"Don't we have other problems?" – a cynical question that is frequently asked by employees when D&I initiatives such as the use of inclusive language are established.
Even though genuine D&I management, which aims at fostering an inclusive work environment, can lead to economic benefits while promoting a fairer world, it is frequently subject to internal and external criticism.
But who is voicing this criticism, how is it expressed and what are the key points of contention?
Language is an incredibly powerful tool. When it comes to diversity management, the conscious, sensitive use of language can contribute to empowering employees, weakening bias, and fostering equality and fairness. But language can also be destructive and counteract the progress made towards an inclusive organizational culture. In diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, this two-sidedness becomes particularly evident. Not only is inclusive language an important aspect of D&I, but language also plays a key role in criticism of D&I, which is often offensive and hateful.
But how do we best deal with destructive, sometimes even hostile criticism or backlash? That’s what a research project initiated by Academic Society for Management & Communication investigated. It consisted of two empirical studies that were led by Professor Sabine Einwiller and Daniel Wolfgruber at University of Vienna.
Why people criticize D&I initiatives
Why is there criticism of D&I initiatives at all? And what is the psychological process behind it? This can be best explained by drawing on basic ideas of appraisal theories since they foreground the interplay of an individual’s cognition and emotions. The basic premise is that emotions are responses to a person’s appraisal or evaluation of an event or aspects of organizational life.
The appraisal of the person-environment interaction and its (emotional and behavioral) consequences are strongly influenced by the individual’s expectations and the information that they draw on. If an individual feels like losing control over an event or situation, emotions such as fear or anxiety may be aroused.
To cope with these negative emotions and thus restore emotional equilibrium, humans apply various kinds of strategies. In an organizational context, there are usually three coping strategies:
- Staying loyal through reinterpretations of the event or simple inertia
- Exiting the relationship with the organization (real or quiet quitting)
- Speaking out and venting one’s anger or disappointment (voicing criticism)
In particular, traditionally privileged people (mostly white men) tend to perceive D&I initiatives meant to support members of minorities or disadvantaged groups as unjust and thus as a form of contract or expectancy violation. This arouses negative emotions such as fear, which the privileged person has to cope with to (re)gain emotional equilibrium. One of the three coping strategies is voicing criticism, which is a form of explicit workplace backlash.
Employee criticism of D&I initiatives
"Don't we have other problems?" – a cynical question that is frequently asked by employees when D&I initiatives such as the use of inclusive language are established. The critics often emphasize that work is about doing business and not about social issues. But who is voicing this criticism, how is it expressed and what are the key points of contention?
For the first study, the research team conducted interviews with 15 experts working in D&I management or internal communication of 13 German and Austrian organizations. The experts were asked about D&I initiatives and internal criticism of D&I management and concomitant initiatives as well as measures such as guidelines for gender-sensitive language, the empowerment of women and minorities, and playing host to and participating in D&I-related events.
The interviews revealed that
- criticism is uttered mainly by middle-aged white men
- most criticism concerns the use of gender-sensitive language as well as programs and policies designed to support women.
- criticism is mainly expressed on internal social media rather than directly to D&I managers. This may be due to social pressure.
- in a few cases experts also encountered criticism because of a lack of D&I initiatives.
- criticism of D&I initiatives occurs in almost all companies.
“In my experience, gender-sensitive language is still the most polarizing issue. Another subject that also causes problems is the provision of support for women, especially women who want to make it to a management position. Some men feel disadvantaged. That happens from time to time.”
- David Gansrigler, Diversity Manager, ÖBB Holding
Criticism of D&I-related postings on social media
Aside from the criticism of D&I initiatives that is expressed by employees, another important aspect is the public criticism of corporate D&I posts on social media. Therefore, a second study focussed on D&I communication and subsequent critical comments on the Facebook and Twitter pages of large companies headquartered in Germany, Austria, and the US.
How much do companies post on D&I? How much criticism do they receive? And how do they handle critical comments that are posted in response to D&I-related corporate postings? To answer these questions, the research team analyzed 368 D&I-related posts by German/ Austrian and US companies as well as 1,049 critical user comments. The sample included 109 corporations of which 88 remained in the sample as they had at least one D&I-related post that received one or more critical comments.
The results show that
- US companies post significantly more on D&I than companies from Germany and Austria.
- among critical comments on D&I issues, posts addressing ethnicity are prevalent in the US, while gender and sexual orientation predominate in German/ Austrian posts.
- companies only respond to one in ten critical comments (10 percent).
- when users criticized the company’s products and/or services, companies responded in 22 percent of the cases
- emotionality and (de)constructiveness displayed in the critical comments did not influence the companies’ response rate.
Five key lessons for reducing workplace backlash and criticism of D&I initiatives
D&I Management must be authentic
Authenticity is central for D&I management. Especially the CEO’s commitment to the topic is highly important because issues about equality and fairness are taken more seriously throughout the organization and beyond. When the CEO and the top management show their commitment, it is more unlikely that critical employees voice disapproval of D&I initiatives.
- Be true to your values – but with tact
Black Lives Matter, #MeToo or Pride Month – in many parts of the world, companies are expected to genuinely support diversity movements and celebrations. However, this is not the case in every country or cultural area. While companies are encouraged to stay true to their values and take a stance on D&I issues, they should do so judiciously and authentically, always taking into account societal and cultural differences.
- Be transparent and tell (true) stories
Communication plays a crucial role in persuading people. You have to communicate transparently what D&I initiatives are planned and why, what their purposes are, who will be affected by them, and why they are important. The use of storytelling can be particularly effective here if the people affected openly share their own experiences. However, it is advisable not to put the “D&I” label on every minor measure.
- You can’t win everyone over
It is impossible to convince everyone of something. Although you should listen to and try to persuade each critic at least once, it is highly unlikely that you will manage to convince every employee of the benefits of a D&I initiative. Nevertheless, it is crucial to communicate about this transparently and openly. This may lead to the topic triggering fewer negative emotions among critics over time and dampen their desire to criticize it.
- Be responsive, but don’t respond to everything
You should show an interest in constructive criticism and enter into dialogue with critics to dispel fears, persuade them with facts, or explain your point of view. However, it is best to simply ignore criticism that is purely emotional. Insults or hateful comments must be hidden or deleted to protect victims. At any rate, there should be a D&I communication strategy in place so that internal and external criticism can be responded to in a unitary yet individual way.
Key findings of the study
- Employee criticism of D&I initiatives: Programs aimed at empowering women and the introduction of policies regarding the use of gender-sensitive (and inclusive) language are particularly likely to trigger critical voices. In a few cases, however, the experts encountered criticism because of a lack of D&I initiatives, which often prompted evaluation and improvement. Criticism is expressed almost exclusively on the social intranet and mostly by middle-aged white men with a somewhat low level of education.
- Criticism of D&I-related postings on social media: About half the D&I posts attracted critical comments. Among those critical comments, posts addressing ethnicity are prevalent in the US, while gender and sexual orientation predominate in German/ Austrian posts. More than half of the critical comments were highly emotional and destructive, 29 percent of the comments contained insults. Only in half these cases were critical reactions (at least partly) related to the initial D&I content of the post. In the other half, D&I posts were used as a platform to proclaim dissatisfaction with any kind of bad experiences with the company, its behavior, products, or services.
- Companies’ responses to criticism: While critical comments disparaging minorities are often deleted or “hidden” (at least on the social intranet), a response is usually given in the case of justified and constructive criticism. However, frequently merely general statements by the companies are made, which only marginally address the content of the critical comment, or in some cases not at all. Companies are more likely to respond if the criticism is related to their products and services.
The research project was headed by Daniel Wolfgruber at the University of Vienna, and consisted of a literature review and two related empirical studies.
- Literature review
A review of the literature on D&I and criticism from a broad range of disciplines provided the basis for the conceptual underpinning of the research, including communication, psychology, sociology, management and organization studies, gender studies, linguistics, and (moral) philosophy.
- Semi-structured interviews with 15 experts
Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted in study 1 with 15 experts working in D&I management or internal communication from 13 companies headquartered in Germany or Austria. Industry sectors included technology, banking and finance, pharmaceuticals, and logistics/transportation.
- Quantitative content analysis of over 350 D&I-related posts and 1,000 ensuing critical comments
Study 2 dealt with D&I communication and subsequent critical comments on the Facebook and Twitter pages of large companies headquartered in Germany, Austria, and the US. A total of 368 posts were identified, saved, and coded (Germany/Austria: 145; USA: 223). The number of critical user comments was limited to a maximum of five per D&I post, resulting in the coding and analysis of 1,049 critical comments.
Companies that participated in the semi-structured expert interviews – a selection:
The research project was conducted by Dr. Sabine Einwiller and Daniel Wolfgruber at the University of Vienna in 2022:
- Dr. Sabine Einwiller is the professor of Public Relation Research at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.
- Daniel Wolfgruber, M.A. is a research associate in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.
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- Samdanis, M., & Özbilgin, M. (2020). The duality of an atypical leader in diversity management: The legitimization and delegitimization of diversity beliefs in organizations. International Journal of Management Reviews, 22(2), 101-119.
- Sessler Bernstein, R., Bulger, M., Salipante, P., & Weisinger, J.Y. (2020). From diversity to inclusion to equity: A theory of generative interactions. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, 395-410.
- Stoermer, S., Hildisch, A.K., Jintae Froese, F. (2016). Culture matters: The influence of national culture on inclusion climate. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, 23(2), 287-305.