Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies explain their interest in diversity by doing some form of business rationale: justifying diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits the end result of the companies. However, in a recent study, the authors found that this approach actually makes under-represented job applicants much less interested in working with an organization. This is because the rhetoric that makes the business argument for diversity sends a subtle but powerful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end, ultimately undermining DEI’s efforts before employers even had the ability to interact with potential employees. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that if organizations need to justify their commitment to diversity, they must do so by presenting fair arguments – that is, a moral argument – but in order to achieve the best results, they must consider not doing it at all. After all, companies do not feel the need to explain why they believe in values such as innovation, sustainability or integrity. So why do we treat diversity differently?
Most organizations do not feel the need to explain why they are interested in core values such as innovation, sustainability or integrity. Yet when it comes to diversity, the long rationale for the value of hiring a diverse workforce has become the norm in corporate America and beyond. The AstraZeneca website, for example, provides a business justification for diversity, arguing that “innovation requires breakthrough ideas that come only from a diverse workforce.” On the contrary, Tenet Healthcare makes a moral argument, noting in its Code of Conduct that “We accept diversity because it is our culture and it is the right thing to do.”
These claims may seem harmless – but our upcoming study suggests that the way an organization speaks about diversity can have a big impact on its ability to actually achieve its diversity goals. Through a series of six studies, we examined both the spread of different types of rhetoric about diversity in corporate communications and how effective these narratives are when it comes to attracting under-represented job candidates.
In our first study, we collected publicly available text from all Fortune 500 companies’ websites, diversity reports, and blogs, and then used a machine learning algorithm to classify the data into one of two categories:
- A “business case” for diversity: rhetoric that justifies diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits companies’ end results
- “Justice” for diversity: rhetoric that justifies the diversity of moral grounds for justice and equal opportunities
We found that the vast majority of organizations – approximately 80% – used the business rationale to justify the importance of diversity. In contrast, less than 5% used the case for justice. Others either did not point to diversity as a value or did so without providing any justification for why it was important to the organization.
Given its popularity, we can hope that under-represented candidates will find the business case convincing and that reading this type of justification for diversity will increase their interest in working with a company. Unfortunately, our next five studies showed the opposite. In these studies, we asked more than 2,500 people – including LGBTQ + professionals, women in STEM fields and black American students – to read messages from a prospective employer’s website that provide either business justification or fairness, or no justification for diversity. We then made them report how much they felt they would belong to the organization, how concerned they were that they would be judged on stereotypes, and how interested they would be in taking a job there.
So what did we find? Translated into percentages, our statistically stable findings show that underrepresented participants who read a business case on diversity expected to experience on average 11% less sense of belonging to the company, were 16% more concerned that they would be stereotyped. in the company, and were 10% more concerned that the company would view them as interchangeable with other members of their identity group, compared to those who read a case of fairness. In addition, we found that the detrimental effects of a business case were even stronger than a neutral message: compared to those who read neutral messages, participants who read a business case reported being 27% more concerned about stereotypes. and lack of affiliation and were 21% more concerned that they would be seen as interchangeable. In addition, after seeing a company doing business, our participants’ perceptions that its commitment to diversity was real dropped by up to 6% – and all of these factors in turn made underrepresented participants less interested in working for the organization. .
For the sake of completeness, we also looked at the impact of these different cases of diversity on well-represented candidates and found less consistent results. In one experiment, we found that men looking for work in STEM fields reported the same expected sense of belonging and interest in joining a company, regardless of what type of justification for diversity they read. But when we conducted a similar experiment with white students, job applicants, we found that, as with poorly represented job applicants, those reading a business case also reported a greater fear of stereotypes and a lower expected sense of belonging to the company. than those who read justice or neutrality, which in turn made them less interested in joining it.
Clearly, despite seemingly positive intentions, presenting business arguments for diversity does not seem to be the best way to attract under-represented job candidates – and may even harm the perceptions of well-represented candidates for a future employer. Why could this be? To answer this question, it is useful to study what the business case actually says.
The business case suggests that under-represented candidates offer different skills, perspectives, experiences, work styles, etc., and that it is these “unique contributions” that drive different companies’ success. This presents diversity not as a moral necessity, but as a business asset useful only insofar as it strengthens the company’s end result. He also suggests that organizations can judge what candidates should contribute based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other identity, rather than their actual skills and experience – a stereotypical and depersonalizing approach that undermines the expected sense of candidates for affiliation.
Ultimately, the business rationale for diversity has the opposite effect, because it sends a subtle but powerful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end. instrumental framing diversity). This undermines the efforts of diversity organizations before they even had direct contact with these candidates.
So what should organizations do instead? Our research shows that the case of justice, which presents diversity as an end in itself (ie non-instrumental framing diversity) is much less harmful than the business case – in our studies, the negative impact of the business case is halved. But there is another option that could be even better and simpler: do not justify your commitment to diversity at all. In our research, we found that people feel more positive about a future employer after reading a case of justice than after reading a business case – but they feel even better after reading a neutral case where diversity is just indicated as a value without any explanation.
When we share this proposal with leaders, they sometimes worry about what to do if asked “why” after making a commitment to diversity without any justification. This is an understandable question, especially in a world that so normalizes the prioritization of the business case over everything else – but there is a simple answer. If you do not need an explanation for the presence of well-represented groups in the workplace outside of their experience, then you do not need a justification for the presence of poorly represented groups.
It may seem counterintuitive, but arguing for diversity (even if it is a case based on a moral argument) is inherently suggestive that assessing diversity is debatable. You don’t have to explain why you value innovation, sustainability or integrity. So why do we treat diversity differently?