March 19, 2011

Workplace Diversity Strategies Should Include Majority as Well as Minorities

Many industries, financial advisory included, are making significant efforts to promote diversity and multiculturalism within their workforces to cater to the demographic changes in the population and uncover new business opportunities. But any efforts at promoting minorities, says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, an associate professor of management and organizations at Michigan's Ross School of Business, could actually prove futile if a company’s non-minority staff does not endorse them.

Sanchez-Burks' work has shown that white workers in most industries resent the idea of multiculturalism. Categorizing this resentment as simple prejudice--which is most people’s knee-jerk reaction--is naïve, he says, and a very superficial way of looking at the issue, because research has shown that whites actually feel excluded by the notions of multiculturalism and diversity.

“Whites do not perceive multiculturalism as an inclusive ideology the way minorities do, and so any initiatives companies take to promote it often don’t work in the way they’re supposed to,” Sanchez-Burks says. “For any diversity strategy to be successful, a company has to include the majority white population, too.”

In the U.S. today, most companies that are tackling diversity--which is a demographic reality and an issue that they have to contend with one way or another – either follow a clear-cut strategy to promote multiculturalism by acknowledging and valuing differences among groups, or embrace “colorblindness,” which emphasizes the sameness of people and the need to assimilate differences based on social or racial identity into an overarching unifying category.

Neither is really working, Sanchez-Burks says, since white workers feel excluded from multiculturalism initiatives, and minorities feel that a colorblind approach goes against them.

His research has shown the importance of cultural framing: If a company includes its white workforce as part of its conceptualization of multiculturalism, it will be far more successful in its efforts, he says. “We found that if there are subtle changes in the way multiculturalism is shown, whites will buy in,” he says. “Framing is very important--get people to do simple things like bring in their third-generation Swedish meatballs when having an international food day, for example, to show that everyone is part of it.”

Because whites are less likely and slower than racial minorities to associate multiculturalism with their own self-identities, their aversion to multiculturalism is a function of their own need to belong, Sanchze-Burks says.

His team tested their findings by presenting three potential companies with different company messages to undergraduates at top business schools who were about to join the workforce: one that promoted multiculturalism, another that took the colorblind approach and a third that included whites in its multicultural approach.

The third company proved the most popular among the undergraduates, and the one that the students showed the greatest desire to work for.

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