Stop making the business case for diversity

Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies explain their interest in diversity by making some form of a business case: justifying diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits the companies. And yet, in a recent study, the authors found that this approach actually makes underrepresented job candidates much less interested in working with an organization. That’s because the rhetoric that makes the business case for diversity sends a subtle but powerful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end, ultimately undermining DEI efforts before employers have had a chance to interact. with potential employees. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that if organizations are to justify their commitment to diversity, they must do so by making a justice case—that is, an argument based on moral grounds—but to achieve the best results, they should consider not doing every case at all. After all, companies don’t feel the need to explain why they believe in values ​​such as innovation, resilience or integrity. So why treat diversity any differently?

Most organizations don’t feel the need to explain why they care about core values ​​like innovation, resilience or integrity. And yet, when it comes to diversity, long-standing justifications of the value of employing a diverse workforce have become the norm in corporate America and beyond. AstraZeneca’s website, for example, makes a business case for diversity, arguing that “innovation requires new ideas that only come from a diverse workforce.” Conversely, Tenet Healthcare makes a moral case, noting in its Code of Conduct that “We embrace diversity because it’s our culture and it’s the right thing to do.”

These statements may seem innocuous – but our future research suggests that how an organization talks about diversity can have a big impact on its ability to actually achieve its diversity goals. Through a series of six studies, we explored both the prevalence of different types of diversity rhetoric in corporate communications and how effective these narratives are when it comes to attracting underrepresented 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 :

  • The “business case” for diversity: a rhetoric that justifies diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits the bottom line of companies
  • The “case of justice” for diversity: a rhetoric that justifies diversity on the moral grounds of justice and equal opportunity

We found that the vast majority of organizations – approximately 80% – used the business case to justify the importance of diversity. In contrast, less than 5% used the case of justice. The remainder either did not list diversity as a value, or did so without providing any justification as to why it was important to the organization.

Given its popularity, one would hope that underrepresented candidates would find the business case compelling and that reading this type of justification for diversity would 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 individuals—including LGBTQ+ professionals, women in STEM fields, and Black American college students—to read messages from a potential employer’s website that made the business case, the justice or offered no justification for valuing diversity. We then asked them to report how much they felt they would belong to the organization, how worried they were about being judged based on stereotypes, and how interested they would be in getting a job there.

So what did we find? Translated into percentages, our statistically robust findings show that underrepresented participants who read a business case for diversity on average predicted feeling 11% less sense of belonging to the company, were 16% more concerned that they would be stereotyped at 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 justice case. We further found that the detrimental effects of the business case were even more pronounced compared to 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 belonging, and they were 21% more worried about being seen as interchangeable. Additionally, after seeing a company make a business case, our participants’ perceptions that its commitment to diversity was genuine dropped by as much as 6%—and all of these factors, in turn, made participants less underrepresented. interested in working for the organization.

For completeness, we also looked at the impact of these different instances of diversity on well-represented candidates and found less consistent results. In one experiment, we found that men seeking jobs in STEM fields reported the same predicted sense of belonging and interest in joining a firm regardless of the type of diversity rationale they read. But when we conducted a similar experiment with white student job candidates, we found that, as with underrepresented job candidates, those who read a business case also reported a greater fear of being stereotyped and a lower sense of predicted affiliation with the firm than those who read a neutral justice or case, which made them less interested in joining it.

Clearly, despite seemingly positive intentions, making the business case for diversity does not appear to be the best way to attract underrepresented job candidates—and may even harm well-represented candidates’ perceptions of an employer. possible. Why could this be? To answer this question, it’s helpful to consider what the business case actually says.

The business case assumes that underrepresented candidates offer skills, perspectives, experiences, work styles, etc., and that it is precisely these “unique contributions” that drive the success of various companies. This frames diversity not as a moral imperative but as a business asset, useful only insofar as it strengthens a company’s bottom line. It also suggests that organizations may judge what candidates have to contribute based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities, rather than based on their actual skills and experience—a stereotyping and depersonalizing approach that undermines a sense of belonging. provided for candidates for membership.

Ultimately, the business case for diversity fails because it sends a subtle but powerful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end (a instrumental diversity framing). This undermines organizations’ diversity efforts before they have had any direct interaction with these candidates.

So what should organizations do instead? Our research shows that the case for justice, which presents diversity as an end in itself (ie, a not instrumental diversity framing), is far less damaging than the business case—in our studies, it halved the negative impact of the business case. But there’s another option that might be even better and simpler: Don’t justify your commitment to diversity at all. In our studies, we found that people felt more positive about a potential employer after reading a justice case than after reading a business case—but they felt even better after reading a neutral case in which diversity was simply stated as a value. , without any explanation.

When we share this suggestion with leaders, they sometimes worry about what to do if asked “why” after declaring a commitment to diversity without justification. It’s an understandable question, especially in a world that has so normalized prioritizing the business case above all else – but there’s a simple answer. If you don’t need an explanation for the presence of well-represented groups in the workplace beyond their expertise, then you don’t need a justification for the presence of underrepresented groups.

It may seem counterintuitive, but making a case for diversity (even if it is a case based on a moral argument) essentially implies that valuing diversity is up for debate. You don’t have to explain why you value innovation, resilience or integrity. So why treat diversity any differently?

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