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Are you a non-white or female manager? Be careful before you promote diversity efforts! 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

This is a really disturbing and yet, so intuitively predictable article about what happens when you are a Black, Brown, and/or Female manager in your workplace. While past research has blamed the high achiever for acting as gatekeepers and keeping other minority members out of positions of leadership—today’s research has a more empathic explanation for why that gatekeeping happens. Essentially, these researchers say that successful minority managers “know it could spell disaster for their own careers” if they support diverse candidates for management positions. Regardless of how many male or White managers promote the candidates most similar to themselves, it often spells trouble for a minority manager who does the same thing.

Today’s researchers wondered if minority status (being an ethnic minority or female) made a difference in how diversity initiatives proposed by managers were received. So they recruited 350 executives from a variety of American organizations (10% were non-White and about 30% were women). These executives represented 20 industries and 26 different job functions. Their bosses and up to three colleagues were asked to rate their competence and performance, how ready they were to be promoted, and whether they valued working with a diverse group of people.

According to Alex Fradera, who summarized this article over at the BPS Digest blog, there were findings consistent with earlier research about the importance of valuing diversity—but there were also some more disturbing findings we have not seen before.

“Promoting diversity” is seen as important in many organizations and findings in this study were consistent with earlier work—those who were rated higher for diversity-valuing behavior also received higher ratings for performance and competence.

But. And this is a big but. For non-white executives and for female executives, the more they were seen as valuing diversity, the lower the scores they received on competence and performance. (And those in this group who did receive higher scores on competence and performance, also were rated as showing the least interest in diversity.)

The researchers saw this as reflecting attitudinal biases where minorities who value diversity are negatively perceived since they are seen as favoring “their own” rather than maintaining the status quo. So they did a second study to ensure this was an accurate interpretation. You likely know what the results of that study were.

If a female or non-White manager, hired a female or non-White Vice President and mentioned promoting diversity in the hire—research participants gave that hiring manager poor ratings.

However, much like the first study, when a White male manager made that same decision with the same explanation of promoting diversity—they were not negatively rated by research participants.

So, no wonder past research has found that high-achieving non-White or female employees do not advocate for others “like them” to move ahead in the organization. Perhaps, rather than wanting to serve as a gatekeeper and avoid competition—they simply realize the career cost is too high for them to stand up and welcome in diverse others. Additionally, it seems that they will have less organizational influence —in minority hiring and more generally—than if they said or did less. In other words, as the researchers say, “ethnic minorities and women who engage in diversity-valuing behaviors tend to be negatively stereotyped, and thus, receive lower competence and performance ratings”.

It’s  a research finding that is clearly disturbing, but these researchers actually have some ideas to successfully develop a diverse workplace without harming anyone’s career path. Some of their recommendations may seem odd at first, but they also make sense given these research results.

Here are their recommendations:

Stop focusing attention on diversity-valuing behavior and focus instead on leaders’ “homogeneity-valuing behavior”.

Why? This puts the burden of proof on those trying to maintain the status quo rather than on those trying to change it. The researchers acknowledge that this is likely often an unfair standard and suggest it is more practical to follow their second and third recommendations.

Reward any hiring manager who hires someone demographically different from the hiring manager.

Why? The researchers say this will automatically increase minority numbers in the organization because White hiring managers are going to be looking for good minority candidates.

Also, non-White and female employees who seek to hire White males are going to likely avoid the negative ratings they would receive if they hired more diverse candidates. The researchers go so far as to say that hiring White males may be a “beneficial career strategy” for non-White and female hiring managers.

Consider putting a White male in charge of your diversity initiatives.

Why? The researchers say these positions in organizations are usually staffed by women or non-White employees who—based on these research results, will be suspect for supporting diversity.

If, for example, the CEO of the company (or the senior partner of a law firm) is a White male, that person may be a good choice to lead a diversity-valuing committee since it will help all employees see diversity as a legitimate goal. A White male leader will not be suspect and the diversity messages may be more successful because of it.

One simple example was the manager Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”, a film about the astonishing contributions of three African-American women during the Apollo program at NASA. Harrison was as blind to the institutional racism these women faced as anyone else, but when he realized the negative effects on the women and his program, he aggressively sought to desegregate his workforce.

Hekman, DR Johnson, SK Foo, MD Yang, W. 2017. Does diversity-valuing behavior result in diminished performance ratings for non-white and female leaders? Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 771-797.

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