Many organizations have implemented diversity and inclusion initiatives such as affirmative action policies, employee resource groups, mentoring systems, and diversity training programs. These efforts aim to create a diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and included, regardless of their background.

Why is this so important? Well, for starters, diverse teams are more innovative and better equipped to tackle complex problems. Plus, fostering an inclusive environment has been found to improve employee satisfaction and loyalty, reduce absenteeism, and even enhance a company's reputation.

If diversity and inclusion initiatives improve the workplace, why do organizations struggle to make their diversity and inclusion efforts really stick? This question was at the heart of our research.

The Gap Between What People Think and What They Do

There is a difference between what people think and what they do, including employees' support for diversity and inclusion initiatives. Some employees may openly voice support for diversity and inclusion to look good, but do not actually believe they add value. Others may sincerely support diversity and inclusion initiatives but fail to act in support when given the opportunity to do so. These examples highlight inconsistencies between people's diversity and inclusion attitudes and actions.

In our study we looked beyond what employees think about diversity and inclusion initiatives and examined how they act on those beliefs. Almost 3,000 employees of seven companies in the Netherlands completed a survey about their opinions and behaviors towards the diversity and inclusion policies of their company. We wanted to know how many people sincerely support diversity and inclusion efforts in their company (their beliefs and actions aligned), and how many were insincere or actively opposed.

The largest group of employees (40%) were what we called "reluctants"—employees who outwardly support diversity and inclusion initiatives but do not believe they add value. These were followed by "champions" (35%)—employees who believe in diversity and inclusion and actively work to implement and promote these policies within the organization. The third largest group (18%) consisted of "bystanders"—those who have positive attitudes towards diversity and inclusion but don't actively support the policies. The smallest group (7%) consisted of "opponents"—employees who actively oppose diversity and inclusion efforts and refuse to support them in any way.

These findings suggest that while many employees express positive attitudes toward diversity and inclusion initiatives, their actions don't always align with their beliefs. Their reluctance might explain why these initiatives do not always succeed.

Our results also showed that employees' support for diversity and inclusion depends on their perceptions of workplace inclusiveness. When employees feel that their company just pays lip service to diversity, they are less likely to get behind it. For example, if employees sense that their organization claims to value diversity and inclusion, but doesn't allocate sufficient time, money, and responsibilities to it, they are not likely to provide their support.

Implications

What does all this mean for organizations? Well, for starters, it's a wake-up call to really walk the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Companies that want employee support for their initiatives need to put genuine and substantive efforts into making diversity and inclusion a reality. Our research offers a roadmap for how to get everyone on board with diversity and inclusion efforts. Once companies have a clear picture of where their employees really stand, they can design strategies to foster employee support.

For example, the presence of reluctants requires a closer examination of why these employees are skeptical. Some might have valid critiques of current diversity and inclusion policies, while others may harbor hidden biases that need to be addressed. In contrast, "bystanders" may benefit most from encouragement or training to translate their positive attitudes into meaningful action. When organizations understand these nuances, they can tailor their diversity and inclusion interventions more effectively.

In summary, there's often a big difference between what people think about supporting diversity and inclusion and what they actually do. Recognizing and closing this gap is important for creating workplaces where everyone feels respected and valued. Understanding how employees really feel and act can help companies make their diversity and inclusion efforts more effective.


For Further Reading

Jansen, W.S., Toorn, J., Bokern, Y.N.A., & Ellemers, N. (2024). Shades of support: An empirical assessment of D&I policy support in organizations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.13025

Avery, D. R. (2011). Support for diversity in organizations: A theoretical exploration of its
origins and offshoots. Organizational Psychology Review, 1(3), 239-256. https://doi.org/10.1177/204138661140211

Hiemstra, A. M. F., Derous, E., & Born, M. P. (2017). Psychological predictors of cultural diversity support at work. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 23(3), 312–322. https://doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000141


Wiebren Jansen is a Diversity and Inclusion policy advisor and researcher at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences.