‘Be the Change You Wish to See’ a Risky Request

Can promoting diversity in the workplace actually hurt you? If you’re a female or nonwhite executive, the answer is a disappointing, counterintuitive “yes,” according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Colorado.

The report shows that female and nonwhite executives who are dedicated to promoting the careers of other female and nonwhite employees receive significantly lower performance ratings than their colleagues who don’t prioritize workplace diversity. White male executives seeking to further the careers of female and nonwhite employees, however, typically receive increased performance scores.

In the age of “leaning in,” results like this can be disheartening: shouldn’t all efforts to encourage inclusion be rewarded? But David Hekman, one of the study’s authors, said he was unsurprised by his findings.

In 2010, he published an award-winning paper, “An Examination of Whether and How Racial and Gender Biases Influence Customer Satisfaction,” and as he and his (nonwhite) co-author made the publicity rounds, Hekman began to see a trend emerge.

“Whenever my co-author would talk to the press, the reader comments would tear him apart and he would receive nonstop hate emails,” Hekman said. “But when I was quoted, people commented on my ‘very interesting findings.’”

This inspired Hekman to take a closer look at differences in how the promotion of workplace diversity is received, depending on who’s doing the promoting.

“I thought, I bet when nonwhites or women value diversity, they’re just totally discredited. But if I do, it won’t hurt me — it might even make me look better.”

Long story short, Hekman’s hypothesis was correct.

So now what — how do we learn from the study’s results and flip them on their heads?

According to Star Jones, president of the National Association of Professional Women, executives need to continue to promote diversity, regardless of any potential threats to their performance reviews.

“Diversity involves ‘risk,’ and history proves that successful companies and iconic brands take calculated risks, which, ultimately, result in exponential rewards down the road,” Jones said. “Moreover, numerous studies have consistently shown that diversity positively impacts a company’s bottom line.”

Companies should just focus on selecting the top candidates for each job, many of whom will be female or nonwhite. Inclusivity shouldn’t be about hiring a certain gender or ethnicity, Jones said.

“The reward for workplace diversity is knowing that you’ve hired the best people for the positions they hold.”

In the meantime, there are ways for organizations to take advantage of the study’s results. According to Jones, white men’s being rewarded for promoting diversity is an extremely important incentive.

“Men play a crucial role in promoting workplace diversity and accelerating progress in this area,” Jones said, and they need to step up to the plate and do what it takes to help ensure equal opportunities for everyone.

Another positive result of what Jones called an “obviously disheartening” study is the attention it draws to these workplace incongruities. Hopefully, Hekman’s research will cause all executives, regardless of race or gender, to be positively recognized for their inclusion efforts.

“I think awareness is the first step,” Hekman said. “It’s one of the best ways to motivate people to choose to change.”

Jones agreed, and noted that, in terms of long-term benefits, “educating young people on how to overcome stereotypes is critical to the future of women and nonwhite executives in the workplace.”

Open-mindedness and willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone are also imperative to effecting change, Jones said, and changes are absolutely necessary in the realm of workplace inclusivity.

“The future of this country is diversity — in all walks of life, in every aspect of our lives. Either you embrace diversity or you’ll be left behind; it’s that simple.”