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After Wall Street firms repeatedly had to shell out millions to settle discrimination lawsuits, businesses started to get serious about their efforts to increase diversity. And the usual tools—diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings, grievance systems—tend to make things worse, not better. But as lab studies show, this kind of force-feeding can activate bias and encourage rebellion.
However, in their analysis the authors uncovered numerous diversity tactics that do move the needle, such as recruiting initiatives, mentoring programs, and diversity task forces. They engage managers in solving the problem, increase contact with women and minority workers, and promote social accountability.
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Some of these efforts make matters worse, not better. People rebel against rules that threaten their autonomy. Businesses started caring a lot more about diversity after a series of high-profile lawsuits rocked the financial industry. They have also expanded training and other diversity programs. Although the proportion of managers at U. The numbers were even worse in investment banks though that industry is shrinking, which complicates the analysis.
Among all U. Even in Silicon Valley, where many leaders tout the need to increase diversity for both business and social justice reasons, bread-and-butter tech jobs remain dominated by white men. Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out.
As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Yet this approach also flies in the face of nearly everything we know about how to motivate people to make changes. Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases? Researchers have been examining that question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies.
It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.
Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune Many firms see adverse effects. One reason is that three-quarters use negative messages in their training. Another reason is that about three-quarters of firms with training still follow the dated advice of the late diversity guru R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance —and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.
Research from the University of Toronto reinforces our findings: In one study white subjects read a brochure critiquing prejudice toward blacks. When people felt pressure to agree with it, the reading strengthened their bias against blacks. When they felt the choice was theirs, the reading reduced bias. Companies too often signal that training is remedial. The diversity manager at a national beverage company told us that the top brass uses it to deal with problem groups.
Managers tend to resent that implication and resist the message. This kind of thing still happens. When we interviewed the new HR director at a West Coast food company, he said he found that white managers were making only strangers—most of them minorities—take supervisor tests and hiring white friends without testing them. But even managers who test everyone applying for a position may ignore the results.
Investment banks and consulting firms build tests into their job interviews, asking people to solve math and scenario-based problems on the spot. While studying this practice, Kellogg professor Lauren Rivera played a fly on the wall during hiring meetings at one firm. She found that the team paid little attention when white men blew the math test but close attention when women and blacks did.
Because decision makers deliberately or not cherry-picked results, the testing amplified bias rather than quashed it. Managers made only strangers—most of them minorities—take tests and hired white friends without testing them. There are significant declines among white and Asian-American women—groups with high levels of education, which typically score well on standard managerial tests. Companies sued for discrimination often claim that their performance rating systems prevent biased treatment.
But studies show that raters tend to lowball women and minorities in performance reviews. And some managers give everyone high marks to avoid hassles with employees or to keep their options open when handing out promotions.
This last tactic is meant to identify and rehabilitate biased managers. About half of midsize and large firms have systems through which employees can challenge pay, promotion, and termination decisions.
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But many managers—rather than change their own behavior or address discrimination by others—try to get even with or belittle employees who complain. We see this a lot in our interviews. Still, most employers feel they need some sort of system to intercept complaints, if only because judges like them. They apply three basic principles: engage managers in solving the problem, expose them to people from different groups, and encourage social accountability for change. So, if you prompt them to act in ways that support a particular view, their opinions shift toward that view.
When managers actively help boost diversity in their companies, something similar happens: They begin to think of themselves as diversity champions. Take college recruitment programs targeting women and minorities. Our interviews suggest that managers willingly participate when invited. Managers who make college visits say they take their charge seriously.
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They are determined to come back with strong candidates from underrepresented groups—female engineers, for instance, or African-American management trainees. Cognitive dissonance soon kicks in—and managers who were wishy-washy about diversity become converts. The effects are striking.
Mentoring is another way to engage managers and chip away at their biases. While white men tend to find mentors on their own, women and minorities more often need help from formal programs. Once organizations try them out, though, the upside becomes clear. With guidance from a court-appointed external task force, executives in the North America group got involved in recruitment and mentoring initiatives for professionals and middle managers, working specifically toward measurable goals for minorities.
Even top leaders helped to recruit and mentor, and talent-sourcing partners were required to broaden their recruitment efforts. These changes brought important gains. This began a virtuous cycle. Today, Coke looks like a different company. Evidence that contact between groups can lessen bias first came to light in an unplanned experiment on the European front during World War II. The U. High casualties left General Dwight Eisenhower understaffed, and he asked for black volunteers for combat duty.
When Harvard sociologist Samuel Stouffer, on leave at the War Department, surveyed troops on their racial attitudes, he found that whites whose companies had been joined by black platoons showed dramatically lower racial animus and greater willingness to work alongside blacks than those whose companies remained segregated.
Stouffer concluded that whites fighting alongside blacks came to see them as soldiers like themselves first and foremost. Business practices that generate this kind of contact across groups yield similar results. Leadership Development in a Global World. Business and Governance in South Africa. Consuming Books.
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