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Tessa Dover


The Unintended Signals Sent By Diversity Initiatives Can Have Important Negative Consequences

Tessa L. Dover, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Portland State University

Inequality and discrimination are alive and well within organizations. To their credit, many organizations have taken these issues seriously, pouring billions of dollars into diversity initiatives to create more fair and inclusive work environments. The problem? These expensive initiatives are largely untested and rarely evidence-based. Moreover, the available data we do have suggest that the most common forms of diversity initiatives can do more harm than good. In a recent paper, my colleagues and I review the ways in which diversity initiatives may unintentionally perpetuate inequalities within organizations by sending certain signals to the public, to job candidates, and to current employees.  

One set of signals, Fairness Signals, can lead us to assume that an organization treats minority groups fairly but majority groups unfairly. This can mask real anti-minority discrimination while enhancing perceptions of anti-majority discrimination. Our empirical work supports these conclusions: in the presence (vs. absence) of diversity initiatives, we tend to underestimate and overlook anti-minority discrimination, and derogate minority group members that claim discrimination. The presence (vs. absence) of diversity initiatives also leads us to overestimate anti-majority discrimination and to endorse unfair hiring practices that favor over-represented employees.  

A second set of signals, Inclusion Signals, can affect how employees and job candidates feel about working at an organization. These signals have implications for the recruitment, hiring, and retention of employees. For minority groups, advertising diversity and diversity initiatives can lead to false hopes and unrealistic expectations. These outcomes are particularly likely given evidence suggesting that diversity initiatives rarely make organizations more fair or diverse. For majority groups, on the other hand, diversity initiatives can signal exclusion, increasing expectations of poor treatment and leading to psychological threat. Though data are still preliminary, these perceptions of exclusion and threat among majority groups may have negative consequences for minority employees and job seekers. 

A final set of signals, Competence Signals, can influence perceptions of minority employees who are entering and/or succeeding within organizations. Specifically, if diversity initiatives lead people to assume that minority groups need such initiatives to find success, the presence of diversity initiatives may lead individuals to underestimate the competence of their minority colleagues. In addition, it can create attributional ambiguity for minority groups, leading to uncertainty about whether positive treatment or career success is the result of merit or desires to hide prejudice. 

Importantly, though a lot of our focus is on the unintended negative consequences of signals sent by diversity initiatives, efforts to increase the fairness and diversity of organizations are nevertheless important and necessary. The biggest question is how to implement diversity initiatives in a way that maximizes their efficacy while minimizing the unintended consequences. Currently, data suggest that the most common approaches may do more harm than good. Our most enthusiastic suggestions are to build collaborations between researchers and practitioners, and to collect data on the impacts of diversity initiatives. More important, we must be willing to accept when our data indicates unintended consequences, and adjust our efforts in line with our ultimate goal of creating more fair and just workplaces.

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