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Originally published February 22, 2018, updated May 17, 2021

Diversity and inclusion are back in the spotlight. Issues surrounding racial justice, immigration and sexual harassment are in the news almost daily. But it is not just today’s hot topic—it’s serious business.

McKinsey’s research on diversity showed that companies with more diverse gender, culture and ethnicity outperform employers that don’t support diversity. The research found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity experience outperform by 21%. For ethnic and cultural diversity, there was a 33% likelihood of outperformance.

We know communicating about your company’s commitment to diversity is important, so we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned about the biggest mistakes in D&I communications and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Communicating commitment without credible proof points, programs or progress

Once a company makes a commitment to diversity and inclusion or refreshes its approach, there’s often pressure to communicate about it. But as soon as you begin communicating, employees will look for evidence of progress and begin asking what has changed. If nothing looks or feels different, employees may become cynical about the company’s intention. If a formal approach to D&I is new for your company, be sure to set clear expectations for how and when you’ll communicate progress.

Mistake 2: Developing messages for recruitment that differ from what’s being said internally

The seeds of retention are planted during the hiring process, and new hires will expect their experience at your company to match what they hear during recruitment and onboarding. More than 3 in 4 employees and job seekers (76%) report a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. (Glassdoor 2020).

So, if your Talent Acquisition team is getting candidates in the door partially on your company’s commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace, be sure their experience once on-board is consistent with what they’ve been told.

We’ve seen cases where Talent Acquisition took the lead on diversity and inclusion messaging in the company’s outreach to candidates but didn’t coordinate with groups developing content for other audiences. The result was contradictory messages in materials aimed at recruits, employees, customers and investors. Likewise, do your growth and development programs demonstrate inclusivity, parity and equitable policies across your employee demographics? Even as you work toward improvement in these areas, aligning messaging does not require a major time commitment. Sometimes a single meeting is enough to get everyone on the same page. From that point, ongoing dialog can ensure all your audiences are hearing a consistent message.

Mistake 3: Failing to fully engage leaders in communication efforts

Just as corporate branding is not just “a marketing thing,” D&I is not just “an HR thing.” One critical component to D&I being embraced as a core part of your culture by employees, particularly people managers, is visible commitment from company leaders. Many managers are fearful of saying the wrong thing, so opt for the false safety of silence. While each organization must decide how best to proceed based on its own culture, we encourage the difficult conversations internally to expose employees’ day-to-day realities. And it’s not just handing talking points to the leaders and including them in a cascade; leaders need to internalize and personally commit to building a diverse and inclusive workplace. Storytelling can be especially effective in this regard, but employees pay attention to what leaders do as well as what they say. The best-case scenario is when leaders actively hold themselves and others accountable for increasing diversity as part of the organization’s business performance objectives, ensuring employees feel respected and valued for the dimensions of difference they bring to the table.

Mistake 4: Focusing too narrowly on metrics

Often companies set diversity targets—aiming to increase the percentage of women or various ethnic minorities hired and promoted within the company. Targets are an essential part of any diversity program, but not all dimensions of difference can be accounted for in HR data.

The ultimate goal of most diversity and inclusion efforts is not just a diverse workplace, but one in which all employees feel included—it’s about being values-driven, creating a culture which respects and proactively supports each and every employee. When the emphasis moves from “diversity” to “diversity and inclusion,” there’s a call to action for every employee to build the desired culture. Simply put: diversity is being invited to the dance – inclusion is being asked to dance.

Mistake 5: Relying on one-way communication vehicles without opportunities for feedback or dialog across your internal audiences

One-way campaigns don’t work—period. The goal of D&I communications should be to facilitate understanding on the part of leadership and employees, and that requires listening, dialogue, opportunities to ask questions and safe space venues where employees can articulate concerns or examine personal assumptions and biases. Encourage leaders and people managers to engage directly with employees. Coach them on how to model empathy and become comfortable addressing sensitive issues.

Employees also like to hear and learn from each other. Leveraging authentic employee voices – across, up and down the organization – can be a powerful way to build understanding. Create “aha” moments in which employees get a glimpse of what the work experience at your company is like for someone who looks different from them. Never miss an opportunity to ask employees what D&I means to them and what they’d like to see, hear and – most importantly – DO to increase their pride in the company.

Mistake 6: Failing to recognize that diversity is defined differently across countries and cultures

The ethnic makeup of Germany is very different from that of Ireland or Brazil, and even across the United States, the underlying diversity of cities can differ dramatically. If each workplace reflects the underlying culture, workplaces that are equally diverse might look very different. Be sure your communication efforts portray diversity in ways that will resonate with employees across all your locations.

The time is now

Awareness and commitment to D&I are at levels not seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And with the advent of social media, real-time global connection is unprecedented. Numerous studies have shown that a diverse and inclusive workplace is a competitive advantage. Employees, customers and investors are making decisions based on their perception of your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion – and their expectations have increased following the social justice movement sparked in 2020.

The movement has united generations, with U.S. millennials currently representing 35% of the global workforce and expected to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. They tend to expect companies to do more to create diverse and inclusive workplaces than older generations. One factor driving this may be the diversity inherent in younger generations: a higher proportion of Millennials (38%) and Gen Zers (48%) are identifying as a race or ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White (Pew). This may create challenges in how you communicate about diversity and inclusion, and it ups the ante on developing programs that will lead to greater diversity and a more inclusive workplace.

Diversity and inclusion are in the spotlight and the “lens” of your employees, customers and other key stakeholders has changed. The world, as a whole, is watching in new and demanding ways. Working toward a diverse and inclusive workplace is no longer a “nice to do” – it’s foundational. And it’s essential to get the communications right. Reviewing your strategy to avoid these six mistakes is an important first step.


Ready to address these D&I communications mistakes? Building your D&I Communication Plan? Please complete the form below to download ROI’s guide to Diversity & Inclusion Communications.



Janice Smith Collins

Janice is a Senior Vice President and Account Director, and leads ROI’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts.

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