Downsides to diversity

Initiatives can be met with fear, skepticism by some groups: Report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/05/2016

These days, it’s rare to find an employer without a policy or initiative around diversity. But do these programs really work? And how exactly do they affect employees?

A January paper in the Harvard Business Review suggests a focus on diversity can be seen as threatening to majority groups — white men in particular — while being met with skepticism by minority groups.

Through experiments, the three authors found the rhetoric of diversity not only makes white men believe women and minorities are being treated fairly — whether that’s true or not — but they themselves will be treated unfairly.

The implications are troubling as groups that typically occupy positions of power — such as white men — may feel alienated and vulnerable when their company claims to value diversity, said the authors.

“This may be one explanation for the lacklustre success of most diversity management attempts: When people feel threatened, they may resist efforts to make the workplace more inclusive.”

In a way, it’s understandable, according to co-author Cheryl Kaiser, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Many diversity strategies came about as a reaction to civil rights laws in the United States, when organizations were told they can’t discriminate, she said.

“But they weren’t told how to avoid doing that, so this is where human resource groups, legal groups and companies developed what seemed like, on the face of it, rational strategies to avoid discrimination. But the problem is a lot of those aren’t tested so… a lot of times… they seem like best guesses.”

It’s very easy to make a compelling case for diversity and inclusiveness, but there are no clear goals or benchmarks that have to be followed up with, said co-author Tessa Dover, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“It’s become so popular because it’s sort of a very easy way to show you’re socially conscious and trying to do the right thing without having any sort of benchmark that you’re judging yourself against, so it’s sort of a safe way to show you’re socially conscious.”


In one experiment, the researchers — including Brenda Major, a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California — had white male university students go through a hiring simulation for a job at a fictional firm. For one-half of the applicants, a recruitment video mentioned the firm’s pro-diversity values; for the other half, the diversity was not mentioned.

The students then went through a standardized job interview and had their performance videoed, along with their cardiovascular stress responses measured. The result? Those interviewing for the pro-diversity company performed less well and were more stressed. They also said they expected more unfair treatment and discrimination at the company.

The pro-diversity messages signalled to these men they might be undervalued and discriminated against, according to the authors.

“These concerns interfered with their interview performance and caused their bodies to respond as if they were under threat…. the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.”

These men probably assume the workplace is already fair and diversity efforts are perhaps more than is needed to make it fair, said Kaiser.

“My sense is that they think, ‘Maybe these programs aren’t necessarily needed and what they do is discriminate against men,’” she said. “Everyone wants to think of themselves as fair and open-minded and they’ll treat people with respect… There’s other work showing a lot of times when Americans endorse multiculturalism, it’s in the abstract; but once it becomes more concrete, there’s more resistance.”

Oftentimes, organizations exclude the one group they need to include in order to ensure success, said Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) in Toronto, who agreed “straight, white, able-bodied men” may feel threatened or undervalued by diversity initiatives. 

He cited as a consideration Canada’s Employment Equity Act, which focuses on the protection of four groups: women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and Aboriginal Peoples.

“It is a social justice mentality where one must lose for the other to gain, and at no point does it say, ‘Hey, in industries where there is gross underrepresentation of straight, white, able-bodied men, we should focus on that.’”

Minorities not convinced

In another set of experiments, the researchers found diversity initiatives seem to do little to convince minorities that companies will treat them fairly. But it depends on how minorities view the world, said Dover.

“People who have faith that the world is fair tend to believe these (diversity) messages at face value, is what our data suggests, whereas those who are more skeptical about the fairness of the world tend to not take these diversity initiatives and diversity messages into strong consideration when they’re thinking about discrimination and how they’ll be treated.”

Policies are only as valuable as the paper they’re printed on, said Bach. 

“I can put anything in a policy — it’s how does it actually come to life? And certainly we have seen examples of organizations where they had a ‘policy’ but the reality was very different,” he said. “It’s not that the policies didn’t work, it’s that the employers didn’t enforce them… the whole idea of a zero tolerance policy is it’s ‘One strike you’re out,’ ergo, you’ve got to enforce it, and that means firing people,” he said.

“You really do have to have mechanisms in place to make sure that people can and are encouraged to speak out to, to report, without fear of repercussion, so that they really see they have a voice and an ability to express that voice.”

Policy protection

And even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the presence of a diversity policy can lead people to discount claims of unfair treatment, said the authors.

“People see a discrimination claim as less valid or less legitimate when it comes from a company that explicitly values diversity or has diversity initiatives in place,” said Dover, citing earlier studies.

But the article is very U.S.-centric, said Bach.

“Of course, we don’t have legislation like affirmative action; we have legislation, it’s just nothing like affirmative action… the Employment Equity Act doesn’t even come close to comparing,” he said. “I don’t think that the courts in Canada, be it the human rights tribunals or actual courts, have seen fit to say, ‘Well, X company has a diversity policy, therefore, it can’t be a discriminatory environment.’ We haven’t been seeing that.”


For diversity initiatives to have greater success, managers should appreciate the potential effect of diversity messages on groups that have traditionally been favoured in organizations, said the authors. That doesn’t mean avoiding key discussions or efforts to boost diversity, but spending more time crafting messages and designing programs that are more effective because they come across as more inclusive.

“That’s important to understand because (leaders are) also going to be creating norms and be influential in the organization so if they’re threatened, that might affect how they evaluate women and minorities,” said Kaiser. 

“Most importantly, it’s figuring out what we’re trying to accomplish and how to have diversity programs that have oversight and accountability.”

Education is critical, said Bach.

“People need to understand that the experiences of a trans person, it’s not about some deviant dressing up in women’s clothing so that he can go into a women’s washroom, that is not even remotely the case. It’s to understand the experiences of a person whose skin is not white in colour, that they experience life differently than myself. And we need to understand that and once we have that understanding, we then develop some empathy,” he said.

“It is not putting all straight, white, able-bodied men in one camp and everybody else in the other — that’s not the case at all. It’s about educating all Canadians on the value of diversity and inclusion and the benefits to our society, not just economically but holistically.”

And it cannot be over-estimated that tone from the top is critical, meaning not just the most senior person but everyone who reports to her must take ownership of this, said Bach.

“And it’s not just to say that they memorize the speaking notes the communications group gave them, it’s to say that they understand why this is critically important and they understand it is their job to push it through the organization, to root out behaviour that is counter to their culture or at least the culture they aspire to; to make sure they themselves, as well as their direct reports and all of their people, are educated on the value of diversity and inclusion, on the value to the organization as a business imperative.”

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