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Communication strategies to overcome employee pushback to DEI

Understand the psychology of why employees resist DEI initiatives. 

Amanda Faull.png
Amanda Faull DE&I Communications Specialist
  • 6 minute read
  • DE&I

In the last few years, there’s been an increase in efforts to address workplace inequities as more companies acknowledge the need to take diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) seriously. But shifting the needle requires more than one-off training sessions or events, which is why, some critics say, we’re now seeing a retreat by those companies who jumped on the bandwagon following recent social justice movements.

Despite good intentions and increased investment, there are still a lot of DEI-related efforts failing to make a significant impact. The reasons will be nuanced and complex for many companies who set off with bold ambitions but overlook one crucial factor – employee sentiment

A 2021 survey from Gartner revealed that 42% of employees resent DEI efforts, 42% view them as divisive, and 44% believe they have alienated colleagues.

What’s driving this employee pushback? And how can companies turn resistance into allyship?


of employees resent DEI efforts
Source: Gartner

Psychological threats driving resistance

As research from HBR explains, three types of psychological threats might be elicited when people encounter significant organisational change, particularly from members of the majority group:

“Status threat” – when individuals perceive DEI efforts as a threat to their own job security, status, or opportunities. 

“Merit threat” – a perception that DEI initiatives imply that their achievements and successes were not based on merit but on majority group membership.

“Moral threat” – by acknowledging your privilege, you compromise your moral principles because you have benefitted from an unfair system. 

Perceived threat is also commonly linked to poor communication about the goals and purpose of DEI initiatives, which can lead to misunderstanding and employees believing that these efforts will disadvantage certain groups or that they are not necessary.

Three common forms of employee pushback

When employees feel one or more threats related to DEI efforts, there are three common forms of pushback which can slow or even halt progress towards inclusion. 

Denial of inequalities or “colourblind” – this is when employees downplay the existence of disparities and dismiss the need for interventions. They might say they are “blind to colour” and treat everyone equally.

Disengagement or lack of action – when employees are passive or unwilling to act in support of DEI. They may acknowledge there is an issue but don’t see it as their responsibility.

Derailment or defending – when a majority group attempts to shift the focus from disadvantaged groups and call for focus on merit not demographics.

Communication strategies for addressing pushback

Pushback will not always be overt. So, don’t assume silence from employees as a sign of acceptance of DEI. Resistance could become deeply embedded within the organisation if employee sentiment is overlooked.

To address pushback on DEI efforts, your communications should:

1.     Lead by example 

Leaders are crucial to the success of DEI, yet a survey of DEI leaders shows that 51% believe their company’s key stakeholders don’t take ownership. If employees don’t see DEI commitments being honoured from the top, they are unlikely to do the same. Leaders need both an understanding of the strategic importance of DEI and to be accountable for measurable outcomes. And a big part of their commitment needs to be vocal and visible support.

2.     Communicate the purpose

Ensure communications are clear about why DEI matters to your organisation. This isn’t about casting blame or shaming anyone or favouring one group over another. DEI is about creating more opportunities and a more inclusive environment for everyone. Consider framing the dialogue about correcting systemic issues and highlighting evidence of inequities. But also, the “business case” and how everyone is essential to long-term business success.

3.     Appeal to moral principles 

Those who feel their moral principles have been compromised or threatened by a perception that they benefitted from a biased and privileged system are most likely to distance themselves from DEI. The best way to encourage their involvement is by appealing to their moral compass of ‘doing the right thing’. By framing DEI initiatives as a way to demonstrate a commitment to the principles of fairness and equality, you are providing them with an opportunity and empowering their sense of purpose. 

4.     Create space for dialogue

Ignoring or denying dissenters a voice will further remove them from DEI initiatives, and you miss an opportunity to understand their concerns and bring them into a conversation about the experiences of others. Foster a culture of open and respectful dialogue where employees have the psychological safety to express their opinions and questions – even if they don’t always align with your DEI messaging. 

5.     Foster empathy through storytelling 

One of the most powerful ways to promote understanding and compassion is through storytelling. Share personal stories and narratives that highlight the experiences and perspectives of others, especially those from different cultures, backgrounds, or life experiences. Storytelling humanises people and helps others relate to their experiences. 

On-going and consistent communication

Ultimately, addressing pushback and creating a more inclusive workplace requires a combination of education, communication, and cultural change efforts. Many companies underestimate the time, commitment, and resources needed to sustain DEI efforts. 

Where they fall short is continually monitoring employee sentiment around DEI and the impact of their communications. When employees feel seen and heard and see the progress and impact of DEI efforts, they will be more likely to shift from bystanders or derailers to active and supportive allies. This will move your company that much closer to addressing disparities and creating an inclusive culture.

Want to know more about how to approach DEI within your communications? Get in touch with us at diversity@thirtythree.co.uk. 


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