The Adverse Impact of Diversity-Valuing Behavior on the Career Prospects of Historically Underrepresented Employees

Disparities in representation in large corporations are reinforced by norms
and perceptions that discourage diversity-valuing behavior among non-white and female

Reviewed by Daniel Estupinan


Despite the gains in representation that non-white people and women have attained in the
workplace, they remain considerably underrepresented in leadership roles at large companies.
These gaps in representation are particularly jarring in light of the absence of significant
disparities in performance ratings between men and women (Joshi et al., 2015). Growing
evidence also shows women are often perceived to be more effective leaders than men (Paustian-
Underdahl, Walker, & Woehr, 2014). When non-white or non-male professionals attain
leadership positions, they have been found to actively oppose the advancement of other
underrepresented employees. While one explanation for this phenomenon is that these leaders do
so to protect their position in the organization, the authors of this study propose that
underrepresented leaders are also penalized through performance ratings for engaging in
“diversity-valuing behavior.” This penalty for promoting demographic balance reinforces the
glass ceiling in many predominately white organizations. It also highlights the various dynamics
that restrict the ability of non-white and female employees to achieve leadership positions.

As in most contexts in the United States, white men hold a disproportionate amount of power
and status in corporate settings. Despite the extent of their underrepresentation, there remains a
perception that non-white and female leaders that hire and promote other minority members are
nepotistic or socially competitive. Additionally, the visibility of these diversity-valuing behaviors
increases the salience of their identity for others in the corporate setting and may activate
negative stereotypes associated with their demographic. In contrast, white and male leaders who
engage in the same types of diversity-valuing behaviors may benefit from increased perceptions
of their interpersonal warmth and competence because they are not vulnerable to the same
presumptions of nepotism, social threat, or negative stereotyping.

David R. Hekman and Stefanie K. Johnson are both Associate Professors of Organizational
Leadership and Information Analytics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Maw-Der Foo
serves on the faculty of the National University of Singapore in the Division of Engineering and
Technology Management. Wei Yang is an Assistant Professor of Management at George Mason

Methods and Findings

The authors conducted two experiments to analyze the impact of diversity-valuing behavior on
perceptions of non-white and female employees’ competence and performance ratings. First,
they tested the hypothesis that non-white and female leaders who exhibit diversity-valuing behavior would be penalized in their performance ratings. They next tested the hypothesis that
the demographics of leaders engaging in diversity-valuing behavior on performance ratings
would impact their perceived competence.

Data from the first study indicated that non-white and female employee evaluations are adversely
impacted when they engage in diversity-valuing behavior. This dynamic may be rooted in the
activation of subtle and unconscious stereotypes that perceive non-white people and women as
less competent. When diversity-valuing activities increase, so does the relevance of
underrepresented leaders’ identities in the eyes of their peers or evaluators. Activation of these
stereotypes may then manifest in lower performance ratings. The authors also acknowledge
potential alternative explanations for these findings, including the possibility that the negative
ratings are a function of more direct collusion by white male superiors to protect their
organizational status by negatively rating underrepresented colleagues who seek to promote
more demographic balance.

In the second study, the authors hone in on the mediating function of perceived competence in
this dynamic by asking study participants to read materials about a senior hiring official’s
decision between equally qualified candidates and rate the hiring manager’s performance and
competence as a leader. This analysis found that non-white and female managers who advocated
for hiring non-white or female candidates were perceived to be significantly less competent than
those that did not. Contrastingly, male managers who valued diversity received the same
performance and competency rating as those who did not value diversity. White managers were
similarly not penalized for valuing diversity. This study suggests that lower performance ratings
for non-white and female leaders that advocate for similarly underrepresented candidates are a
consequence of lower perceived leadership competence.


These studies provide evidence that non-white and female employees who engage in diversity-
valuing behavior are likely to be perceived as less competent than those who do not and to be
materially penalized in their performance reviews that often influence promotions and pay.
Because white men are not similarly punished and retain a majority of leadership positions in
many organizations, the authors propose shifting the narrative to promote “demographic-
unselfishness behavior” and incentivize white male leaders to use their status and power to
remedy these disparities in representation.

The authors also propose placing a white man in a spokesman role of organizations’ diversity
offices. Because this study’s findings indicate that white men are taken more seriously when
advocating for underrepresented employees, involving them in diversity offices, which are
frequently staffed and led by minority employees, could advance diversity objectives. There are
several precedents for this strategy among large corporations using the placement of white men
to signal the operational integration of their organization’s diversity efforts. This strategy has
some risks, including continued reliance on white men as sources of legitimacy, potential
perceptions that these white men are condescending to current and prospective minority
employees, and the challenge of ensuring that white men in these roles are qualified to be
unbiased advocates themselves.

Overall, this study indicates that tokenizing non-white and female leaders may reinforce the glass
ceiling by disincentivizing those leaders from promoting similarly underrepresented employees.
This reality perpetuates non-white and female employees’ reliance on white men for career
opportunities; a vicious cycle that highlights the difficult position facing many predominately
white organizations as they strive to achieve demographic balance.

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