By Ellen McGirt
October 31, 2016

A new study may offer diversity experts a new framework for designing anti-discrimination remedies in the workplace and beyond. (Paywalled, but worth it.) The bottom line: What matters most is whether or not people believe that bias or discrimination is intentional or unintentional. And that makes it a leadership issue.

The study was conducted by Nir Halevy, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business with three coauthors, Evan Apfelbaum and Rebecca Grunberg of MIT and Sonia Kang of the University of Toronto. It’s part of a growing body of research that’s designed to dig more deeply into the human perceptions of race and difference, in the hopes that we can all just get along.

They believe a framework called, “perceived intentionality of racial discrimination” (PIRD), can help predict whether people will be open to one of two primary ways of addressing racial issues.

If the discrimination is believed to come from ignorance, then multicultural solutions which encourage people to explore the unique aspects of different cultures through exposure and education – like conferences or anti-bias training – will be better received. From the study: “Multicultural messages implicitly presume that individuals and institutions want to be egalitarian—that they are not intentionally discriminating, and that they would act to rectify their biases if made aware of them.”

But, if the discrimination is believed to be intentional, then colorblindness, which encourages people to ignore racial differences and focus on “a common purpose,” will be a preferred approach. “From this view, the perceived source of discrimination is racial antipathy and conflict in which individuals and institutions, when left to their own devices, will consciously use racial differences as a basis for unequal judgment, treatment, and access to resources.” Requiring some sort of uniform, or masking identities in hiring scenarios are two possible examples.

The authors believe that leaders need to become open to an a la carte approach to inclusion. “Many people have a strong belief that one size fits all when it comes to improving race relations in the U.S.,” Nir Halevy told the Stanford University Business School. “Understanding people’s perceptions allows us to help people by recommending an approach that is more likely to be effective for improving race relations.”

The study explores other research that explores the ease with which people were able to talk about difficult topics, like Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, or a damage award in a discrimination case. Just the possibility of intentional discrimination – true racism – makes people very uncomfortable. In the cases where discrimination was perceived to be intentional, focusing on differences would be “pouring gasoline on the fire,” said participants.

I’m not sure what that says about the level of courage adults need to muster to collectively think through complex issues like race, work, and society. But what strikes me about this research is that it requires a leader, at a very basic level, to understand the hearts of the people they serve. “The more that leaders understand what people see as the root of the problem — malice or ignorance — the more likely they are to come up with effective solutions,” say the authors.

Whether they choose colorblindness, multiculturalism or a third way, having employees feel engaged – and truly heard – on the subject of race, is the most important framework of all.


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