DE&I Messaging

Is your organization unsure how to express its support for diversity to its employees, applicants and customers?  Perhaps at this point, your executive team has delayed saying anything at all – which sends its own message. It is certainly important to move forward and create communications, versus doing nothing at all. However, preparing a diversity statement without commitment and forethought will be seen as “just for show”.

Here are some preparatory steps to help you craft your message, as well as some warnings about mistakes that can be made in messaging employees.

#1 – Get Educated

Before you get started, understand what your employees are thinking.  Consider how much time have you spent intentionally listening to your employees’ thoughts on this topic, as well as how much time you have spent listening to outside perspectives. Those outside perspectives could be your future applicants and customers.

It is possible that your organization’s leaders have had limited connections with people who are not like themselves. For example, most of their mentors, mentees, friends, families and close colleagues may be very similar to them.

The idea of promoting diversity can feel to some leaders like a criticism of them or on the company. It can put leaders in an uncomfortable place where they may feel defensive, angry or guilty.

If this is the case, they may need to learn more about diversity before proceeding.

While diversity may not be meaningful to individuals whose race, gender or religion is highly represented at the executive level, it is extremely relevant to others. To understand your employees and customers and to lead with their interests at heart, it is important to educate leaders on some of the systemic effects felt by their staff and customers.

Start listening to other voices and learning more about the situation.  Your diversity and executive teams might devote a few hours each week or month to begin learning about the topic. We offer many educational and support elsewhere in our diversity toolkit to get you started.

Understanding different perspectives will help as you deal with employee concerns and will prevent leaders from going into “defense” mode when they hear opinions that make them feel uncomfortable.

#2 – Self Reflect (as a company)

Consider the following questions and whether you need to address them in your communication:

  1. How robust is your diversity program? Do you have a diversity committee?
  2. Do you do robust diversity training, or “check the box”.
  3. What do you specifically do to support your black employees? Your female employees? Employees of different religious backgrounds (or no religious background)?
  4. Have “out of line” comments or activities been permitted out of a desire to avoid conflict?
  5. How many minority or female executives do you have?
  6. How many minority or female managers do you have?
  7. How integrated are your teams – are all minority employees in one particular department?
  8. Do you see integration in your break areas, lunch areas, etc.?
  9. Do you support or have you allowed, jokes that are off-color or offensive as “friendly banter”?

#3 – Consider asking your employees

A simple way to start the conversation about where you go from here is to ask employees what they think, perhaps by surveying them. Do leaders show a supportive attitude toward diversity? What could our organization do to enhance your feeling of support and community? Do you feel you can be yourself at work? What would you like us to know? 

Surveys can be done by outside firms like CAI to preserve anonymity.  For companies with more robust diversity initiatives, focus groups or listening sessions may be appropriate.

#4 – Be thoughtful about your commitments

Responding emotionally without thought, or promising things which you do not deliver on is a sure way to frustrate your employees.  Start the conversation out slow; listen.  After you learn more, you can begin discussing and planning if changes needed to be made within your organization. 

As with any program, it is better to have a regularly meeting committee with an action plan to ensure that progress continues.  Minorities in companies which have advertised diversity as the next big initiative often state that they have “been down this road before” and “nothing has changed”.

#5 – Be honest and be yourself

Your company has its own mission, vision, values and standards of behavior.  As an executive team, talk these through and decide how racial equity fits into your company as a whole – your customers, mission, values, etc.  This ensures that your message is relevant and on-target and is not seen as a carbon copy of every other company’s response.  You can certainly look at other company’s messaging, (just search corporate diversity statements online for plenty of ideas) but do not use it as your own.  This also may be a time where you want to consider changing your core values if respect for others and diversity are not included.

Bear in mind the following ways that your message can go wrong:

  1. You don’t respond at all: If you do not respond to concerns or outside events, you signal to your employees that you do not care about diversity.
  2. You add the word “but” in the middle of a support message: This often happens when employers try to create a dual message on a difficult topic. As an example, “We support protestors, but we also support the police”. You do not need to dilute your message by stating the obvious. For example, “We support the peaceful protesters searching for fairness and a better world,” is a clear and undiluted message of support.
  3. You tell your employees not to talk: Yes, you will have to address the bad apples who take discussions too far, but it is important to foster understanding and learn from one another.  Continued silence and “trying to all get along” is not going to move your company forward or make people feel supported.  If you have employees who are attacking one another, take them aside and remind them of your core values surrounding communication.  For example: Discussions should be respectful, kind and focused on listening and understanding, not condemning others’ beliefs.
  4. You over-compensate: Having giant meetings or having your HR Manager visit each “diverse” person individually is not appropriate.  Some employees may feel uncomfortable or emotional.  Be gentle in your approach, encouraging conversations in a non-confrontational way.  Surveys, invitations (not requirements) to participate in discussion groups or offering employees the opportunity to share their thoughts are all great options.  Consider getting an outside consultant involved who is impartial and can listen to employees without reacting defensively.
  5. You fail to address issues within your company: If you have one minority executive and one female manager and have hoped nobody noticed, you can be sure that is not the case. Your employees know when you are not doing anything to promote diversity, so don’t make false claims.  Be honest.  Your employees will appreciate it and it will build trust. You can state that you understand the frustrations with the lack of diversity at the top level of the organization and that you are working on a solution to address that over time. You can add that you are going to ask employees to be involved on a diversity task force to confront this and other issues.”

#6 – Keep it Brief, Authentic and Realistic

Look forward at where you want to be as an organization in the future. Your DE&I statement should hold a mirror up to your organization’s culture, then project it to a future state. What is it going to take to get there?

If you are a small organization just thinking about diversity, maybe your statement is just a few steps in the right direction:

“We are committed to listening, learning and education as we work to make all our staff feel included and respected in the workplace.”


If you have a non-diverse leadership team, a wide range of employees, and ongoing frustration about the company culture, you may need a stronger message:

“We are committed to thoroughly investing in a culture where policies and programs are designed to prevent unintentional bias, and where a commitment to diversity is central to company trainings, benefits, compensation and wellness programs.

If you are a proudly diverse organization with a vibrant DE&I practice already, your message may be more celebratory:

“Our organization will thrive through diversity; honoring and respecting each other’s differences. This will be a core tenet of each step we take together.”

As an organization, your weaknesses are revealed often not by what you do, but by what you do NOT do.  Your views as an organization may be undeveloped… Perhaps your company has never felt the need to address areas other than productivity and profit.  Is that still OK in today’s world?  The answer for companies who are trying to find the best talent and expand their customer base is no.  There are many companies that are very vocal with their support of diversity and other social reforms.  Your employees and your customers can choose to go there instead. 

This does not mean as a small or family-owned company you have to espouse causes that you do not believe in or that are not relevant to you, but diversity is too big of an issue to ignore.  So, take the initiative to decide what your organization needs to say on the topic of diversity, specifically with relation to your company’s past and current state, its mission and its values. 

Your company has the unique opportunity to use communication on this topic as a way to build bridges, trust and commitment to your organization, so don’t miss this chance to connect with your staff.

Written by a Catapult Advisor.