Women and minorities don't shy away from hiring their peers out of fear of the competitive threat they may pose, but rather out of fear of the retribution they may incur, new research suggests.
The reason they are so reluctant to hire other women and ethnic minorities is because they are often penalized by their bosses for doing so, according to a study to be presented at next month's annual meeting of the Academy of Management.
"Nonwhite and women leaders who engage in diversity-increasing behaviors in the highest organizational ranks are systematically penalized with lower performance ratings for doing so," the study's authors wrote in the research. "Our findings suggest that nonwhite and women leaders may increase their own chances of advancing up the corporate ladder by actually engaging in a very low level of diversity-valuing behavior."
The researchers said by downplaying their race and gender, these leaders may be viewed as worthy of being promoted into the highest organizational echelons.
One of the study's authors, the University of Colorado's David Hekman, said more people believe in ghosts than believe in racism, and people in the upper ranks of management will not openly utter a bad word against diversity.
"Yet, executives who are women or ethnic minorities are penalized every day for doing what everyone says they ought to be doing -- helping other members of their groups fulfill their management potential," Hekman said in a statement. "It is a revealing sign that the supposed death of longstanding biases has been greatly exaggerated."
The findings emerge from an analysis of background data collected from 362 executives taking a course at a major center for leadership training. The managers, who were 14 percent nonwhite and 31 percent female, worked for organizations with a mean number of about 4,700 employees, where they typically occupied positions high in the corporate hierarchy.
Included in the data were assessments by an average of three to four peers regarding the executives' commitment to diversity and ratings by their bosses with respect to warmth, competence and overall performance.
The researchers discovered that while women and nonwhites were rated by their peers as significantly more valuing of diversity than white males were, their efforts only earned them disfavor from their bosses. The study revealed that for the entire sample of 362 executives, the majority of whom were white males, valuing diversity gave a significant boost to ratings for warmth and performance. However, for women execs, it was negatively related to ratings for both variables, and for ethnic minorities it turned bosses' thumbs down on competence.
"Diversity-valuing behavior was negatively related only to evaluations of leaders who were nonwhite or female -- leaders who are thought to have the greatest potential to dismantle the glass ceiling," the study's authors wrote. "This finding suggests that minorities and women might be able to advance their own careers by acting as tokens and engaging in a low level of diversity-valuing behavior."
To determine whether the low ratings received by the nonwhite and female diversity-valuing managers reflect bosses' doubts about these leaders' objectivity in hiring and promoting individuals of their own gender or race, rather than them simply being biased, researchers conducted a behavioral experiment that enabled them to control key factors, such as the quality of job candidates.
For the experiment, the study's authors divided 395 college students in four groups, each of which viewed a presentation in which a human resources manager presented photos and information about four candidates for a position as project manager and advocated for one. The four candidates, as well as the four HR managers, were a white male, a while female, a nonwhite male and a nonwhite female. The white male HR manager advocated for each of the four candidates, each to a different audience.
The white female manager advocated for either the white male or white female candidate, while the non-white male manager promoted the white male or nonwhite male applicant. Additionally, the nonwhite female manager advocated for either the white male or nonwhite female candidate.
The study's authors found that, like the bosses in the field study, the students penalized the minority and female presenters for seeking to foster diversity.
To solve this problem, the authors suggest that white males be recruited to play a larger role than they now do in diversifying the workplace. Currently, women and minorities typically take on this responsibility. While conceding the approach to be counterintuitive, they cite the success of the United Parcel Service, where the white male CEO serves as the leader of the company's diversity council.
Another approach they said businesses should consider is to simply measure and reward the degree to which people hire and promote individuals who are demographically dissimilar from themselves.
"Because white men currently hold a clear numerical majority at the highest organizational levels, rewarding such demographic unselfishness would naturally correct the demographic imbalances throughout organizations as members of demographic majorities would tend to hire and promote members of demographic minorities," the study's authors wrote in the research.
The study was co-authored by Maw Der Foo and Wei Yang of the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Originally published on Business News Daily