Corporate Diversity Policies ‘Threaten’ White Men
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Corporate Diversity Policies ‘Threaten’ White Men

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Google might want to rethink its pledge to spend $150 million on diversity programs. A new study suggests that not only are these programs not working, they may be causing more harm than good. 

The report in the Harvard Business Review found that diversity policies can lead white men to believe that racism and sexism aren’t issues in the workplace and make them feel that they themselves are being treated unfairly or even “threatened.” 

Related: The Real Problem with Twitter’s All-Male Board

In one experiment, the researchers put 78 young white men through a hiring simulation at a fake tech company. Half of the men were given recruitment materials that mentioned the company’s pro-diversity message, while the other half received materials that didn’t mention diversity.

Not only did the white men interviewing for the pro-diversity company anticipate unfair treatment and discrimination, they also performed worse in the job interview. Two other experiments also found that, when presented with recruitment materials that mentioned diversity, “members of high-status groups (whites) reported more concerns about unfair treatment” and were more worried about being discriminated against.

“Together, these findings suggest that for members of high-status groups, pro-diversity messages may function as a cue that member of their group are unwelcome or undervalued,” researchers Teresa L. Dover, Brenda Major and Cheryl R. Kaiser wrote in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

The people being studied were not men’s rights activists or proponents of white rights. The researchers reported finding no evidence that the white study participants were upset about the company being “politically correct” by promoting diversity.

“Importantly, diversity messages led to these effects regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world,” they write. “This suggests just how widespread negative responses to diversity may be among white men: the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.” 

One interpretation of the results hinges on what might be called liberal white guilt. “White males feel they are the cause and the reason for this unfairness,” said Donna Chrobot-Mason, associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for Organizational Leadership at the University of Cincinnati, in an interview. “They feel self-conscious and that affects their performance in a negative way.”

If white males feel this way, Chrobot-Mason suggests that diversity training is going to end up causing more harm than good, since having white men understand the importance of the issue and work on improving it in the work place is a valuable step to achieving real diversity. “If they feel threatened or under attack, they’ll tune out and be defensive. Any diversity training that causes the majority to tune out will have the opposite effect than what we want,” Chrobot-Mason says.

Related: Diversity in Boardrooms: Careful What You Wish For

While the Harvard Business Review report suggests that pro-diversity statements might be having a negative effect on potential hires, Chrobot-Mason emphasizes that it’s not saying there’s no value in diversity programs. “I think the research does point out a troubling trend, but I wouldn’t conclude that we should do away with diversity training,” Chrobot-Mason says. 

The researchers aren’t advocating for that, either. But they write that managers who genuinely care about achieving the benefits of a diverse workplace might need to work on creating programs and messages that are perceived as more inclusive. And they should be aware of the limits of their diversity programs. “Extolling the values of diversity and trying to train employees to value it may not convince minorities and women that they will be treated well, and may not increase their representation in the workforce.” 

The takeaway for businesses may be that current diversity programs and messages still need more attention. “Currently, diversity initiatives’ strongest accomplishment may actually be protecting the organization from litigation — not protecting the interests of underrepresented groups,” the researchers write.   

Peggy Stockdale, a professor of psychology at Indiana University, cites a helpful GAO report about managing a diverse workplace that goes into depth about the best workplace diversity practices, including commitment from top leadership, linking diversity to performance, measuring diversity progress, a strategic plan, among many others.

“Diversity policies must be researched, assessed for effectiveness, and implemented with care so that everyone in the workplace can feel valued and supported,” the Harvard Business Review report concludes. Apparently, that applies to white men, too.

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