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The Legitimacy of DEI Is at a Critical Juncture

A failure to follow the science threatens the legitimacy of DEI initiatives.

In one way or another, I’ve been immersed in the DEI space for nearly two decades—long before it was ever referred to as such. As an undergraduate majoring in psychology, I gravitated toward courses on the psychology of gender and intergroup conflict and worked for professors on research projects related to gender and race. By the time I was a master’s student in industrial/organizational psychology, I knew that I wanted to study how gender shapes workplace experiences. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Nearly a year ago, I took on a new role as an associate dean for equity and inclusion in my college. Before stepping into the role, I was already deeply concerned about the state of this thing called “DEI.” What did it even mean anymore?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion. Each of these words has positive connotations. Who wouldn’t want to work somewhere where they’ll get to know people from different backgrounds, each bringing unique stories, experiences, and perspectives? Who doesn’t want to be treated fairly at work, or to feel a sense of belonging among their colleagues? I think most people see the value in each of these things.

And yet, DEI is starting to sound like a bad word. I've witnessed or heard about practices happening at universities (including my own) that were spawned from a fervent interest in DEI but had no basis in the scientific literature—or common sense, even—about what leads to increased diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m talking about “anti-bias training” sessions in which attendants hear stories about sexism and racism and then, upon asking, “What can we do?” are told to just reflect on it all. Or hiring committees that indiscriminately tack on a woman or person of color to their shortlists just to avoid outside criticism. Or workshops in which people who ask questions or gently push back on another person’s assumptions are shut down. Or university orientations in which students are divided by skin color and lectured about what it means to be an oppressor or oppressed.

Much of this has made people feel helpless, afraid, and divided. I’ve recently published a couple of research articles that speak to how these feelings can cause DEI efforts to backfire.

First, in an article that just came out in the Journal of Business and Psychology, my co-authors and I found that performance evaluators who were more afraid about exhibiting prejudice ended up overcorrecting when they were providing feedback to women and delivered inflated (i.e., positively biased) performance feedback. The trouble, of course, is that in failing to receive accurate and honest feedback about their performance deficiencies, women are likely to fall even further behind in the workplace.

And then, in a recent article published in Academy of Management Journal, my co-authors and I uncovered evidence that cautions against the strong focus on identity that is inherent to so many DEI practices. First, we showed that having a strongly held identity made a person more susceptible to feeling offended and responding in a variety of dysfunctional ways to minor identity threats (e.g., microaggressions) in the workplace. Fortunately, we also found that feeling a sense of solidarity with others reduced the likelihood that people would respond in dysfunctional ways to an identity threat. But, critically, it was feeling solidarity with one’s coworkers that was most protective, rather than feeling solidarity with others who shared the threatened identity.

What this suggests is that any DEI practice that hinges on dividing employees into groups based on some facet of social identity is likely to do more harm than good. Instead, organizational leaders should endeavor to create a superordinate identity among employees, one that enables them to derive meaning, solidarity, and belonging from being “someone who works here.”

In my own DEI role, I’m focusing my efforts on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion using methods that I know have a basis in the scientific literature. I don’t want hiring committees to add job candidates to a shortlist in order to check off a box. Instead, I want them to do a better job of evaluating the entire pool of applicants, which is likely to produce a more diverse shortlist. This means creating rubrics and holistic criteria and then applying these in standardized ways when reviewing applications. It means developing work samples and interview questions that assess an applicant’s level of experience and skill in the areas that truly matter to the job. It means providing detailed and behavioral-based evaluations of job candidates and avoiding vague statements about a candidate’s assumed character traits or “fit.”

The state of DEI is at a critical juncture, with many people pushing back on what they rightly view as performative and divisive practices. Those of us working in the DEI space must take note, avoid the rush to defensiveness, and get to work with evidence-based practices in hand.

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