A new study finds that work events designed to build unity among workers – especially a racially diverse group of employees – don’t always work out as intended. The research found that while the those who do attend work social events report they improve relationships at work, that wasn't the case for workers who were racially dissimilar from their colleagues, such as the only African-American person in an all-white office, or vice versa.
Tracy Dumas, lead author of the study and assistant professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, said there is something about being different from your co-workers that can make socializing less effective in building closer relationships.
"We didn’t see a negative relationship — it doesn’t make things worse to socialize with your co-workers," Dumas said. "But when you’re racially dissimilar, it doesn't have the same positive impact."
“Those are the employees who are arguably the most in need of help in forming closer relationships with their colleagues,” she said.
The researchers, which included Katherine Phillips of the Columbia Business School at Columbia University and Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, came to their conclusions after conducting two related studies.
The first study involved a series of surveys of 165 first-year MBA students that asked several questions about how much they discussed their non-work life with co-workers and how often they attended company-sponsored or informal work-related gatherings, as well as the demographic information of those colleagues.
In addition, they were also asked to rate how close they felt to each individual colleague in their immediate workplace. The findings showed that the more social interaction participants had with their colleagues, the closer they felt — if they were racially similar. However, those who were dissimilar from their colleagues did not see an increase in closeness with more social interaction.
“This does not have to do with being a member of a particular racial category — it is really about whether you are similar to others in your workplace,” Dumas said. “Our findings suggest that a white person in an office of African-Americans would have a similar difficulty building closer relationships with co-workers as would an African-American in an office of all Asian-Americans.”
The second study, which asked similar questions of 141 adults of different races, dug deeper to find out why this disconnect is occurring. The researchers discovered that among employees who were racially similar to their co-workers, attending company social events more was associated with greater enjoyment and comfort at the events. But for those workers who were racially different from the majority, this positive association was not present.
Dumas said the study shows the results aren't because dissimilar people were avoiding social encounters with their colleagues.
"They were going, but for them, the connection between attending the events and enjoying the events was different," she said."That seems to explain why they weren’t feeling closer."
Despite not enjoying such events, the researchers found that the racially dissimilar people were more likely to participate in work social activities for external reasons, such as feeling they were expected to attend.
"Many feel like they have to go if they want to get ahead at the office or advance their career," Dumas said.
Dumas said the results suggest that rather than just provide social opportunities for their employees, businesses need to monitor employee culture to determine whether employees see the events as mandatory, and also give more thought to what goes on at events like company parties so that all are included.
"We need to have experiences where everyone feels comfortable, where everyone has something to contribute," Dumas said. "If everyone feels comfortable, that can lead to something positive."
Another option is to just put less emphasis on social events and opportunities as a way to build team cohesion, Dumas said.
"Sometimes you can create cohesion around the work task itself — you don’t need outside social interaction," she said. "If everyone can feel good about the work they do and celebrate the successes they achieve together, it is not necessary to find ways to connect outside of work."
The study is currently online in the journal Organization Science and will appear in a future print edition.