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U.S. Employees Overestimate Racial Progress at Work

Research holds key insights for understanding workplace DEI policies

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People’s beliefs about the effectiveness of DEI are likely to determine which organizational policies will be tabled or implemented.”

Michael Kraus
IPR adjunct professor

 racially diverse employees meeting at work

Many Americans say that increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at work is a good thing. However, new research finds that U.S. workers believe more DEI progress is being made than what data shows. It also suggests that these overly optimistic beliefs can harm DEI efforts—eventually making workers think they are unnecessary.

Led by IPR adjunct professors Jennifer Richeson and Michael Kraus, the research shows that employees who say more Black managers lead organizations than actually do were also more likely to believe that symbolic and less effective DEI policies, like public statements or listening sessions, work. The researchers say this could prevent companies from focusing on research-based and proven DEI policies that promote diversity. 

“People’s beliefs about the effectiveness of DEI are likely to determine which organizational policies will be tabled or implemented,” Kraus explained. He will be joining IPR as a faculty fellow in the summer.

These workers also believe leadership will naturally become more racially diverse over time, which is a belief that is “inconsistent with the available data,” Kraus said. 

The researchers asked 1,776 Black and White workers to estimate the number of Black and White workers in leadership positions—such as Fortune 500 CEOs, managers, and school principals—in the past, present, and future. They then compared the estimates with data on manager representation from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The researchers also asked participants which DEI strategies they believed were effective. Workers who were overly optimistic about racial progress did not see a difference between effective DEI policies like targeted recruiting and ineffective ones like racial bias training. 

“This research holds key insights for understanding DEI policy in the workplace,” Kraus said. “If every policy will result in increases in diversity in the minds of workers—a finding we observed in our paper— then actual evidence-based policy changes for increasing diversity that require real adjustments to the organization will not receive organizational support.”

The researchers did not see major differences between Black and White workers’ responses. They think one reason is that Black employees may be more involved in their companies’ DEI efforts.

“Black workers may be, more often than other workers, engaged in diversity efforts within their organizations,” Kraus suggested. “As a result, these workers might also be optimistic about how their own change efforts will pay off in time.”

This study builds on previous research by social psychologist and IPR associate Ivy Onyeador, Richeson, and Kraus showing that White Americans overestimate the Black-White wealth gap. The belief in a just world and myths about racial progress are possible factors that might explain the perception gap. 

“For many folks in the U.S., they want to live in a society that is moving toward racial equity, and so they make it so in their minds before it happens in the world,” Kraus said. “This is how people come to believe that representation in management is consistently becoming more diverse even though actual data on representation tells a different story.”

The researchers argue that companies can help shift mindsets about DEI by sharing accurate data about the reality of racial progress. Kraus says companies also need to be smart about the DEI narratives that they share with the public.

“The reality is that talent comes from everywhere,” he said. “Organizations that are serious about doing business in a global, multi-identity society must not be swayed by rhetoric that frames DEI as inconsistent with merit. Instead re-investing or investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is good for business and society.”

Michael Kraus is an associate professor of organizational behavior, and Jennifer Richeson is the Philip R. Allen professor of psychology. Both are at Yale University and are IPR adjunct professors.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: April 29, 2024.