Focus on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging and Analytical Aptitude: What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

The subtext and consequences of diversity, equity, and inclusion Initiatives

By Mikki R. Hebl, Naomi M. Fa-Kaji, Eden B. King September 21, 2023

This is the second in a series of five articles funded by the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology Foundation (SIOP Foundation) to study anti-racism efforts in workplaces.

A recent research study we conducted examined the subtle messages conveyed by organizations' discourse around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). In our proposal, we investigated this question through three studies summarized herein: (1) an archival analysis of Fortune 500 companies' diversity statements; (2) a qualitative interview study with Black professionals to understand the messages they perceive in organizations' DEI discourse and the consequences of these messages for their psychological and work-related outcomes; and (3) an experiment examining the effect of a subset of the subtle messages identified in the other two studies on White employees' support for DEI goals and initiatives. External circumstances required changes to the research plans; these are detailed below.

Study 1: Archival Analysis of Company Diversity Statements. This study entailed searching for and compiling as many diversity statements as possible for each of the companies on the Fortune 500 list. Given the exploratory nature of this study, we developed an extensive coding scheme and had research assistants code each statement for a broad array of different features. We went through three rounds of coding, so each statement was coded by three research assistants. We were initially interested merely in the content of the statements but realized that there was other archival data we could use to get a sense of the potential relationship between the use of different subtexts and organizational outcomes. Specifically, we obtained current and former employees' ratings of organizations from, which lists an overall rating, and ratings for culture and values, diversity and inclusion, work/life balance, senior management, compensation and benefits, and career opportunities.

After the third round of coding, we decided to investigate other aspects of the companies that might relate to the content of their diversity statements. Specifically, we searched organizations' websites to gather data on the demographics of employees, the types of DEI programs present within organizations, and the demographics of the board members, to see whether and how these various factors might relate to the presence of different types of organizational DEI subtext.

Study 2: Survey of Black Professionals’ Experiences. Due to the ongoing pandemic and other external factors, we were not able to carry out the qualitative interview study we originally proposed. We were able to conduct a scaled-down pilot qualitative online survey of MBA students regarding their perceptions of the DEI-related discourse and initiatives within their own organizations. A subset of these students (n = 17) identified as Black. Although we still need to recruit more respondents to draw meaningful conclusions from this data, the responses have been informative. We drew upon these survey responses when designing Study 3.

Study 3: Experiment. We designed a 2 (Participant Race: Black, White) x 2 (Commodification language: Low, High) x 3 (Diversity Justification: Business Case, Moral Case, Business + Moral Case) between-subjects experiment. The study examines the impact of framing and justification on organizational (e.g., support for DEI initiatives, organizational attraction), intergroup (e.g., warmth toward different racial groups, objectification/dehumanization of different racial groups, interest in engaging with outgroup member), and individual (e.g., self-esteem) outcomes.


An analysis of the contents of organizational diversity statements revealed many of the subtexts we anticipated might arise within organizational discussions of DEI, as well as some new ones. For example, many organizations used language framing DEI efforts as a means of helping address the deficits of, or experienced by, marginalized groups. Respondents in our qualitative study indicated that the tendency to frame DEI efforts as charitable or primarily as vehicles to elevate marginalized groups can sometimes hinder effectiveness. This framing reinforces the idea that members of marginalized groups are not as capable or meritorious as members of privileged groups, stoking resentment from privileged group members. This framing can also cause marginalized group members to doubt the causes of their own professional success. Organizational rhetoric around DEI also tends to "speak about" rather than "speak to" marginalized groups. Although diversity statements can boost the attractiveness of an organization to marginalized group members, these statements frequently seem like an effort to justify their DEI efforts to stakeholders from privileged groups. This may be part of why our survey respondents often experienced DEI initiatives at their organizations as mere window dressing.

We found that organizations use both business and moral justifications for diversity, although the use of the business case, or a combination of business and moral, was the most common. Related to the reliance on business justification, our coding of the organizational DEI statements revealed that many organizations used commodification framing when discussing marginalized groups. In other words, even when praising the benefits of diversity, organizations often cast members of marginalized groups as assets whose group membership could be leveraged for the benefit of the company and its stakeholders, akin to a commodity. Some survey respondents discussed the pressure they sometimes felt at work to rehash their trauma or otherwise engage in extra efforts to educate their colleagues from more privileged groups. This seems related to, but an extension of, mere tokenism—respondents mentioned experiences of being used by organizations both to signal organizations’ progress regarding diversity and to build support for diversity without necessarily investing organizational resources to do so.

Combining our DEI statement coding with employee ratings of organizations from Glassdoor, we found a number of interesting relationships. Some were relatively intuitive (e.g., having a diversity statement is positively related to the culture and values and diversity and inclusion ratings, as is discussing inclusion within the statement), and some perhaps less so (e.g., companies that acknowledge their own complicity in maintaining inequality have higher culture and diversity ratings). We used two relationships from these analyses as a springboard for our experiment: (1) a negative relationship between the use of business justifications for diversity and companies' culture and diversity ratings; and (2) a negative relationship between talking about (versus talking to, i.e., a proxy for commodification language) marginalized groups and companies' culture and diversity ratings. A pilot study indicated that participants from marginalized groups tended to respond more favorably to diversity statements compared to White participants, regardless of the justification used. The rest of the results are inconclusive, but the data may have been tainted by an unexpected, race-related incident on our participant recruitment platform. For this reason, we plan to refine our study and relaunch it in the coming months.

Practical Implications and Key Considerations

This project was an initial exploration into the subtle messages communicated in organizations' discussions of DEI. The results of this research provide a richer picture of the common ways that organizations frame discussions around DEI and provide initial evidence for possible consequences of it. For example, our results suggest that organizations frequently discuss DEI initiatives in ways that may contribute to—or, at least, fail to mitigate—opposition to diversity efforts and can contribute to the further marginalization of employees who might be expected to benefit the most. Our findings also suggest the value of soliciting in-depth insights from members of marginalized groups to better understand the actual impact of current DEI discourse on their experiences at work. Further research is needed to identify the most constructive ways of approaching discussions around DEI in organizations, but our findings suggest that organizational leaders would be wise to give more consideration to the ways they discuss DEI in the workplace and what their communications may convey to current and prospective employees about who is valued, what contributions are recognized, and how committed they are to truly advancing diversity, equity and inclusion within the workplace.

Future Research

There are still a number of analyses to be studied in the future. As mentioned above, we have begun to collect data on organizations' demographics and DEI programming and hope to do a more in-depth exploration of the relationships between these variables and various DEI subtexts. For example, we are interested in exploring whether an organization's numerical representation of marginalized group members within an organization (as well as their presence on company boards) relates to how organizations choose to frame their DEI efforts. We also plan to explore more complex relationships between DEI subtexts, organizational demographics and employee ratings. As mentioned above, we plan to relaunch the experimental study and use the results to develop hypotheses that we can test in future experiments.

One of the authors. Naomi Fa-Kaji, is also conducting research that stemmed from some of the findings of this project. Specifically, she and her collaborators are examining how diversity ideologies espoused by organizations influence members of minoritized groups. Preliminary results suggest that multicultural diversity policies (versus colorblind policies) invoke pressure for underrepresented group members to act as prototypes of their group, which leads to categorization threat (i.e., unwanted application of a group membership) for less identified racial minorities. This categorization threat in turn relates to less engagement in pro-diversity behavior. In future work, we plan to continue to explore the consequences of organizational discourse around DEI for organizational, individual and inter-group outcomes.

Mikki R. Hebl, Ph.D., is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of Psychological Sciences at Rice University and affiliated with the Jones Graduate School of Business; Naomi M. Fa-Kaji, Ph.D., is a Rice Academy Fellow at Rice University; Eden B. King, Ph.D., is the Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Psychology at Rice University.



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