Diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E&I) continues to climb the agenda for many businesses and organizations. Increased efforts to ensure that underrepresented and disadvantaged groups have equal access to opportunities have led to much-needed change.
Between 2010 and 2018, the number of Fortune 500 companies with greater than 40% board overall diversity nearly tripled, while almost all FTSE 100 companies now have at least one ethnic minority board member.
But many D,E&I initiatives fail to deliver tangible results – sometimes because decision-makers go against organizational policies. But why is this the case?
‘Macrojustice’ vs ‘Microjustice’
In recent decades, a contemporary organizational problem has emerged alongside the scaling up of D,E&I initiatives – a gap between selection policies and individual selection decisions. In the mid-1990s, one poll found that half of Americans supported policies that favored women and racial minorities.
Yet, in the same time period, a separate poll found that only 34% of Americans said they would hire a woman over a man if they were both equally qualified, and only 20% thought that a college should deliberately favor a Black applicant over an equally qualified White applicant.
New research finds that this trend persists and is driven in part by shifting standards of fairness: ‘macrojustice’ and ‘microjustice’.
Decision-makers in situations like college admissions and workplace hiring are more likely to choose policies that favor disadvantaged individuals over policies that favor applicants who may have objectively higher achievements.
This is because policy decisions prioritize a ‘macrojustice’ standard of fairness, which reflects concerns around how opportunities should be distributed universally, whether that’s equally between groups, or if a minimum for a particular group should be reached, as in the case of diversity goals.
But when choosing between specific individuals, decision-makers tend to prioritize what is perceived to be fair to the individual.
This is known as a ‘microjustice’ standard of fairness and requires a correspondence between an individual’s “inputs” – the specific skills, attributes, and achievements that might make them suitable for an opportunity – and an “output” – like being selected for a job.
A 2019 poll by the think tank Pew also bares out this trend: 75% of Americans said it was ‘very or somewhat important for companies and organizations to promote racial and ethnic diversity in their workplace’.
Almost the same number (74%) also said that ‘only a person’s qualifications should be taken into account when making decisions around hiring and promotion, even if it results in less diversity in the workplace’.
These standards of fairness are not necessarily opposed, however, and there are many qualified, disadvantaged candidates that either standard of fairness would suggest ought to be selected.
But these standards can come into conflict when considering individuals who have had unequal opportunities to accumulate human capital, as can be the case with college applicants from different socioeconomic backgrounds or men and women in STEM.
The policy problem
This systematic divergence between these two types of decisions has clear implications for organizations and their ability to deliver on D,E&I initiatives and hiring policies.
Organizations need to be alert to the possibility that their hiring policies may not influence hiring decisions as effectively as possible.
For example, Arthur Hu, senior vice-president and chief information officer at Lenovo, one of the world’s biggest PC vendors, recently commented that increasing diversity across different geographies can be a challenge because not all hiring managers “have the same understanding around what diversity and inclusion mean”.
This highlights how this kind of gap can exist between more senior people making decisions at the policy level and those making decisions on the ground.
Creating D,E&I policies related to hiring at a company-wide level is inevitably a more abstract process – businesses will be thinking in terms of their goals and how to guide decisions across time, situations, and people.
But when the time comes to sit down with individual candidates, the principles behind these policies may not play out in practice due to a tendency to choose candidates exclusively on their achievements and qualifications.
Bridging the gap
So, what can be done to bridge the gap between policy and individual decisions?
Part of the solution lies in improving communication and education, aligning standards, and measuring progress.
The first step here is to communicate the possibility of a gap. USAID’s Engendering Industries Program provides a good example of how to do this.
It offers practical guidance to help companies meet specific gender equality goals. This includes simple advice like “Dos” and “Don’ts” to support HR professionals and senior leadership create tailored policies: “Don’t assume that it’s enough to say that it is fair or moral to increase gender equality’ or ‘Do assess understanding of the policies and whether they are being followed or used appropriately”.
Second, it is important to educate decision-makers about why this gap may come about – a mismatch in whether ‘microjustice’ or ‘macrojustice’ is being prioritized across decisions – and to align them on the same standard.
Research suggests that interventions in which decision-makers learn about both ‘microjustice’ and ‘macrojustice’ and are told that their individual decisions should help accomplish their organization’s D,E&I goals can lead to significantly better outcomes, thereby bridging the “policy-people gap”.
Finally, organizations need to specify and track the behaviors they intend to influence.
For example, Google’s Diversity Annual Report commits to “improving leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30%” and “doubl[ing] the number of Black+ Googlers in non-leadership roles in the US” by 2025.
Having policies and goals is not sufficient though, organizations need to track progress towards those goals. This can help identify gaps and ensure that decision-makers are accountable.
Many D,E&I policies and initiatives are supported by leaders and HR professionals, but if roadblocks to implementation are not considered and monitored, then companies and organizations risk failing to make progress.
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