Courtesy Oriane Georgeac and Aneeta Rattan
February 9, 2022 6:45 AM EST

Organizations sometimes talk about diversity as desirable because it has business benefits. Diverse teams of workers are more creative, or more likely to know their customers’ needs, the argument goes—which logically makes companies more successful and therefore justifies diversity initiatives. And there is truth to it—research has shown that gender and racial diversity improves the decision-making and performance of groups.

This approach may seem innocuous, but new research shows that talking about diversity in terms of business benefits has negative impacts. That was the finding of Aneeta Rattan of London Business School and Oriane Georgeac of Yale School of Management in a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. We spoke with them recently about the takeaways from their research. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space and clarity:

 

In your research, you’ve basically identified two categories of justifications for diversity. Can you explain what they are and how common they are relatively?

Georgeac: One is a justification that I call ‘instrumental,’ in the sense that it says, ‘We care about diversity because it’s good for the bottom line.’ It could be good for the bottom line per se, but also for organizational performance, creativity, decision-making, etc. Essentially, it’s framing diversity as a business asset. We care about it because it’s going to help us achieve better performance results.

The second type, in contrast, is a rhetoric that is ‘non-instrumental.’ It says, ‘We care about diversity in and of itself because it’s the right thing to do.’ This rhetoric frames diversity in terms of social justice, equal opportunity, and fairness, rather than in terms of the benefits that diversity may or may not have for organizational performance. It’s a commitment to diversity independent of everything else, because diversity is an end in itself in that discourse. So it’s really the contrast between diversity as a means to improving the organizational bottom line versus diversity as an end in itself that doesn’t need to serve any other goal.

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Which of these two is most common among US organizations?

Georgeac: Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the first one. The instrumental case—we care about diversity because it’s good for business—is by far the most prevalent. In our first study, we used a machine-learning algorithm to classify the discourses on diversity that we found on the Fortune 500 websites. We collected all the texts that we could find in which they justify their commitment to diversity, and using machine learning, we managed to categorize them into these two buckets that I described: the ‘business case’ for diversity, which is the instrumental rhetoric, and the ‘fairness case’, which is the non-instrumental rhetoric.

What we found was that, out of 500 companies, there was almost 20% that didn’t justify their commitment in any way or did not talk about diversity. Among the rest, we had a little bit shy of 80% who were making the business case, and very few, between 1-2%, making the fairness case. The disparity between the types of discourse that are out there is really, really striking.

 

When organizations make the business case for diversity, what is the impact on workers?

Georgeac: In this line of work, we were looking specifically at job seekers. They’re people who are still outside the boundaries of the firm, but who are hoping to join it—and are therefore attuned to subtle signals about what this company is like. To understand the effects of these two cases on this particular audience, we randomly assigned job seekers from underrepresented groups to read either a business case or a fairness case. What we found is that relative to job seekers from underrepresented groups who read the fairness case, those who read the business case reported a lower anticipated sense of belonging to the organization that made that case. And in turn, that predicted lower interest in actually joining the organization. That’s the first big finding, which concerns two types of responses: anticipated sense of belonging and interest in joining the organization.

But then we wondered: If these members of underrepresented groups have already not been deterred from applying, could it be that the business case undermines them yet again at the next stage, which is the job interview?

So another portion of my doctoral dissertation looks at this other potential consequence for job seekers, which is this idea that being exposed to diversity justifications immediately prior to a job interview could have an impact on performance during the job interview. This is exactly what we found, again specifically for underrepresented groups. We found that in the context of seeking a job in the consulting industry, women who had been randomly exposed to a business case rather than a fairness case prior to a practice job interview were rated as performing significantly more poorly by their interviewers, who were blind to our hypotheses and to the message that the interviewees had read. This was not the case for men. Men’s performance, as evaluated by the interviewers, was not affected by the type of case that they had read prior to the interview.

Rattan: We also tried to understand why there is this impact on belonging. In a number of the studies, we actually try to examine psychologically what is happening to these members of underrepresented groups that makes them anticipate belonging less in companies that make the business rather than the fairness case. What we found consistently is that when companies use this business case, they evoke more ‘social identity threat’ among members of underrepresented groups. Social identity threat is the feeling that you have to worry that others are going to judge you through the lens of stereotypes—and particularly, in these contexts, negative stereotypes about your group identity. When you go back to the content and definition of these cases, the business case really justifies, through its instrumental language, the idea that the company and the people in it are going to look at you and expect something different from you versus another colleague based on your social identities. In other words, we show in our studies that the business case evokes a confirmation of that social identity threat—that you do need to worry about being judged through this stereotypical lens. The fairness case also slightly raises these concerns, but meaningfully less than the business case does.

 

Given all this, what should companies do? What’s your recommendation in terms of how they approach talking about diversity?

Georgeac: As I said, we looked at the business case versus a fairness case. We also looked at a rather artificial rhetoric, which is a neutral case. The neutral case talks about diversity but does not provide any justification for it. What we found was that the business case is much more detrimental than that neutral case. And the fairness case, depending on studies, might be as good or a little bit worse than the neutral case. In all studies, we found that the neutral case–the one that had no justification for diversity and just stated the company’s commitment to diversity—actually fared better. Therefore, one possibility for organizations would be to affirm their commitment to diversity without any justifications, as if it were a matter of fact that didn’t require any particular justification.

Now, some companies may feel that they have to justify their commitment to diversity. In that case, justifying it using the non-instrumental rhetoric, the fairness case, is going to yield less detrimental consequences. We can see that statistically, whatever the detrimental effect the business case has, the fairness case is half as harmful. In that sense, if you absolutely have to justify your commitment, a fairness rhetoric is the best, but stating your commitment without justification may be the best of all.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of read-throughs for how managers should justify any initiatives within their organizations.

For more about how organizations can approach talking about diversity, consider reading The Conversation by Robert Livingston.

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