‘Diversity dishonesty’ is the toxic workplace trend we’re not talking about enough

Diversity dishonesty is where a company or organisation works hard to look like they are invested in diversity, without making the internal changes to support their diverse employees.

When people hear the word ‘diversity’, it can prompt mixed responses. For countless people of colour, it represents a longstanding desire to be represented in spaces where we deserve to be seen and heard. For some others, it’s another politically correct buzzword like ‘woke’, which has risen in popularity over the last decade and is seen as a nuisance more than a necessity. Back in 2015, writer Anna Holmes posed the question of whether ‘diversity’ had lost its meaning, asking: “How does [diversity] go from communicating something idealistic to something cynical and suspect?”

Holmes’ question spotlights how the word has been overused, exaggerated and at times, demonised over the years – so much so that the mere mention of it in some circles will result in nothing more than a sigh and an exasperated eye roll. 

But at the root of it all, the underrepresentation of people of colour across various sectors and industries is a very real issue that many still have to deal with today – but one they rarely feel safe enough to address. A 2021 poll by culture change organisation Right Track Learning found less than half of people felt comfortable talking openly about diversity and inclusion at work.

"Organisations that aim to convey that they are diverse and inclusive will focus on things that are public-facing"

Another survey in 2022 found that one in five (20%) employees didn’t think their current company was an inclusive place to work, highlighting how a lack of diversity continues to permeate the UK. In fact, a 2021 report by Savanta’s Diversity & Inclusion team showed that 42% of Black employees had resigned from their job citing a lack of workplace diversity and inclusion. 

While underwhelming diversity in the workplace is something numerous people experience, there’s a rising trend of businesses and organisations appearing to be more diverse than they actually are – something that has been dubbed ‘diversity dishonesty’.

“Diversity dishonesty is a company or organisation working hard to give the appearance that they are invested in diversity, but not making the internal changes to support diverse people in the organisation,” says Tricia Callender, PhD, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Thinx Inc.

“It’s hiring a ton of diverse people, putting diverse people on company photographs and advertising assets, but not valuing them in the organisation and then gaslighting when the issue is raised.”

From highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion in job ads to company imagery including people of various backgrounds, it’s becoming harder to tell if businesses are embracing diversity or merely portraying themselves to be more inclusive than they are.

After all, organisations that aim to convey that they are diverse and inclusive will do so by focusing on things that are public-facing. Whether it’s virtue signalling on social media or hiring people of colour in junior positions, diversity dishonesty emphasises a company’s desire to focus on appearing diverse, without actually doing the work to ensure underrepresented groups have space to progress and feel seen and heard.

“Employees who feel they are working at a company which is dishonest about diversity will feel that they are being treated like a commodity,” says Gena Cox, a coach and organisational psychologist. “If a company is more interested in getting more people from a certain group to satisfy some performative urge but is not interested in those people as humans, this can lead to employees being less trusting of the organisation.”

Cox adds that this can in turn create a ripple effect, as potential employees get word that a company isn’t truly practising what it preaches.

“Prospective employees will be suspicious of the organisation’s motives and may decline opportunities to work at these companies due to this,” she says. “They will also worry about fitting in and being accepted.”

"The top-level leadership and boards of companies set a tone from the top"

Dr Callender says there are a few questions we can ask ourselves when assessing whether a company is being dishonest about its level of diversity. “Are there more people from underrepresented backgrounds in the organisation but as you go up the ladder, it gets less so? Do people from minority ethnic backgrounds or [who have] disabilities get promoted? Is there a clear path to promotions? Are there support [systems] and mentorships [available]? If the answer is no, that’s an indication that an employer is falsely inflating the diversity at their company.”

The reality is, diversity dishonesty is something that many people of colour face at some point in their careers – and ultimately, even if we can identify the problem, it isn’t our job to solve it.

“Like all important business decisions, this is the responsibility of the CEO and the executive team,” says Dr Callender. “And it can be done. This is long work but does not have to be impossible work unless you are resistant to it.”

Cox adds that “top-level leadership and boards of companies set a tone from the top and they are the ones who must change the norm. Leaders cannot say they are effective if they do not adequately support the needs of their employees.”

However, Dr Callender suggests that those who do want to be vocal about the lack of diversity at their current workplace could seek out trusted colleagues to speak to about this issue. 

“I would advise employees to find a trusted person to go to, to share their concerns and determine – depending on their company culture – the best way to bump these concerns up to the decision maker,” she says.

“This can be anonymous or overt. If that is not satisfactory, then ask allies in your organisation to speak out on the issue. That’s what allies are for! And if there is no change, dust off the resume. Life is too short to be unhappy.” 

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