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Is Your Organization’s Commitment to Diversity Harming Minorities?

2012 November 21
by Eric Horowitz

Society pays so much lip-service to the concept of diversity that it’s surprising some crazy right-wing talking head hasn’t made a big stir by advocating homogeneity in the school and workplace. For many organizations this commitment to diversity involves the creation of “diversity structures” — initiatives such as management trainings, workshops, and diversity statements that are designed to quash any discriminatory practices that might occur.

To MBA-toting VPs, diversity structures may all may seem hunky dory. But to a group of psychologists led by the University of Washington’s Cheryl Kaiser, there’s trouble brewing.

We propose that diversity structures have the potential to create an illusion of fairness, whereby high-status group members’ perceptions of how fairly members of underrepresented groups are treated may be influenced by the presence, not the efficacy, of a diversity structure. This illusion, in turn, impairs high-status group members’ ability to detect discrimination against members of underrepresented groups and causes them to react more harshly toward members of underrepresented groups who claim to experience discrimination.

The reasoning is that the presence of a diversity structure signals fairness and effectively legitimizes the status quo. As a result, evidence of discrimination is more likely to seem misleading, and people who allege discrimination are more likely to appear dishonest.

In a series of six experiments the researchers tested and confirmed their suspicions. In the most common experimental design participants read a company’s diversity statement or its mission statement (the control) and then learned about the company’s hiring or promoting history. Even when it was obvious that racial or sexual discrimination was present in the company’s employment practices, participants who read the diversity statement were significantly more likely to say the company was fair and that the discrimination claims were invalid.  These findings held over four kinds of diversity structures and two types of discrimination.

None of this is to say that diversity structures are inherently a bad thing. In fact, when they’re substantive and lead to more procedural fairness they’re obviously a good thing. However, when diversity structures serve as nothing more than a signal they’re not only useless, they have the potential to cause harm.

The broader point is that when you design a policy to help a certain group of people it’s important that the policy actually help them because people will treat them as though the help is real. If the policy proves to be ineffective, the target group will be worse off than before because others will assume their need for help is now less legitimate.
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Kaiser, C., Major, B., Jurcevic, I., Dover, T., Brady, L., & Shapiro, J. (2012). Presumed Fair: Ironic Effects of Organizational Diversity Structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0030838

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Errol Muir permalink
    November 24, 2012

    Good point. This is why a good Hr systems design builds in two regular review processes: first to see that there is compliance with the requirements of the system and second to see that the system is achieving its objectives. Most systems address only the first of these.

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