Research Brief

Inviting White Workers to Join Diversity Initiatives May Increase Buy-In

Absent such a call, white workers may doubt they have a role

Corporate America has become more focused on building workforces that better address diversity, equity and inclusion. A recent survey reports that, compared with 2019 — a year before George Floyd was murdered — company DEI leaders are now 2.6 times more likely to have a seat in the C-suite, and their teams have grown nearly fivefold.

A place at the table is an improvement, but most DEI work is still done by minorities. A study of 500 DEI professionals found that fewer than 30% were white. If DEI is an important goal, why is it relegated to minorities, who often have fewer allies and mentors among top leadership — and perhaps less influence up and down the ranks — to make it happen? Furthermore, it can become an additional source of workplace inequality: an unrewarded expectation unfairly placed on minorities.

Getting White People Involved in Diversity Efforts

There are likely many reasons why white people are less involved in diversity efforts, including resistance from those who feel that DEI efforts are unimportant or a waste of resources. A working paper by UCLA Anderson’s Kaylene J. McClanahan, a post-doctoral fellow, and Margaret Shih, who is also a member of the Bruinx research & development project within the UCLA Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Washington University in St. Louis’ Hannah J. Birnbaum suggests many white people are hesitant to get involved for a more benign reason: They are unsure whether they belong or can meaningfully contribute.

An initial study by the researchers established that white workers typically feel less connected than minorities to diversity initiatives. After reading a statement that most organizations — likely including their own — have diversity initiatives, participants weighed in on the extent to which they felt a part of their employer’s diversity efforts.

On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much), racial minority participants felt more belonging in their organization’s diversity efforts, with an average score of 4.9, compared with 4.1 for white participants. Minorities were also more apt to believe they make a meaningful contribution to their employer’s diversity efforts (5.15 versus 4.68).

Explicitly Inviting Ally Participation

White people’s concerns about belonging or being able to contribute to diversity efforts are fairly easily assuaged.

The researchers propose that white people could feel more included in organizational diversity efforts if diversity messaging explicitly welcomed minorities and white people as allies. With that underpinning, the researchers turned to five experiments with more than 5,000 participants. Participants were presented with recruitment materials from a (fictitious) company that valued diversity and had won an award for its diversity initiatives. In these experiments, a control group encountered traditional diversity message, while others received what the researchers term an “ally invitation” diversity message. This “ally invitation message” affirmed the organization’s commitment to diversity (per a traditional diversity message) but also stated that all employees — including white allies — were needed for DEI efforts to be successful.

White participants pitched with the ally invitation message were more likely to report they felt they could belong at the company and could contribute to diversity efforts (5.52 versus 5.05). They also had a greater desire to work at the company (5.04 versus 4.74) and reported more interest in joining organizational DEI efforts (4.64 versus 4.43).

Moreover, the researchers also found that minorities are not put off by messaging that explicitly recruits white employees to be part of the solution. Minority participants responded just as favorably to the ally invitation message as a traditional diversity message.

“We find that subtle changes to the framing of diversity messages can improve dominant group members’ reception to diversity messaging,” the authors write. “Specifically, ally invitation messaging, which highlights the importance of allies in diversity efforts, helps white people feel that they belong and contribute to these efforts (relative to traditional diversity messaging).”

Across multiple experiments, this research suggests that subtle changes to the framing of diversity messages can increase white people’s support of DEI (while still being attractive to minorities). Ultimately, these changes can help create more diverse and equitable workplaces.

Featured Faculty

  • Kaylene J. McClanahan

    Management and Organizations, post-doctoral fellow

  • Margaret Shih

    Department Chair and Deputy Dean of Academic Affairs, Neil Jacoby Chair in Management; Professor of Management and Organizations

About the Research

McClanahan, K.J., Birnbaum, H.J., Shih, M. (2022). Diversity Messages That Invite Allies to Diversity Efforts.

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