How to avoid 'cultural tax' of DEI initiatives

'Doing diversity work is emotionally exhausting,' says academic citing impact on minority groups

How to avoid 'cultural tax' of DEI initiatives

Many organizations are striving to do the right thing when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

And in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the discovery of countless Indigenous school children’s graves in Canada, DEI efforts have today become even more imperative.

Organizations typically reach out to minority employees and ask them to take on the task of improving diversity within the business by joining committees and taking part in various initiatives.

However, this can often cause even greater harm to those same workers, warns a business school academic.

“Doing diversity work is emotionally exhausting because it’s something that people don’t understand — the dominant group, you also experience a lot of resistance, and even backlash. There’s a lot of micro-aggression so what oftentimes happens is that you find that employees that are asked to do this kind of work get stressed; it leads to burnout but what’s worse is it affects the performance,” says Eddy Ng, professor of equity and inclusion at the Smith School of Business in Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“As a result, you’ll find that that’s another reason why minority groups tend to fall behind in their careers relative to the dominant group.”

‘Cultural tax’ an extra burden for minorities

Ng is referring to “cultural taxation,” which was coined in the 1990s by Amado Padilla, a professor at Stanford University.   

“Essentially, it’s a form of invisible labour, extra labour, that’s uncompensated, that’s normally asked of minority employees, so we call it a cultural tax because it’s an extra burden that’s performed,” he says.

Stereotypes play a big role in employee sentiment around who should lead DEI in the organization, according to a university study.

There are three main reasons why this work is usually assigned to marginalized groups, according to Ng.

“One is to educate other employees on the need for why we have diversity; to be sensitive, to have awareness. The other part is to mentor and support other new employees of colour or another minority employee; and third is to provide diversity representation for the employer.”

This situation is even more prevalent in public institutions and especially higher education institutions, says Ng.

“For instance, at the university here at Queen’s, I’ve been asked to be on all sorts of committees: ‘We need you on the appeals, we need you on the search committee or hiring committee… We are buying art’ – but I can’t even tell a Picasso from a Rembrandt – ‘but we need you on the committee.’ It becomes quite ridiculous.” 

Detrimental effects to cultural tax

The cultural tax is having a tangible effect on professionals’ careers.

“Within academia, we have studies that now show that people joining the professoriate at the same time, minority employees, tend to fall behind in a number of research publications where they published; they tend to be in all journals that have a lower impact factor because they just have been unable to get the work done because they’ve been asked to do all this invisible labour,” says Ng.

Most employers and leaders are not aware of this phenomena but they should educate themselves to understand the extent of its impact, he says.

“There are a lot of detrimental effects. It is exhausting work, it’s taxing, it’s stressful so employers need to be aware of it and either compensate or recognize, or somehow provide support to employees who are being asked to do this kind of work.”

Re-assigning other work from the employee so there is enough time in the workday to complete the extra work can help, says Ng.

“They definitely should go outside [and] get extra expert support; there are a lot of DEI consultants out there right now.”

Substantive allyship for diversity

There is also a role for the dominant majority groups in the organization to play.

“The other thing is performative allyship,” he says. “We’ve heard a lot about that term, where people are saying things, and it’s easy to click on social media. I support this but it can be more substantive, and that actually is one way for the dominant group to actually show allyship, which is to share in the burden of doing diversity work, so it’s not just a small group of employees.”

By getting the dominant group involved with doing diversity work, and engaged in “perspective taking,” they come to know what it feels like to be marginalized, says Ng, “to be oppressed, to not have power, to not have influence, to not have information. So in that sense, it’s a really good way of sharing the burden of doing this kind of work but it also allows dominant groups who are privileged to actually use their privilege to make it better.”

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