The Unintended Consequences of Diversity Statements – HBR

Pro-diversity messages are everywhere, whether you’re searching for a job, playing soccer, or watching the Oscars. Their point is simple: Diversity is good and we need more of it. In the business world, for example, we know that more-diverse groups tend to be more innovativecreativehard-working, and better at solving problems. Yet despite the proliferation of interest in diversity and costly initiatives aimed at increasing it, discrimination continues to be a major problem in the labor market.

In trying to address discrimination, many organizations now explicitly advertise their dedication to diversity, identifying themselves as “equal opportunity” or “diversity-friendly” employers. The thinking, presumably, is that such statements will increase the diversity of their applicant pool and ultimately of their workforce. We know a lot about how effective these diversity statements are, and, unfortunately, the answer is “not very.” They can even backfire by making organizations less likely to notice discrimination.

On the other hand, we know relatively little about the steps minority job seekers are taking to avoid anticipated discrimination. One way racial minorities may be trying to avoid discrimination is via a practice called “resume whitening” — concealing or downplaying racial cues on a job application to increase the chance of getting a callback for an interview. Resume whitening goes hand-in-hand with the desire to “tone down” or “downplay” race and to maintain a relatively “raceless” workplace identity.

To address this gap, we recently conducted three studies, which will appear in Administrative Science Quarterly, to learn more about whitening and how it is influenced by organizational diversity statements — and about how organizations respond to whitening.

In our first study, we interviewed black and Asian university students who were actively searching for jobs or internships. We found that roughly one-third of our sample had engaged in whitening, and two-thirds knew someone else who had. The main areas where this whitening occurred were with names (e.g., using a “white” first name such as Jenn instead of an Asian first name such as Jing) and descriptions of experience (e.g., dropping “Black” when listing membership in the “Black Engineering Students’ Association”). Among the motivations that interviewees mentioned for whitening, the main reason was to tone down their race in order to avoid discrimination. Importantly, interviewees indicated that they whitened less or not at all when applying to jobs for employers who explicitly state that they value diversity.

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