Dr. Stephanie Creary, McKenzie Preston, Dr. Damon J. Philips, Dr. Nancy Rothbard, Dr. Karren Knowlton and Dr. Rachel Arnett

DiversityInc 2022 Top 50 Event: Cutting Edge Research on DEI in The Workplace

Dr. Stephanie Creary, Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School, was joined by her colleagues at the 2022 DiversityInc Top 50 Event on May 3 to share their unpublished research on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. Stephanie Creary: Speaking up for DEI: How DEI Practices Affect Belonging and DEI-Voice at Work

Many people face the minority tax, or the phenomena of those who are in the numerical minority having most of the DEI work fall on their hands.

“Some people begrudgingly accept this work. Others do more delightfully accept the work, but at the end of the day, there’s this sense that accompanies the work that if I don’t do it, no one else will,” said Dr. Creary.

The responsibility for implementing a diversity strategy can’t fall completely on those that are in the minority. To change this, Dr. Creary says we should focus on implementing DEI strategies, practices and initiatives that are fundamentally interested in improving the sense of belonging, which will allow all members of an organization to speak up and have a voice in diversity matters.

Dr. Stephanie Creary, Assistant Professor of Management, The Wharton School
Dr. Stephanie Creary, Assistant Professor of Management, The Wharton School

Dr. Creary developed two hypotheses on how implemented practices were working. The first hypothesis was that DEI practices being put into place can increase an employee’s sense of belonging. The second hypothesis was the more employees felt like they had access to these DEI practices — feeling and experiencing them, not just seeing them written down — and the higher their sense of belonging, the more likely they would speak up in different ways at work.

  • Subscribe to DiversityInc Best Practices to read more about belonging and the evolution of DEI language.

Dr. Creary found that DEI practices need to focus on at least two things from an internal talent perspective: diversity recruitment and workplace experiences.

“The tax is something that many people experience, but it doesn’t have to be that way as long as we are mindful and adopt evidence-based approaches for creating an environment where more people are willing to engage in this work,” said Dr. Creary.

Dr. Rachel Arnett: Navigating the Spotlight: A Two-Dimensional Framework of Minority Racial-Identity Management

Navigating differences within the workplace is challenging, especially for racial and ethnic minorities whose differences are not only underrepresented but also often associated with stereotypes and stigma. Dr. Rachel Arnett, Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School and her research partners found that there are four major ways minorities navigate their racial identities in the workplace:

  • Open book: People who consider the benefits of bringing attention to their identities wear their identities on their sleeves.
  • Laissez-faire: People who don’t suppress their identities, but at the same time, don’t proactively call attention to it.
  • Closed book: People who conceal their identities because they are heavily concerned with the risk and want others to feel comfortable around them.
  • Curating: People who manifest and suppress selectively because they see the benefits of bringing attention to their identities, but also are heavily concerned with risk.
Dr. Rachel Arnett, Assistant Professor of Management, The Wharton School
Dr. Rachel Arnett, Assistant Professor of Management, The Wharton School

These approaches are important to show the ways you can navigate a minority identity in the workplace, and also for consequences such as turnover. People who don’t suppress their identities are less likely to think about leaving their organizations, whereas people who constantly suppress often wonder if their organization is the right fit for them.

“Remember that if you value diversity, if you want to show the value that you put on the source of differences in the workplace, it’s not only important to highlight the benefits of these things but also make sure that you’re acknowledging the risks that people are putting themselves in when they are bringing attention to those identities,” said Dr. Arnett.

Michael Park and McKenzie Preston: Let’s (Not) Talk About It: Why Leaders’ Request for Input on DEI Topics Can Yield Employee Silence

Having conversations about diversity in the workplace is necessary to shed light on the challenges that have historically existed in organizations, but it can provoke anxiety. Employees in the racial minority might be unsure if their colleagues are open to hearing their experiences, while white employees might think they don’t know enough to talk about certain issues.

Leaders face this paradox, too. On the one hand, if they don’t ask their employees to speak up about DEI issues, they’re perpetuating the silence of organizations. But on the other hand, if leaders ask their employees to speak up on topics that make them uncomfortable, the anxiety could also cause silence.

Michael Park, Assistant Professor of Management, The Wharton School, and McKenzie Preston, Doctoral Student, The Wharton School explored the role of leaders’ behavioral empathy or the extent to which leaders acknowledge that these are uncomfortable conversations and validate those emotions. The more empathy a leader shows, the more comfortable their employees will feel, and the more likely they will speak up on DEI issues.

“It’s important to research, rehearse and reinforce norms around empathy,” said Preston. “Leaders, research how to talk about these issues with employees, how you can be an empathetic leader. Rehearse what you’re going to say when you’re talking about DEI with your employees. Finally, reinforce norms around empathy, because it goes a long way in encouraging employees to talk about these issues.”

Dr. Nancy Rothbard: Does Power Protect Female Moral Objectors?

Moral objection, or the idea that employees need to talk about something that is wrong in the workplace, is necessary to avoid injustice in any organization. Moral objections should be pointed out and wrongdoings should be corrected early on, but often, those who speak up face retaliation.

Dr. Nancy Rothbard, Deputy Dean & Professor of Management, The Wharton School
Dr. Nancy Rothbard, Deputy Dean & Professor of Management, The Wharton School

Dr. Nancy Rothbard, Deputy Dean & Professor of Management at The Wharton School, presented research on the power shield hypothesis, meaning power protects people. If a minority or a lower-ranking individual in the workplace raised an issue, they are more likely to face pushback than a person in power. These people in power should be the ones raising a moral objection.

However, power shields themselves raise their own moral objection: A high-ranking Black woman wouldn’t have the same power shield as a white man in the same position. This calls for the organizational frame, a tool to help everyone get to the highest level of power, Dr. Rothbard says.

Dr. Karren Knowlton: The Potential of Trailblazing Motivation

Biases in the workplace such as low performance expectations can lead in two directions: people can feel like tokens, compromising their confidence at work, or it can motivate them toward trailblazing. Dr. Karren Knowlton, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dartmouth, defines trailblazing motivation as the desire to set new precedents that break barriers and open doors for others.

Dr. Karren Knowlton, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dartmouth
Dr. Karren Knowlton, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dartmouth

Dr. Knowlton’s research shows that a key variable to trailblazing motivation is an employee’s sense of belonging, particularly with others who share their marginalized identity. Dr. Knowlton provides three ways to help your employees develop their own trailblazing motivation:

  • Help facilitate a sense of belonging with things such as employee resource groups, conferences and memberships in organizations.
  • Connect employees with those who might benefit from their trailblazing efforts, like a local university.
  • Recognize the trailblazing efforts that employees are demonstrating, which can empower and motivate them. 

Dr. Damon J. Philips: Including Returning Citizens in DEI Initiatives

Each year, 650,000 people return to society after being incarcerated. However, 68% of these individuals are re-incarcerated within three years, largely due to unemployment. In general, 27% of formerly incarcerated people face unemployment, but that number jumps to 33% for formerly incarcerated Latinos and 40% for formerly incarcerated Blacks. These unemployment rates are higher than those during the Great Depression.

Dr. Damon J. Philips, Professor of Management, The Wharton School
Dr. Damon J. Philips, Professor of Management, The Wharton School

Many give up on the job search, given the low likelihood of being hired. Those who do get hired are often employed in dangerous situations or have poor wages. DEI work is necessary for returning citizens, Dr. Philips, Professor of Management at The Wharton School, said.

“When you focus on them, you’re also focusing on other underrepresented and marginalized groups,” he said.

Returning citizens have a lower turnover than other employees, and they’re also more likely to start a business than the rest of the population. This allows a great opportunity for companies to engage in supplier diversity.

“Some are in fitness. Some are in food services, some are in high tech. Don’t just assume that they’re only in certain types of industries,” said Dr. Philips. “Include returning citizens in our DEI work.” 

McKenzie Preston: What’s the Bottom Line?: Diversity Management Practices and Firm Performance

Research shows that diversity initiatives can sometimes be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can lead to positive outcomes for employees from marginalized groups, increasing a sense of belonging and allowing space to speak up. On the other hand, diversity initiatives can sometimes backfire, especially for employees in dominant groups. They can sometimes give the perception of unfairness, reducing motivation at work.

McKenzie Preston, Doctoral Student, The Wharton School
McKenzie Preston, Doctoral Student, The Wharton School

Preston’s research shows that when organizations focus on the bottom line of diversity initiatives — tactical and strategic practices — they are more likely to thrive. Having clear, concrete goals that help guide employees should be the focus, such as hiring processes, implementing diversity committees and having a Chief Diversity Officer.

“You can’t just think about diversity practices in isolation, you have to think about if these diversity practices we’re implementing are tactical or strategic,” Preston said. “We can couple those practices together, and that’s what leads to high-performing diversity management systems, which improves performance.”

Watch the full session below.

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