by Catalyst

For organizational change to occur, the behavior of both businesses and individuals must adapt. However, change is often difficult for organizations and the people who work in them, and resistance is an expected part of any change process. In order to increase diversity and create inclusive work environments that benefit all employees, managers must understand, anticipate, and address employee resistance at every stage of the process.

Why Do Employees Resist Diversity Efforts?

Employees resist diversity efforts for a number of reasons. For example, if the organization’s definition of diversity is not broad and inclusive, some employees may feel excluded or left out of the change process. Furthermore, employees who are often not made to feel included in the process, such as white men, may feel blamed for inequities in their organizations and react with defensiveness. Employees who feel excluded may also believe that their own concerns and issues are not being addressed by organizational efforts. On the other hand, employees who are specifically included in diversity efforts—such as women or people of colormay express resistance because they do not want to be singled out or perceived as having succeeded purely as a result of change efforts. Finally, employees are also cynical and reluctant to get involved with new diversity efforts when past change efforts have not been successful.

How Is This Resistance Expressed?

Resistance may take on many different forms, depending on the stage of a diversity initiative. In some organizations, the most marked struggle can come at the introduction of the change effort, when employees don’t understand what changes will be made and why. Alternatively, employees may be curious about what is happening and thus remain neutral in the early stages. Their resistance, however, may become more pronounced in the implementation phase, when more concrete changes directly affect their day-today experiences.


Without clear communication, individuals create their own perceptions of the “true nature” of the initiative’s goals and rationale as well as the methods by which these goals will be achieved. Employee perceptions of diversity efforts may include the:

  • Belief that unearned benefits or advantages will be given to a specific group, such as parents, white women, or people of color
  • Perception that one has to be part of a specific group in order to be promoted
  • Equating the goal of the diversity effort with tokenism
  • View that diversity and inclusion efforts separate employees by emphasizing groups over individuals
  • Perception that the development of some employees necessarily impedes the advancement of others.
  • Sense of being singled out or punished
  • Sense of being dominated by “political correctness”


Resistance may be passive or active. Some examples of resistant employee behaviors include:

  • Propagating rumors about why certain promotions, or development opportunities, are given-perhaps openly insinuating preferential treatment
  • Charging that ill-considered promotions are made for the sake of making quotas
  • Ignoring or giving very low priority to program implementation and policy compliance related to a diversity initiative (e.g., ensuring a diverse slate of candidates when recruiting, attending a mandatory professional development session on managing diversity effectively)
  • Making dismissive jokes regarding inclusion efforts (e.g., disrespectful nicknames for employee resource groups and networks)
  • Taking legal recourse because an individual believes his/her retention and advancement has been adversely impacted by diversity programs or policies
  • Believing or communicating that the team-building process is time consuming, arduous, or doomed to fail.

What Can Companies Do to Address Resistance?

There are a host of strategies that organizations can employ to minimize, manage, and address employee resistance. Strategies cluster in three key areas: communication, program and processes, and education.


Of all the tools available to manage resistance, clear and frequent communication may be the most critical.

  • Articulate a vision. Resistance to workplace diversity initiatives is most dramatic when diversity programs or policies are implemented independently of efforts to put forth a new vision of the culture—the beliefs, values, and behaviors that define the organization. The vision establishes how the organization will benefit from the change and what the change will look like at the individual level.
  • Communicate the business case. Articulate a clear business case that makes sense for your organization, and communicate it extensively through leadership speeches, broadcasts/ videos, town hall meetings, newsletters, and regular memos. Make it as specific as possible.
  • Establish a broad umbrella for diversity. Adopt as broad a definition of diversity as makes sense for your organization. Be sure to communicate that white men are an important employee group. Other factors to consider that go beyond the typical racial/ethnic and gender groups include parental status, education, physical abilities, age, sexual orientation, work status, and functional expertise.
  • Demonstrate the support of top management; ensure that top managers model desirable behaviors. Create opportunities for employees in top management to discuss their support and demonstrate their understanding of diversity and/or women’s initiatives.
  • Keep in touch with specific employee concerns. Allow employees to react openly to workplace issues through various means, such as focus groups, workshops, and computer bulletin boards. Providing a forum for resistance can be a powerful way to dispel it. Also, communicate any adjustments you make in response to employee feedback.
  • Communicate rationale for promotions, and highlight successes. Use highly visible promotions as opportunities to draw attention to individuals’ achievements as well as the organization’s management development and advancement processes.
  • Demonstrate fairness. Track and communicate proportional promotion rates and/or development opportunities to counter perceptions of unfair advantage. Fight myths with facts.

Programs & Processes

  • Tie individual diversity efforts to business objectives. Initiatives related to diversity should be dealt with as key business strategies and not as “side-line” programs. Monitoring progress should be treated as part of the regular goal-setting and review processes.
  • Create accountability. To illustrate the importance of diversity to the organization, tie managers’ compensation to performance objectives related to recruiting, developing, and advancing a diverse group of employees. It is advisable to wait for two to three years after introducing a diversity initiative to tie results to manager performance, so that managers will have some time to understand the business case for diversity and what is expected of them.
  • Leverage existing internal institutions. Tap into existing channels (i.e., employee networks, councils, taskforces) to brainstorm company-specific issues relating to resistance and possible solutions.
  • Create ongoing forums for discussion on diversity and inclusion at various levels. Peers can provide the most persuasive arguments in favor of supporting diversity, and champions at different levels can showcase “role model” behaviors.
  • Ensure that programs are inclusive. For instance, offer formal and informal mentoring programs to white men as well as white women and people of color. Track participation in programs by demographic group. Ensure that employee resource groups and corporate networks are open to employees from groups outside of the defined identity groups.

Education Integration

It is critical that diversity education be broadened beyond the standard diversity training sessions. Integrating the precepts of diversity into core business and management practices will lead to the most profound changes and will best leverage the competitive advantage your business seeks in creating a more inclusive work environment.

  • Integrate the business case and vision for diversity and inclusion in all management development education. As the business case for diversity is further integrated into all facets of management practices, effectively managing workforce diversity will be seen as a core management skill.
  • Create diversity leadership competencies and teach behaviors. Treat diversity as a core leadership competency against which you can develop, assess, and promote the next generation of leaders.
  • Provide executives with greater exposure to diverse communities. Require executives to participate as members or leaders in outside community organizations (e.g., associations, nonprofit boards) in which they are exposed to communities outside their own demographic and socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Strengthen management competency. Help strengthen senior management’s facilitation and intervention skills for addressing verbal resistance to inclusion. Hire coaches to help leaders hone their skills in addressing employees who raise concerns about potential bias as a result of inclusion efforts. In addition, strengthen senior management’s team building and conflict resolution skills.

Organizations have a responsibility to address resistance to diversity efforts. Surfacing resistance and its causes is the first step in moving through the change process successfully. Employers must be able to recognize how and why resistance is expressed. More effective implementation of change efforts helps minimize resistance to the process. Employers must therefore avoid common mistakes when implementing diversity efforts and tackle resistance head-on.


This Catalyst article was featured on page 100 in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal