Why Companies Should “Show”—Not “Tell”—Their Commitment to Diversity
In the U.S., organizations commonly publicize that they are diverse and inclusive, and committed to racial equity. For example, on their websites, organizations often state that they value racial and ethnic diversity or include photographs of employees from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In recent research, my collaborators and I found that people sometimes see these statements about organizations’ commitments to diversity and inclusion as misleading or dishonest. That is, they believe that the organization’s public declaration of diversity and inclusion overstates the organization’s actual diversity and inclusion, which we call a “diversity dishonesty” concern. We also found that racial and ethnic minorities feel less able to fit in, be authentic, and perform well when they have diversity dishonesty concerns.
People experience diversity dishonesty concerns to different degrees, but such concerns have a basis in reality. Most U.S. organizations struggle with racial equity, and many racial and ethnic minorities experience bias and discrimination in organizations. Companies may “tell” people that they value diversity and inclusion through public expressions of support but not “show” evidence of actually having a diverse and inclusive climate.
To study this diversity dishonesty experience, we first asked Black and Latinx people to rate how much they believed their own workplaces overstate the organization’s actual commitment to diversity and inclusion in public-facing materials. The more our research participants reported that their organizations overstated their diversity and inclusion efforts, the less they reported that they fit in or were able to be successful in their own organizations.
“Show” Versus “Tell”
We wondered whether diversity dishonesty concerns are caused by the gap between what organizations “show” versus “tell” about their diversity and inclusion efforts. We asked another sample of participants to look at two different types of commitments that organizations may make about diversity: what an organization tells others about its diversity, and evidence-based cues that show what the organization’s actual diversity and inclusive climate looks like.
To make these cues realistic, the ”tell” information was made to look like the kinds of things companies post on their websites or in recruiting videos. The “show” cues were organizational charts that showed that that the company either did or did not have Black leadership and reported former employees’ accounts of the company’s racial climate.
The “tell” information did not shift our participants’ beliefs about whether or not the organization was being misleading about diversity—nor did they affect their beliefs about whether the participants thought they could thrive in the organization. However, when the Black participants in our studies saw evidence that the organization actually had a positive diversity climate, they had fewer concerns about the company overstating its commitment to diversity and inclusion. They also expressed fewer concerns about fitting in, being authentic, and performing well at the company. The “show” cues were clearly important.
If an organization is not yet diverse but wants to be, perhaps it may publicize diversity and inclusion goals and initiatives. In our next studies, we will explore whether these types of aspirational public messages also trigger diversity dishonesty concerns. Researchers should also explore whether members of other groups that experience disadvantage in the workplace, such as women and transgender people, also experience diversity dishonesty concerns.
Of course, public commitments to diversity and inclusion have some merit. They can signal that an organization values diversity and inclusion, and help recruit racial and ethnic minorities to organizations. Still, our research suggests that it is more important for organizations to actually create diverse and inclusive climates that will enable racial and ethnic minorities thrive than to merely espouse such messages.
Our studies suggest that organizations must “show” and not simply “tell” that they value diversity and inclusion.
For Further Reading
Wilton, L. S., Bell, A., Vahradyan, M., & Kaiser, C. K. (2020). Show don’t tell: Perceived diversity dishonesty harms racial minorities at work. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(8), 1171–1185. doi.org/10.1177/0146167219897149
Kaiser, C. R., Major, B., Jurcevic, I., Dover, T. L., Brady, L. M., & Shapiro, J. R. (2013). Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 504–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/ a0030838
Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review, 71, 589– 617. https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240607100404
Leigh S. Wilton is an Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, where she studies diversity, multiracial identity, and intergroup relations.