How Diversity Statements Backfire—and What Organizations Can Do About It

Scroll to the bottom of any job posting, and you’ll likely find some version of the following paragraph: 

“[Corporation name] is an equal opportunity and affirmative action employer. We are committed to equal employment opportunity regardless of race, color, ancestry, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, age, citizenship, marital status, disability, gender identity, or Veteran status.” 

Such affirmative messages are called “diversity statements.” They’ve become a compulsory feature of hiring since diversity, equity, and inclusion (often abbreviated as DEI) became the latest buzzwords to enter the corporate lexicon. 

There’s a moral case for these messages: valuing everyone equally is good. But there’s an even more compelling business case. Since job-seekers tend to lean left and are egalitarian-minded, pro-diversity messaging is good for optics and attracts a larger volume of potential hires. Further, if these messages do, inadvertently or not, increase workplace diversity, companies will reap the additional benefits: more qualified job candidates, more innovation, more creativity, and a better understanding of diverse target demographics.1 

Are diversity statements effective? That depends on what metrics you care about. For most companies, these statements do indeed bolster brand image. But do they actually help increase the diversity of their workforce? According to recent DEI reports, probably not.

The reality is that these statements are often corporate lip service, merely band-aiding discriminatory hiring practices. At their worst, however, they’re not merely benign messages—they can actually cause harm to minority job seekers. Here, I’ll diagnose the 3 major issues with diversity statements and present innovative solutions that draw from the latest behavioral science research.2

Issue 1: Diversity statements can create an illusion of meritocracy 

Companies like to label themselves “equal opportunity employers” in their diversity statements in order to attract diverse hires. However, these labels can create an overly optimistic impression of a company’s commitment to fairness, and seem disingenuous to those whose experience proves otherwise. Such bold declarations of equality, research also shows, can encourage discriminatory behaviors by creating an illusion of meritocracy.

In an empirical article entitled “Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures,” social psychologist Cheryl Kaiser and her colleagues ran a series of experiments on White participants. One group read a description of a company that included a diversity statement, while the other group read about a company whose description did not include such a statement.3 

When the researchers showed participants clear evidence of discrimination in each company’s promotion rates (with 28% of White and 10% of racial minority employees receiving promotions), participants who read the diversity statement rated the company as acting more fairly toward racial minority employees than participants who did not see a diversity statement. This illusion of fairness can trivialize minority employees’ complaints of discrimination. 

In a follow-up study, the two groups read a scenario wherein a Black employee sued the company for discriminatory promotion practices. The diversity statement group was less sympathetic to this employee and less likely to regard the suit as valid. Both studies point to an insidious consequence of diversity statements: by creating an impression that equality is already achieved, organizations can inadvertently prompt employees and hiring managers to ignore or downplay disparities in outcomes.

Solution 1: Frame diversity statements as aspirations rather than declarations

If organizations stating they’re an “equal opportunity employer” can backfire, how else should they express their commitment to diversity? According to research by management professor Michelle Duguid and Airbnb’s current Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Melissa Thomas-Hunt, we should frame diversity messaging as aspirations rather than declarations.4 Instead of saying you are a pro-diversity employer, say you strive to be one. 

A diversity statement that emphasizes striving could sound something like this: “The vast majority of people in our organization are working hard to achieve a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive environment.” 

Not only do statements like this sound more sincere (because they acknowledge the existence of racial biases), but they also frame these biases as something malleable rather than something fixed. In other words, instead of assuming that somebody is either racist or not racist, they make room for the understanding that biases exist even in well-intentioned people, and that these biases can be changed with some amount of effort. 

Embracing a growth mindset in this way may help us avoid becoming defensive when faced with our own mistakes or shortcomings. This, in turn, can make us more likely to actually achieve our goals.

Issue 2: Diversity statements can sound too controlling

Sometimes, diversity statements include forceful messages such as a “zero-tolerance policy” towards racism, or expect all employees to commit themselves to “stopping racism.” While it’s important that policies and expectations are in place to uphold workplace equality, such authoritarian statements can actually discourage anti-racist efforts.

In 2011, social psychologist Lisa Legault and her colleagues demonstrated that the way organizations frame diversity messages— especially whether they emphasize authority or autonomy—matters.5 To do this, they randomly assigned non-Black undergraduate students to read brochures framed as part of a new campus initiative to reduce racial bias. These brochures would either emphasize personal choice (e.g. “I enjoy relating to people of different groups”; “it’s fun to meet people from other cultures) or social norms (e.g. “it’s socially unacceptable to discriminate based on cultural background”; “I should avoid being racist”).

When tested, students who read the autonomous message showed less bias against Black people and greater motivation to be unbiased in the future. In a follow-up study, they further demonstrated how differing messages altered participants’ subconscious biases: those prompted with “autonomous” diversity messages scored lower on implicit anti-Black bias measures than those who read “authoritative” diversity messages. It’s reverse psychology: tell people they mustn’t be racist, and they become more likely to act racist. 

Solution 2: Emphasize personal autonomy in diversity messaging 

Diversity statements shouldn’t include “musts” or “shoulds.” Instead, they should make it seem that employees value diversity because theyhave personally chosen to value diversity.1 For example: “our employees and management value diversity because we enjoy relating to people from different groups, we have fun meeting people from other cultures, and think diverse perspectives are interesting and critical to our mission.”

Emphasizing personal autonomy allows the statement to sound genuine rather than forced. We value diversity because we want it, not because it’s a business requirement.    

Issue 3: Diversity statements often don’t reflect pro-diversity hiring practices

I want to highlight something critical: diversity statements can only do so much. They must never replace substantive changes to how the organization’s hiring procedures operate, because biases are ingrained in the way we think. What happens if corporations merely include diversity statements in their job postings, but don’t enact real changes to create diversity?

If, like me, you bear a foreign-sounding legal name (mine is “Lok Sang Jeffrey To”), in the past, you might’ve either bracketed the foreign parts (“(Lok Sang) Jeffrey To”) or removed them entirely (“Jeffrey To”) on your resume. You might’ve engaged in similar excisions for your organizational affiliations, like dropping the “Black” in “Black Engineering Students’ Association.” This act of “résumé whitening”—removing ethnic cues to appear more White—is common practice among minorities due to fears of hiring discrimination.

In a 2016 study led by Sonia Kang, professor of Organizational Behavior at the Rotman School of Commerce, it was found that when ethnic minority candidates applied to job postings that included diversity statements, they were half as likely to engage in résumé whitening than when not shown these statements.6

But do companies with diversity statements actually hire diverse candidates more often? To answer this question, Kang and her colleagues sent out over a thousand résumés—half whitened and half with candidates’ ethnic cues retained. They found that ethnic minorities with whitened résumés were more likely to get a callback, when compared to ethnic minorities with un-whitened résumés. Surprisingly, this pattern was maintained regardless of whether a company’s job posting presented a diversity statement. In other words, employers with diversity statements often don’t walk the talk. And if these statements encourage minority job candidates to disclose racial information, they might hurt rather than help their chances of getting the job.

Solution 3: When it comes to DEI, show, don’t tell

Clearly, we need innovative hiring procedures that disrupt these biases—during and before hiring decisions.

One solution to hiring discrimination is “blind recruitment,” which involves subtracting any personal identifiers from the applicant’s résumé and other application documents. This process removes name, gender, age, and education level from the equation, leaving qualification as the sole metric.7

Blind recruitment is steadily gaining traction: organizations including Deloitte, HSBC, KPMG, Google, and the BBC have committed to the practice. New technologies also makes it easier to implement blind recruitment in hiring: GapJumpers, for example, hides candidates’ names, faces, and personal information from employers during the initial hiring stages to reduce potential bias. The company numbers suggest that, compared to standard resume screening, the use of blind recruitment increases the chances of minority and female applicants being offered a first-round job interview by around 65%.

Conclusion 

Too often, people and organizations are content with superficial gestures towards social progress and equality, in the absence of any concrete change; diversity training, which studies have long shown to be ineffective, is another example of this pattern. That’s not to say that these interventions are all bad. If they’re tailored to evidence-based recommendations, and if they accompany structural changes that aim to mitigate biases, they can help increase diversity. But, as we’ve seen, when companies include them merely for optics or to hitch a ride on the corporate diversity bandwagon, they can actually do more harm than good.

If organizations are serious about promoting diversity and equality, they need to move past these empty gestures towards substantial, data-driven approaches recommended by DEI scholars and experts. We as individuals also need to be more critical of companies who make claims to progressiveness without the numbers to back it up. It takes more than diversity statements to make the workplace diverse and inclusive.

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