equality indexes, examines whether the reasoning an organization provides for their diversity strategy affects individuals’ perceptions of fairness, attitude towards and willingness to supportthe effort.

Are mixed messages or say do gaps dangerous?

The research builds upon previous analyses that found that social justice and business focused arguments may be competing or even incompatible. Previous findings also suggest that gender, age or education can influence the perception of D&I as well as the context (e.g. industry) and that rationales are sometimes used as a pure rhetoric rather than manifesting themselves in strategies or that implementation is at times out of synch with the proclaimed reasoning.

Personal positive experience most impactful – justice adds little value

The research found that one of the control variables, positive contact quality with diversity, had a more positive effect than the different rationales given. For these, attitudes towards D&I were significantly more positive if a business case or a combined rationale were given – compared to fairness only or no reasons). Similarly, combined or business only storylines had significant effects on the willingness to implement D&I. [Education and being a women were positively related with perceived fairness, attitude and willingness to support, but not age.]

Tailoring, streamlining and practicing are your biggest levers

The results provide more insight than what the numbers alone seem to tell. The study confirms societal dynamics where attitudes towards diversity are more positive when people are actually exposed to and interact with others different from themselves (and negative when not) and hence tells us that contact quality must be one of our foci. In order to facilitate this, a robust focus on consistent business-related framing is most effective. Experience shows that high level business case statements (‘good for innovation’) are no longer enough to frame D&I – it needs to be tied to your current priorities and challenges, which may vary by entity or geography!

Target group focus can be toxic – and actually has been already

The low to no value that justice arguments add to your positioning come with (at?) the cost of implicitly creating perceptions that unfair advantages are given to a target group or that they might have lower competences, previous research had shown. One consequence should be to change formerly focused programmes to become authentically inclusive – and not just in a proclaimed way. The related messages must build upon the existing business agenda instead of prevailing inequalities, which should be used as success measurement criteria rather than main objectives.

The success of divisive, populist or post-truth campaigns and backlash like the ‘Google memo case’ have already provided evidence for the need to re-engineer D&I. The future success will increasingly reply on the ability to change our D&I approach in a similar way we require our audiences to change.


Further reading

On the fine line of effective messaging https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-blackrock-heidi-klum-head-hunters-have-common-michael-stuber

On winning or losing mainstream majority (Google Memo Case) https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/google-memo-discussion-misses-point-question-must-why-michael-stuber/

More insight on effective business cases



Laura E. Mercer Traavik and Gordana Abramovic: Reasons Matter: Reactions to Diversity Policy Rationales. Academy of Management Proceedings Vol. 2018, No. 1