Corporate Eye

Diversity on the Corporate Website: The Challenge of Messaging

The second post in the Diversity series covered strategies for integrating diversity messaging. considerations about presenting diversity. So now we look at a second group of considerations—both practical and ethical—associated with presentation of diversity on the website. That takes in both subtle factors (such as imagery and language) and obvious content, such as policy statements and executive messages.

This post is a story and some questions. No answers!

The story: A few weeks ago, I came across a mid-sized company that had a most enticing recruiting brochure (available on their website as a PDF). I was about to add the company to my “places I want to work” list when I realized that there does not appear to be a single person of color in the whole brochure. There are dozens of people shown—even a snapshot of a company picnic—and everyone is, to put it plainly, white.

There are two possible exceptions, discovered when I returned for a more detailed trip through the brochure. But they are so subtle I didn’t notice them the first time.

Anyway, here’s what I found on the second review. And let me say loudly, this isn’t an interpretation or an indictment, it’s just a description:

Cover: Posed photo of four white people—two men, two women.
Page 2: Posed photo of white male CEO.
Page 3: Two pictures in classroom settings, with white female teaching white students. In the smaller picture, with extra magnification, it looks as if one student at the back of the class might be of Asian ancestry.
Page 4: Photo of white man talking to white woman at a desk.
Page 5: Group photo depicting employee recognition. Six men, six women, all white.
Page 6: Snapshot of family. Man, woman, two children, all white.
Page 7: Company picnic, at least 50 people in view. With extra magnification, all appear to be white, except for a Hispanic woman in an apron, who seems to be part of the catering staff.
Page 8: Pictures of a fitness facility. White man on treadmill, white woman with dumbbell.
Page 9: Two photos relating to health benefits. One shows a white male doctor, the other shows a white mother taking care of a white child.
Page 10: Two photos relating to career opportunities. One shows a white man looking over some papers, the other shows two women wearing headsets. One of the women might be African-American, but I don’t think most people would be certain of that.
Page 11: Picture of white woman.
Page 12: Picture of building exterior.

For context, this is a regional company, located more north than south, more east than west. It employs more than 800 people, and has won workplace awards. The text in the brochure hits every single right note about valuing employees, communicating with employees, work-life balance, community involvement, and so on. In fact, they have a whole page that details the array of parties and events—and it looks like a fun place, let me just say!

So let’s consider the possibilities:

  1. They just don’t happen to have any non-white employees. This would be unusual on a percentage basis, with a total population near 1000, but it’s possible.
  2. Some or all of the people in the brochure are not employees, so they don’t necessarily represent the make-up of the company. (Except for the CEO, no one is identified, and several of the illustrations look like stock photography. But the picnic is obviously real, and the employee recognition shot looks real.)
  3. No one considered the images as part of the message. This seems odd, since they went to the trouble of printing a full-color brochure (or at least the trouble of creating a PDF to represent same). But again, it’s possible.
  4. All of the above.

And now for the questions:

  • If they don’t have racial diversity in the company, should they pretend to? After all, if they are using stock photos, they could add a touch of color . . . but would that be dishonest? Hypocritical? And come to that—would it be dishonest (or at least misleading) in general to mix stock photos with real pictures?
  • Will readers notice that the possibly Hispanic lady is a caterer and the possibly African-American lady is the only employee shown wearing a headset? (It’s clearly a call-center headset, not something for hands-free at the desk.) If not consciously, then subliminally?
  • Is it fair to drill down on a marketing document with this degree of scrutiny? Should we draw any conclusions about the company on this basis?
  • Will prospective employees draw any conclusions? And if so, will some be bothered by the lack of diversity, while others find it attractive?
  • Could this messaging be accidental? Could it be intentional?

If you think of other questions, let me know. Except if the questions are “Why didn’t you mention disability?” and “What about invisible diversities?” I’ll get to those topics in the final post of the series.

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.
Valerie Hernandez

Hi Cynthia,

Excellent post! I work in recruitment communications and develop collateral materials for large companies on a regular basis. My experience with the big name companies is that they are so paranoid about appearing non-diverse that they’re over the top when requesting diverse images. Sometimes the image of a white working man is a rare thing – and that concerns me just as much as the opposite. Recruiting materials should paint a realistic view of your corporate culture and most companies don’t ONLY have ethnically diverse employees.

In the case of this company, if they have a diverse team- shame on the management and the agency/HR department. And if they don’t have a diverse team, well, shame on management and HR – again!

You make such an important point, Valerie. After I’d spent some time focusing on “diversity depiction,” I came away with a lot of questions and concerns–more than I could raise in four posts! But that seemed long enough for one series, so I’m planning to revisit the topic later. And I think it would be very interesting to look at some of the factors driving corporate communications in this area . . .

Thanks so much for your contribution–and I’m glad you liked the post!

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