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Fairness or Profits? How to Frame Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Increasingly, organizations are seeking to foster diversity and inclusion by enacting various practices and initiatives, such as targeted recruitment strategies, equitable hiring and selection procedures, diversity training, and retention efforts geared toward employees from diverse backgrounds. Yet, existing research suggests that majority group members (i.e., people who belong to groups that historically have held greater power, status, and privilege within society), notably White males, may often be hesitant and even outright resistant toward such initiatives. At the same time, there is also an increasing number of researchers and practitioners who have noted the importance of majority group members in standing up for the rights and welfare of stigmatized minority members. Such individuals are commonly referred to as “allies.” Accordingly, a question emerges as to how chief diversity officers and others tasked with leading diversity and inclusive initiatives can most effectively frame such initiatives to increase buy-in within their organizations and who is best suited to deliver such messages?

How should we frame DEI efforts - Fairness or Business?

Accordingly, my colleagues (Drs. Voni Pamphile and Katina Sawyer, The George Washington University, School of Business) and I conducted an experimental study to examine whether the type of framing around diversity inclusion initiatives and the CDO’s race make a difference in how people perceive the morality of the CDO and people’s identification with the organization and its mission. Specifically, we compared a fairness frame (i.e., pursuing diversity and inclusion is the fair and morally right thing to do) to a business frame (i.e., pursing diversity and inclusion makes good business sense in terms of attracting and retaining a wider pool of talent, in turn promoting the bottom line), as well as whether the CDO was White or African American. We collected data from over 300 full-time employees working across various industries. In the study, participants were randomly assigned to four groups in an online survey platform and asked to read through a fictional scenario describing a CDO who delivered a message to his organization about the importance of diversity and inclusion. The experimental conditions were as follows: Condition #1 (Fairness case and a White CDO), Condition #2 (Fairness case and an African American CDO), Condition #3 (Business case and a White CDO) and Condition #4 (Business case and an African American CDO).

The Findings

Our findings were interesting. First, we found that CDOs who frame diversity and inclusion initiatives in terms of a business case were perceived as less moral than CDOs who frame such initiatives in terms of fairness case. Participants also reported that they would be less identified with the organization and its mission if a CDO used a business vs. a fairness case. Second, we found that White CDOs who championed diversity and inclusion initiatives were perceived as less moral and elicited lower levels of anticipated organizational identification when compared to their African American CDO counterparts. Interestingly, we also found an interaction between the type of frame and the race of the CDO. That is, White CDOs were perceived as no less moral and elicited the same levels of anticipated organizational identification as their African American colleagues when they used a fairness case to frame their diversity and inclusion message. However, when they used a business case, they were perceived as significantly less moral and elicited significantly lower organizational identification compared to their African American counterparts.

The Fairness Frame Wins

Contrary to the common view that framing diversity and inclusion initiatives in terms of a business case lowers resistance among organizational members, our data suggest that doing so can actually backfire. This may be due to a perceived lack of sincerity surrounding why a CDO would use a business case to argue for an important humanitarian objective. In short, our study participants reacted more positively when the CDO framed diversity and inclusion as simply “the morally right thing to do.” Additionally, our findings suggest that the race of the “messenger” also matters to a certain degree. If a fairness case is used, then it doesn’t really matter whether the CDO is from a majority or a minority group. Yet, for organizations that insist on making a business case for diversity and inclusion initiatives, they should be aware that White CDOs may elicit significantly more negative reactions for doing so, which could impact the amount of buy-in from organizational members. In sum, our study points to the importance of HR practitioners using data-driven insights to better understand how to approach messaging around D&I initiatives and who will be the “messengers” who champion such initiatives. Such knowledge could make the difference between whether these initiatives are ultimately implemented or not.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

Photo Credit: OrangeBrompton

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