Why Are Workplace Diversity Initiatives Failing?

A new study suggests one reason companies are struggling to become more inclusive.
(Photo: Chris Ryan/Getty Images)
Jan 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the University of Missouri, organizations in recent years that have faced criticism for their predominantly white male leadership have turned to what appears to be a commonsense remedy: the diversity initiative. The launch of programs geared toward increasing the number of women or people of color in a workplace usually garners headlines and praise, but new research suggests these initiatives may be doing little to achieve their intended goal.

Researchers found that at companies advertising their diversity missions, white male employees tend to believe they are being treated unfairly, according to a study published in the January issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. At the same time, ethnic minorities viewed companies that championed diversity as no less likely to discriminate against them than companies that did not, the researchers discovered based on a separate set of experiments.

The study's authors posited in an article published in the Harvard Business Review on Monday that such initiatives, while productive and inclusive in theory, may be most effective at protecting companies from lawsuits. They point to a 2011 Supreme Court case in which Walmart’s antidiscrimination policy helped the corporation prevail against allegations of gender discrimination, making it less legally accountable for its conduct because of the language in its employee handbook. The study is consistent with a 2013 study Kaiser conducted that suggested the leadership of companies with diversity training programs were less likely to take discrimination complaints seriously and that such programs weren't typically tested for effectiveness.

Tessa L. Dover and Brenda Major of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Cheryl R. Kaiser of the University of Washington set up their experiment by asking a group of young white men to interview for jobs at fictional tech companies. The two firms were described identically in recruitment materials, except that one touted its pro-diversity values and the other did not.

The applicants who interviewed for the company that celebrated diversity overall performed worse in their interview, according to an independent panel, and reported higher levels of stress, based on their cardiovascular responses. They also expected more unfair treatment and discrimination against whites.

"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," the study's authors wrote in the Harvard Business Journal. They called the results of their experiment troubling considering the prevalence of initiatives to boost workplace diversity.

“Groups that typically occupy positions of power may feel alienated and vulnerable when their company claims to value diversity,” the authors wrote. “This may be one explanation for the lackluster success of most diversity management attempts: when people feel threatened, they may resist efforts to make the workplace more inclusive.”

Researchers may seem skeptical about corporate diversity efforts, but the report's authors don't downplay the importance of inclusion in the workplace. Citing a 2009 study showing a correlation between multiculturalism and higher minority engagement, they argue that companies need not scrap their diversity programs—they need to implement them with better thought and more consistent assessment. The report's authors did not respond to TakePart's request for comment.

“Diversity initiatives must incorporate accountability. They must be more than ‘colorful window dressing’ that unintentionally angers a substantial portion of the workforce,” they wrote in Harvard Business Review. Promoting the values of diversity isn’t enough, they argued. They urged managers to conduct careful research and continuously assess their diversity policies for effectiveness.

The recent experiment comes after the creation last year of a number of high-profile diversity initiatives. Following the creation of the awards season hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in November that it was instating a five-year plan for increasing diversity among its leadership.

The same month, the University of Missouri system—facing widespread campus protests over the administration’s failure to prevent racial harassment—appointed its first-ever chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer and planned a series of diversity training sessions for faculty and staff.