Whether it’s Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook or relatively unknown firms such as Camden Property Trust, Fortune’s No. 1 “Best Workplace for Diversity” last year, businesses around the world are scrambling to show they know it’s not okay to let white men run everything. That effort can take many forms — from diversity training so devastatingly lampooned years ago in “The Office” to, you know, actually hiring and retaining minorities and women.
A controversial piece published Monday in the Harvard Business Review now asks a simple question: “Are all of these efforts working?” For anyone who thinks diversity at work is important, the answer was a bit distressing.
“In terms of increasing demographic diversity, the answer appears to be not really,” the piece, written by Tessa L. Dover, Cheryl R. Kaiser and Brenda Major, read. “The most commonly used diversity programs do little to increase representation of minorities and women.”
That wasn’t the end of the bad news. The three co-authors — two professors and a PhD candidate who study diversity — concluded that diversity policies can blind white men to racism and sexism at work and also lead to resentment.
“We found evidence that it not only makes white men believe that women and minorities are being treated fairly — whether that’s true or not — it also makes them more likely to believe that they themselves are being treated unfairly,” the piece read.
Reddit, where the piece found a wide audience, proved an outlet for the very resentment the article appeared to point to in the first place.
“Diversity programs and Diversity teams do not exist to solve an actual or perceived problem but rather exist to cover the companies … to make it look like the company is doing ‘something’ to solve a ‘problem,'” one commenter wrote. Another: “This is the effect it has had on me for sure. I try to ignore it because it is wrong, but my impulse anymore is to avoid all minorities that I am not directly introduced to.” Yet another: “Diversity compliance teams are makework projects for otherwise unemployable ‘angry studies’ graduates.”
Reached by telephone, two authors of the article, with the headline “Diversity Policies Don’t Help Women or Minorities, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened,” made a maneuver familiar to many professors who see their work leap from academic journals to social media: retreat. This stuff is, after all, more complicated than 140 characters.
“The headline for the piece is a little more strong than we would have chosen,” Dover, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said. “Our goal was not to come out as super strong saying ‘diversity efforts don’t work,’ but just to point out the side of diversity management that people don’t often talk about.”
But Kaiser, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Washington, said that companies should be less concerned with the PR “window dressing” diversity programs can provide and more concerned with their actual effects: Do they result in more women and minorities at work?
“Have we seen increases?” she said. “Companies should be more critical of what they do. They should be picking a strategy that’s known to be effective.”
Citing older studies that show diversity programs can actually decrease diversity and lead managers to ignore claims of unfair treatment, the piece also focused on a recent paper its authors just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that put 78 “young white men” through a fake job interview. Title: “Members of high-status groups are threatened by pro-diversity organizational messages.”
“We put young white men through a hiring simulation for an entry-level job at a fictional technology firm,” they explained in the Harvard Business Review. “For half of the ‘applicants,’ the firm’s recruitment materials briefly mentioned its pro-diversity values. For the other half, the materials did not mention diversity.”
The white men forced to contemplate diversity faced a rough road — flubbed answers and, at least metaphorically, heart palpitations.
“Compared to white men interviewing at the company that did not mention diversity, white men interviewing for the pro-diversity company expected more unfair treatment and discrimination against whites,” they wrote. “They also performed more poorly in the job interview, as judged by independent raters. And their cardiovascular responses during the interview revealed that they were more stressed.”
This did not bode well for a society of angry white males crying racism — or, for that matter, Abigail Fisher, a white woman whose claim she was passed over for minority applicants by the University of Texas at Austin has found its way to the Supreme Court.
“The burden of ‘reverse discrimination’ cases on the US legal system is likely to increase unless companies and educational institutions find ways to make all employees feel included,” the paper read. “Members of high-status groups are unlikely to adopt the corporate culture or take steps to provide a more inclusive atmosphere if they feel threatened and excluded by the workplace’s message.”
Dover, however, looked on the bright side.
“I don’t necessarily predict white men will be less reactive … a lot of research shows as the country gets more diverse, white people feel threatened,” she said, pointing out that whites are “feeling now they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But: “I also am optimistic that if companies carefully contemplate programs they are instituting, they should be able to mitigate threatened feelings of white male employees.”