While many managers are attempting to improve inequalities facing employees by implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies, these policies often have unexpected, negative consequences for the employees — including those the policies are trying to help. How can managers avoid this?
My research shows that there is a need to take a systems-level view of inequality when implementing DEI policies. That is, when designing and implementing a policy, managers must consider how it will reverberate throughout the organization — and how it might ultimately backfire.
At the midsize American professional services organization I studied, leaders had the well-intentioned aim of implementing a flexible work policy that allowed employees more control over where and when they worked. The company was already considered life- and family-friendly by employees, and leaders wanted to cement this, both because it would help current employees’ well-being and also because it could provide the company with a competitive edge in hiring. Leaders also recognized that these policies could help women in particular, because at this professional organization — as in many others — women performed more family care than men.
Once the policy was rolled out, it did in fact help many employees. And as anticipated, I found that the policy helped women in particular integrate and balance work and life demands. For instance, it helped them break up their schedule and spend more time with their kids, and lessen the time they spent commuting so they could spend time with family.
However, what the organization’s leaders — and I — did not anticipate was how the flexible work policy harmed a specific group of women: women managers. This was despite the fact that these managers were almost all very vocal supporters of improving gender equality, and had advocated for and supported a wide variety of other women- and family-friendly initiatives, including backup childcare, onsite daycare, and a women speaker series.
How did this happen? My research found that many women managers had developed a managerial style focused on close, day-to-day interactions with subordinates. For instance, many would regularly stop by the offices of each of their subordinates daily, asking them how they were doing and if they could offer any help or guidance with their work. Others would work with their doors open so that subordinates could stop by their office whenever they needed help. Employees appreciated these managers’ efforts, not only because they provided more immediate task-based assistance but also because, over time, these managers came to know their employees very well and could offer custom-tailored advice on project staffing, career training, and so on.
Importantly, the women managers did not develop this managerial style in a vacuum. Rather, it seemed to reflect stereotypes they faced on the job: They experienced pressure to be helpful and communal, rather than direct and assertive like their male manager counterparts.
The problem from the women managers’ perspective was that the flexible work policy would make the style they had developed difficult to maintain. While video calls were an option, managers did not view them as an easy or natural way to spark interaction. Others pointed out that with their subordinates working different schedules with varied hours, this meant that they needed to be available at a broader range of hours as well if they were to remain available and helpful to their workers. Not only would this be difficult for anyone to do, it also threatened to make women managers’ own work-life conflict much worse because it made it hard for them to have time with their own families.
While my research was specifically on gender, what I found was consistent with other research that emphasizes the need to consider the whole organization to effectively implement a DEI effort, as well as research that highlights the importance of considering how individuals engage and interact with one another within the organizational system. This is in addition, of course, to considering other important causes of DEI policy failure, such as various individual-level biases.
Avoiding Unexpected Consequences from Your DEI Policy
Given that DEI policies can reverberate in organizations in unexpected ways — and potentially undermine hard-won progress on equity- and equality-related outcomes — it is important for managers to anticipate such issues. My research, and complementary research by other scholars (some of which I detail below) presents three key suggestions for how managers can limit the chance of their policies backfiring. These suggestions are all rooted in taking a systems-level view of inequality when designing and implementing DEI policies.
1. Consider subgroups.
When designing a DEI policy, think about variation within the group of people the policy is aimed at helping. In my research, there was an important difference between the experiences of most women employees (who benefited from the policy) and women managers (who were harmed).
As another example, imagine if managers attempted to help Black employees through creating a peer mentorship program. This program might provide vital help, advice, and connection at work for enrolled Black employees, who researchers finds are much less likely to have internal sponsors when compared to white workers, despite the fact that such aid is vital for career success. However, if there are relatively few senior Black employees in a company — a common occurrence given historical patterns of systemic racism — then these few employees may each have many mentees. The unexpected, unanticipated result may be that senior Black employees end up spending a lot of time coaching junior Black employees instead of focusing on pushing their own careers forward.
The lesson here is not that DEI policies should not be introduced, of course. It is that with better planning, such negative results can be anticipated and curbed. And once noticed — whether this is before or even after rollout — solutions can be found. For instance, in our example, could senior Black employees be relieved of other “helping” duties so common in organizations to free up more of their time? Or could these employees be given more “glamor work” to help them shine? In general, the point here is to not think about a given group — women, LGBTQ+ people, Black people, and so on — monolithically, but rather to recognize the varying organizational ranks, roles, and tasks of employees as well as their intersectional identities.
2. Think big.
A systems-level perspective draws attention to the fact that the interactions and connections between people in organizations are diverse and complex. As my research demonstrates, when policies reverberate, they can harm groups or subgroups in ways that are entirely unanticipated by organizational leaders and policy designers.
For instance, well-intentioned “ban the box” initiatives aimed at preventing discrimination against people with criminal records — and adopted by many companies and mandated in over a hundred states, cities, and counties in the United States — have also been found to in some cases increase racial discrimination against Black applicants, because when these policies are in place, it seems employers are more likely to incorrectly presume Black applicants have a criminal past.
Again, the solution here is not to disavow DEI policies. Rather, it is important to think big when considering how policies could potentially result in unexpected negative consequences for workers, because you never know where or when such consequences will arise. To do this, gather a diverse group of employees to brainstorm what potential challenges could come about from the introduction of a new DEI policy. Also read about and research the experiences of other companies that have implemented similar policies, to see what (if any) unintended consequences may have arisen through their policy adoption.
3. Track closely.
Monitor the policy as it is being rolled out for any negative effects on employees. There are different layers to monitoring. One is to get immediate, qualitative feedback on employees’ experiences through focus groups or anonymous suggestion boxes that let employees provide comments without fear of backlash. Longer term, it is important to analyze internal administrative data to check that there are no concerning or unexpected patterns. This includes looking to see if there is variation between groups or subgroups (e.g., women versus men, or black women versus white women) on important markers of individual career success such as performance evaluations, salary, bonuses, and promotions.
Some organizations have even started piloting their DEI initiatives before rolling them out organization-wide, and such efforts can improve policy quality by identifying issues before the policy has even been officially implemented. Ericsson, a global telecommunications company, tested a policy intervention aimed at improving women’s interest in internal job openings. This testing helped Ericsson identify the message that seemed most likely to decrease the gender gap. And before rolling out a flexible work policy more broadly, Boston Consulting Group tested it with smaller groups of consultants. Here, it is important to collect data on employees’ experiences at baseline (before rollout) to compare with their experiences after policy implementation
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DEI policies remain important ways to achieve positive improvements in equality within organizations. These three steps — which take a systems-level view of inequality — are purposeful, meaningful changes that managers can enact to design effective and impactful DEI policies. Of course, the research I present here is just a starting point. More is needed — particularly that accounts for different actors’ perspectives and the connections between them — to understand how DEI policies can be designed to best help employees.