Diversity and inclusion programs are a must-have for successful companies in 2018. Having these policies in place helps build inclusive company cultures and improve conditions for all people who belong to marginalized identities. At least, in theory. A new study has revealed that the specific approach a company takes on inclusion can sometimes hinder their retention rates of specific stigmatized groups.
In the United States, white women comprise close to 40 percent of all employees in professional settings while members of racial minorities comprise only around 5 percent of employees.
Though both groups are underrepresented and are subject to various forms of discrimination, research indicates that this discrepancy in representation can impact the effectiveness of language used in corporate diversity policies.
Researchers analyzed the public diversity statements of 151 large law firms in the United States, then content-coded the statements as stressing either value in differences or value in equality.
When companies used language that emphasized they value differences in their diversity statements, they highlighted how important diversity is to the company. This may mean that their statement emphasizes the company’s commitment to finding diverse talent and increasing awareness of bias within the company.
On the other hand, when companies showcased value in equality, they played up their commitment to practicing fairness in spite of differences. For example, their statement may mention that differences will not hinder opportunities for advancement and that all employees are judged based on their skills alone.
Researchers discovered that firms that emphasized differences had lower attrition rates among white women, while those that emphasized equality had lower attrition rates among racial minorities.
One potential reason for this outcome is that calling attention to differences may unearth an anxiety in racial minorities that accolades are being bestowed on them because of their race alone.
To test the validity of this conclusion, researchers conducted an experiment to see what would happen if the percentages were reversed.
They asked professionals to review web content from the perspective of an employee who had earned a spot in a prestigious consulting firm. Half of the participants were told that they were part of a group that constituted 5% of the firm, and the other half were told that they were part of a group that constituted 40% of the firm. Participants were then asked to solve a challenging cognitive task.
When participants believed that they were part of the 5% group, the value in equality approach led to better performances than the value in difference approach. When professionals believed that they were part of the 40% group, the value in difference approach led to better performances, suggesting that numbers play a crucial role in determining which diversity approach works best.
These findings indicate that companies should consider what population they want to target before crafting their public statements. Meanwhile, they should keep in mind that representation already present in the company will likely impact who is attracted and retained by diversity statements.