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Research finds 4 signals to watch that can make diversity initiatives succeed

NYU professor Lisa Leslie says that the reason many diversity initiatives don’t work isn’t always about the content or about specific policies.

Research finds 4 signals to watch that can make diversity initiatives succeed
[Photo: Julia Garan/iStock]

Despite the billions of dollars U.S. companies spend on diversity programs each year, current strategies will not necessarily achieve their goals, according to an Academy of Management Review article.

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“Staying the course with regard to how diversity initiatives are currently implemented is unlikely to result in substantial progress toward diversity goals,” Lisa M. Leslie of New York University wrote in “Diversity Initiative Effectiveness: A Typological Theory of Unintended Consequences.”

“For example, a number of Silicon Valley companies recently implemented extensive diversity initiatives that failed to produce the desired impact. The conclusion that diversity initiatives are not always effective is mirrored in academic research,” she wrote.

Programs designed to increase the number of hires, promotions, or pay raises among “disadvantaged groups”—including ethnic and racial minorities, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBT or poor people—fail to hit the mark or even reduce target numbers among such employees, Leslie found.

Diversity is a really difficult problem because it’s not just an organizational problem, it’s a societal problem. There are pervasive disadvantages that people in some groups face from day one. It’s very hard to counteract that,” she said.

“Why diversity initiatives don’t work is not always about the content or about specific policies. Just by having a diversity initiative, it sends a message to people in the organization about what the organization is like,” she said. “Those perceptions of the organization that are formed by virtue of having a diversity initiative are these core drivers of their unintended consequences.”

Leslie found that diversity programs produce four kinds of unintended consequences:

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Backfire is the opposite of the intention, such as decreasing rather than increasing the number of female managers. “Prior work has documented mechanisms that contribute to backfire. A variety of diversity practices (diversity training, preferential treatment, diversity and affirmative action statements) increase negative evaluations” of disadvantaged group members, among nondisadvantaged employees and the disadvantaged employee themselves, Leslie wrote.

False progress “happens when a diversity initiative on the surface looks like it’s working, but it’s really not,” Leslie explained. An example is an effort to increase the number of racial minorities in management positions by simply recategorizing nonmanagerial positions held by many minorities as managerial jobs. “So your outcome is improved, you’ve increased representation in managerial positions, but that’s not really the way it’s supposed to work. You’re cheating or taking the shortcut to make it look like the initiative worked, but it hasn’t really changed anything. What’s happening is leaders have good intentions, but what managers at lower levels are trying to do is make the diversity numbers look better no matter how they do it. Another example of false progress might be the gender pay gap. You strategically allocate big raises to just a couple women and that makes it go away in the aggregate.”

“Negative spillover is when a diversity issue has an undesirable impact on something other than the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. A common example is you’re trying to help [minority] group members in representation and inclusion, but instead whites and men and other majority groups think the organization is a really unfair place,” she said. Programs focused on diversity and affirmative action statements and preferential treatment can result in negative spillover, Leslie wrote.

“Positive spillover is the opposite of negative spillover. Again, your diversity initiative is affecting some outcome other than the intended outcome, but it’s happening now in a desirable direction instead of an undesirable direction. For example, you implement a diversity initiative and regardless of whether or not it helps disadvantaged employees, nondisadvantaged employees also like the organization more and feel it’s a more fair and moral place.”

Employees “often interpret and react to diversity initiatives in ways that are disconnected from leaders’ intentions,” Leslie noted. Employees perceive four kinds of signals, or messages, when organizations start diversity programs, she found.

“The signals that diversity initiatives send, together with individuals’ reactions to those signals, are mechanisms that drive unintended consequences,” Leslie found.

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But organizations might be able to reduce the negative consequences and magnify the positive results, she said, by explicitly managing those four signals.

Signal: People targeted by the diversity program need help. Organizations can “emphasize that they know that certain groups face these historical systematic disadvantages that are beyond their control. It is unfair to these groups, therefore organizations need to do something to counteract it,” she said.

Signal: People targeted by the diversity program are likely to succeed. “Organizations can be really explicit about when they introduce diversity initiatives, that they need to do this, and they care about diversity. But that doesn’t mean that they’re promoting disadvantaged employees over nondisadvantaged employees. In embracing diversity, they’re not hurting other groups.”

Signal: Morality is valued. “What this suggests is not shying away from the moral case and just being clear, that the reason they’re doing this is because it’s morally important and they care about valuing diversity and equity.”

Signal: Diversity goal progress is valued. “Organizations can state that they know it’s hard to move the numbers and that they care more about how they go about it than what the outcome is.”

Diversity initiatives require hard work to succeed, Leslie said.

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“I have not found a silver bullet,” she said. “When you talk about diversity initiatives when you plan for them, don’t pretend that it’s this easy quick fix, because it’s not. Be open and realistic about the challenges inherent to doing it and don’t give up. Be willing to try different things and understand that there are probably going to be positive and negative outcomes. Try to find a way to maximize the gains and minimize the pains.”


This article originally appeared in the Academy of Management Insights and is reprinted with permission. It is based on academic research published by Lisa M. Leslie, an associate professor in the Management and Organizations Department at the Stern School of Business, New York University. The original research appeared in the Academy of Management Review.

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