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7. Diversity and Inclusion

Published onSep 19, 2022
7. Diversity and Inclusion


Key Theories
Moral perspectives on equality
Legal perspectives on discrimination
Social cognition and stereotypes
Social identity theory
Inclusion theory

Key HR Practices
Preventing discrimination
Advancing the representation of minorities
Inclusion-oriented practices

The demographic pattern of people in organizations has changed tremendously over the last century. Consider how globalization and migration have increased the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of the labor population, how women’s labor participation increased in many parts of the world, and how people work until older ages than ever before. In this chapter, we address issues like equal opportunities and discrimination, as these are pertinent issues that occur as a result of a diverse workforce. Before diving into the theories and HR practices that inform evidence-based diversity and inclusion management, let’s illustrate how diversity manifests itself in modern organizations by zooming in on visible and less visible diversity types.

Diversity refers to any difference between individuals on any attribute that may lead to the perception that another person is different from oneself (Williams & O’Reilly, 1998). Some diversity differences like gender, ethnicity, and age are easily observed, while other aspects like experience, gender and political preferences or disability only become apparent once individuals express themselves about it. We tend to notice that people are different once they have characteristics that set them apart from the majority. Workforce diversity refers to the presence of perceived differences in cultural or demographic characteristics between people that work together in a group (DiTomaso et al., 2007). Workforce diversity relates to how groups interact and perform, which makes its management important to individuals and organizations. In this chapter we address the ethical, legal and psychological aspects of diversity in organizations.

Research shows that for individuals, being a minority member has consequences for fair treatment, salary advancement and their overall well-being. A brief overview below shows some figures on minority outcomes for women, ethnic groups, age differences, disabled persons and gender preference diversity. For example, the percentage of women (aged 15 or over) that have a paid job varies per country but exceeds 50% in the largest part of the world. Although the percentage fluctuates over time, as compared to 1990, a steady increase in women’s paid labor participation is evident in most countries except for North Africa, the Arab countries, and South Asia (International Labour Organization, 2018; Korotayev et al., 2015). There are often barriers for women to participate in paid labor such as cultural norms about the position of women in society, domestic duties, safety risks like (sexual) harassment, or simply a lack of childcare facilities. Next to a gap in paid labor participation, there is a persistent pay gap between men and women. According to the ILO’s global wage report, women earn on average 20% less than men. The pay gap can, to some extent, be explained by women traditionally working in different occupations than men (occupational and sector segregation), such as in the care and education profession. In addition to the horizontal segregation of men and women across professions, there is also a vertical segregation that explains some of the pay gap. Traditionally, men have tended to occupy the higher-echelon jobs in organizations more than women. Supposedly there is an invisible barrier popularly called ‘the glass ceiling’ that hinders women from progressing to higher organizational levels. Although traditional roles of women as caregivers and men as income earners may explain for the skewed representation of women across jobs and levels, there are also unexplained pay differences between men and women doing exactly the same jobs, even when controlling for education, experience, age and ‘having kids’ (International Labour Organization, 2018). This indicates the presence of subtle and difficult to change social processes that maintain the backward position of women in the labor market despite all positive interventions for equal opportunities.

Similar disadvantages for labor opportunities also exist for people of color from ethnic minorities such as those from African descent or indigenous peoples, Roma, and migrant workers. Although each of these groups face their own challenges, the fact that they stand out as different from the majority of a country’s inhabitants may result in negative consequences with respect to equal opportunities at work (OECD, 2020). When the number of women in top positions is low, the number of ethnic minority members in the higher organizational levels is even lower. There are numerous legal reports of ethnic discrimination in hiring and promotion which indicates a structural inequality in career opportunities between white and non-white workers (Pager & Shepherd, 2008). Minority disadvantages tend to accumulate over a lifetime. From childhood onwards, lower access to material wealth, educational opportunities and lack of access to social networks for career sponsorship add up to a weaker position in the labor market. The ongoing presence of conscious and unconscious discrimination against minorities makes equal representation of diverse employees at all levels of the organization an important priority for human resource management. Today, upheaval about the structural disadvantages of large groups of ethnic minorities in society pervades in the news, in societies and in the political debate, thereby putting pressure on organizations to reconsider the fairness of their human resource management policies.

Other social and demographic developments point at even more forms of diversity that matter for organizations. Consider for example increasing human longevity and the increase of pension ages, which means that people will have to work longer. Older employees are confronted with age discrimination in hiring due to prejudices about their ability to learn and their motivation to perform. Likewise, workers with visible and non-visible disabilities face prejudices about their workability which impairs their opportunities to participate in organizations. Diversity further manifests in alternative gender and sexual identities, in religious and in political differences. As this overview illustrates, there are many different ways in which diversity manifests. As the needs of the diverse groups differ and may sometimes even be contradictory, managing diversity is a complex task.

Organizations attempt to combat discrimination or foster the inclusion of diverse groups into their ranks for various reasons. First, there are legal obligations about equal opportunities that all organizations have to adhere to. For example, it is forbidden to discriminate on certain legal grounds like gender, age, or ethnicity in hiring and pay decisions. For member states of the European Union, the minimal requirement for legislation is agreed in directive 2000/78/EC of the European Commission. Moreover, when there are regulations about quotas for certain groups, this will require a minimum percentage of employees with a certain diverse background, and non-compliance by organizations can result in a penalty.

Another reason why organizations strive for a diverse workforce is because they inherently believe that all people are equal and as such deserve equal opportunities. This is a moral standpoint that can bring about a strong intrinsic drive to bring about favorable policies for minorities. An example of a company that portraits itself with a moral obligation for equal opportunities is IBM. On their employment page they write, “IBM has more than 100 years of work on diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace. […] Guided by our values and beliefs, we’re proud to foster an environment where every IBM-er is able to thrive because of their differences, not in spite of them”.

A third reason to advance diversity is the belief that a diverse workforce is good for organizational performance, commonly referred to as ‘the business case for diversity’. For example, it could be argued that it is beneficial for sales if the employee population within an organization represents the groups of customers or clients they serve outside the organization. Individuals with diverse backgrounds also bring diverse skills and knowledge to organizations, which should lead to better informed decision-making (Ely & Thomas, 2001). Notwithstanding how appealing this line of thought is, research systematically shows that diverse groups are not necessarily better at making decisions or in increasing sales, or for innovation. In fact, diverse groups perform equally well or even worse than homogeneous groups (Bell et al., 2011). This is important knowledge for human resource management, because it shows us that in order to make diversity a success in organizations, it needs management attention. Just putting a group of diverse individuals in one place is not a guarantee for effective performance. So, in addition to paying attention to equal opportunities and preventing discrimination, organizations are tasked with ensuring that all employees feel appreciated by each other and their superiors and that the potential benefits of diversity are realized. This task is to create a climate of inclusion that goes beyond adhering to legal requirements. The IBM example illustrates how an organization actively strives for an inclusive organization climate, where diversity is praised as a human right and not as a business case. Insights from social psychology can contribute to developing inclusion policies, whereby diversity fault lines resulting in non-functional distinctions between them and us (based on gender, ethnicity, or age) are overcome and replaced by functional beliefs about ‘us’ as a functional team in an organization. Inclusion is the keyword to make diversity work for individuals and organizations. This is, however, easier said than done.

The central question in this chapter is, therefore, how human resource management can contribute to building and managing a diverse workforce, in such a way that all employees feel included and motivated to contribute to the organization.

The chapter is structured as follows. First, some additional background information is provided about the moral and legal perspective on promoting equality and fairness for all workers. This includes an elaborate definition of discrimination and equality. Then the chapter continues to set out social psychological processes that explain why overt and covert discrimination occurs in the organizational context. Theories of social cognition explain why individuals use stereotypes in their interaction with others. Social identity theory builds on social cognition and explains how subtle group processes that are important to our own self view can lead to exclusion in groups. These theoretical perspectives help gain insight into the ways in which discrimination can be prevented and inclusion fostered. The chapter is concluded with a summary of the key research findings and some practical examples of effective human resource management practices for diversity and inclusion.


The moral justice of equality

Equal rights and opportunities are foundational human rights laid out in the United Nations declaration of 1948. After the atrocities of World War 2, a large congregation of nations agreed on a set of moral standards for dealing with human rights that should be protected universally. The first article in the declaration states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Article 1, United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Right, 1948). Many countries have similar statements about equal rights in their national constitutions; China’s 4th article for example reads that “all nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal”, while Brazil’s 5th article states that “men and women have equal rights and duties under the terms of this constitution,” and South Africa’s text explicates non-sexism and non-racism, whereby all citizens are “equally entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits […]; and equally subject to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship”, to name a few. At the same time, individuals are not always treated the same, thereby in practice ensuring that equality will have to be supported by laws and regulations on a national level and in organizations. Compliance is easier said than done, as can be illustrated by zooming in on Article 1 of the United Nations.

According to Article 1, human beings are equal in rights and in dignity. Equal in rights means that the same procedures apply to all individuals, no matter their differences. Equal in dignity means that all individuals can enjoy the same benefits (positions, status, income), no matter who they are. For workplaces, this would manifest in equal representation of diverse groups in all job categories, for example in an equal representation of men, women and people of color at the top of the organization. In practice, these two requirements can be conflicting. For example, a very equal procedure that treats everyone the same, can have the unintended outcome that individuals from disadvantaged groups do not pass the threshold of the procedure. An organization that requires all their employees to have a diploma from a prestigious university – which might be understandable from a human and social capital point of view – will unintendedly exclude other suitable candidates from social groups who find difficulties in attending such universities due to unequal chances in childhood. The consequence of such an apparent equal procedure is that it leads to unequal opportunities. In practice, there are many examples like this. An often-heard quote like “we only hire the best, no matter who they are” indicates equal treatment in rights but can in practice lead to unequal outcomes in dignity since some individuals will never qualify as ‘the best candidate’.

This issue of equal procedure versus equal outcomes is expressed in the words equality and equity. Equality looks for fair treatment by treating everybody the same. It means that procedures should be the same for all, notwithstanding any differences between individuals. Equity, on the other hand, ensures fairness by making sure that everybody has the same opportunities. This means treating individuals differently, based on their individual needs, to achieve fairness in outcomes. Building on these different views on equal treatment, Tomei (2003) distinguished three models of equality that are found in organizations.

The first model is called procedural or individual justice. Here, organizations take a procedural view on achieving equality. All policies are checked for fair process and are strictly applied to each individual in each situation where decision-making is concerned. So instead of recruiting in personal networks and doing an informal interview, which is prone to bias in favor of majority candidates, a fair procedure would be analyzing the job for required skills and knowledge, advertising the vacancy publicly, and reviewing the application forms strictly against the requirements of the job. Such procedures would advance decisions based on merit – the objective experience and achievements of individuals, instead of some unconscious prejudices. An example of a merit-based HR practice is anonymous applications, where all identifying non-job-relevant information is hidden during the application process. This way, non-job-related characteristics like gender or a foreign last name cannot distract from the job-related achievements in an applicant’s resume.

The second model is group justice. Organizations that look after group justice take an equity perspective on equal treatment. If an organization is concerned about the representation of diverse groups in their organization, management can seek to advance underrepresented groups by defining specific policies to help women, individuals of color, or persons with a disability to get extra opportunities for development. In some cases, this means that a job opening is restricted to some minority groups. Such policies are known as affirmative action: allowing unequal procedures, to achieve equity in outcomes. The ultimate goal of the group justice model is that at the group level, there is equal representation of all subgroups whereby all everyone is treated equally.

The third and final model that Tomei (2003) discerns is equality as recognition of diversity. It can be described as an objection against the ideal of assimilation: if equal treatment means that we all are the same, this disregards individuals’ desire be respected for who they are. Diverse individuals do not only want to be treated the same as the majority, but also be respected for who they are, and they may not feel comfortable in assimilating completely. Equal rights movements for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other gender identities (LGBTQ) rights for example are actively fighting to be accepted for who they are, no matter where they are. The individual need to be recognized as unique, while at the same time be accepted and granted the same rights and benefits as everybody else is at the heart of the last model. Organizations that embrace this model celebrate the diversity of their staff by communicating the value of diversity and at the same time creating a culture of inclusion for all employees. This model is also known as management of inclusion, which will be addressed in more detail in the last part of the theory section.

All three models contribute to equality as proposed in the first article of the United Nations, but they differ in the principles used to determine equality. This illustrates that equality as a concept needs explication with respect to moral questions like ‘equal in what’ and ‘equal how’ – whose answers lead to various principles depending on the moral perspective one takes. In other words, the answer to which of the models is the best for advancing equality depends on one’s moral view about what constitutes good or bad with respect to treating others. Practically, one could rank the models from meeting anti-discrimination laws (procedural or individual justice model) to more extended moral answers to the meaning of equality as equity (group justice) or inclusion (equality as recognition of diversity).

Discrimination and the law

While advancing equality leaves room for different strategies that organizations can pursue, constitutional law is clear about the limits of unequal treatment. Discrimination happens when individuals are denied their equal rights because they are treated differently than others under the same conditions, based on nonrelevant, personal characteristics. Discrimination has the intended (direct) or unintended (indirect) consequence that the victim experiences impaired outcomes, such as missed opportunities for development, neglect of good performance or even harassment. Common grounds for discrimination at work are gender, race, age, disability and sexual preference, but these can be extended with many more grounds on which individuals may differ from each other, as can be read in Article 2 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948:

“Discrimination is denying people rights and freedoms as set forth in the universal declaration of human rights, by making distinctions between people based on characteristics like race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

From a legal perspective, this definition of discrimination involves three core elements. First, for an act to be considered as discrimination, it requires a difference in treatment. Second, this difference in treatment should have an effect on the person in question. Finally, the reason for the difference in treatment should be based on a prohibited ground (Weiwei, 2004). Without the third condition, discrimination in the sense of making distinctions between individuals is daily practice in organizations. Selection, promotion and rewards are all based on making distinctions between individuals. As long as these distinctions are based on merit, there is no case for discrimination. Merit is the connection between a person’s qualifications and the requirements for performance in a job. However, once a distinction is based on a prohibited ground, it qualifies as discrimination. Prohibited grounds are lists of characteristics specified in the law for which discrimination is never allowed. Common grounds for discrimination based on gender and race are typically on these lists, but countries have their own specifications. In Finland for example, it is forbidden to discriminate because of someone’s family relations; this means that being a parent is no reason for differential treatment. Ireland’s equal status act specifies membership of the Traveller community as a prohibited ground for discrimination. Some countries like the United States, do not specify specific lists but leave it to the court to determine if someone has been discriminated against.

Often, there is a distinction between prohibited grounds for discrimination in society in general, and for employment relations in particular. For example, in European Union member states, employees with part-time contracts should enjoy the same rights as employees with a fulltime contract, because the employment law explicates that discrimination against part-timers is prohibited (EU Directive 97/81/ EC). The law can also make exceptions for work conditions where discrimination is allowed. For example, working time legislation may allow discrimination on age to protect very young or very old workers against strenuous work weeks.

Despite the presence of anti-discrimination laws, discrimination does happen, and it is not always easy to detect. Clearly, rejecting a candidate because of their skin color is an act of direct discrimination. However, oftentimes, discrimination is indirect. For instance, job advertisements can include non-job-related characteristics, which lead to systematic exclusion of candidates on prohibited grounds. This is known as indirect discrimination. An example of indirect discrimination is requiring flawless fluency in the domestic language for a job. This requirement discriminates against applicants who do not speak that language as naturally as their mother tongue. If the job requires a good understanding and communication in the language, the requirement of having no accent is discriminating. A judge will rule that both direct and indirect discrimination at work is prohibited. Legally, direct discrimination is easy to detect by referring to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. Indirect discrimination is more difficult to prove because making distinctions can sometimes be justified by job requirements. Sometimes, employers are unaware that job requirements cause unintended, indirect discrimination. When there is suspicion of indirect discrimination, an employer has to objectively justify unequal treatment by showing factors unrelated to discrimination. This means that it is important to critically evaluate if job requirements are really necessary conditions for being able to execute the job. If job requirements are just convenient and lead to indirect discrimination, an employer is liable for prosecution. Case law provides clues for legally justified examples of indirect discrimination. Examples are available in the Handbook on European non-discrimination law (Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2011). To prevent discrimination, employers have to install and adhere to fair processes for all personnel policies, including recruitment, compensation, career development, succession, and performance evaluation.

Organizations often want to improve the representation of employees from various identified groups at the higher levels. As an intervention, management may decide on using affirmative action. This is a policy aimed at recruiting and promoting individuals from less represented groups to restore the demographic representation. However, affirmative action is discrimination based on the same grounds for discrimination that the law prohibits. Put simply, affirmative action of women for senior roles discriminates against equally qualified men. Any employer who wants to use affirmative action should therefore seek legal consultation to see whether such a policy is justified. A judge will only allow affirmative action or justified distinctions, if it can be demonstrated that all other measures to come to a more diverse organization have failed.

In conclusion, anti-discrimination law provides the minimum standards for equality any employer has to adhere to. Although there are national differences, the common grounds for discrimination include those in Article 2 of the Declaration of Human Rights. Although the law may be clear, its application to specific cases is sometimes difficult, in particular when discrimination is indirect on apparently neutral grounds. Even the apparently neutral provision of merit may not be as neutral as it seems. Merit is partly a social construction, based on common beliefs of what qualities are needed for good performance in some jobs, and which therefore may lead to indirect discrimination. Criteria for performance should consequently always be carefully monitored to ensure they are truly neutral. The next section describes the social psychological processes behind common beliefs about stereotypical roles for diverse groups that lead to discrimination and inequality.

Social psychological processes of discrimination

Having experienced an era of extreme violence against social groups – the lynching of blacks in the United States (US) and the holocaust against Jews in Europe, social psychologist Gordon Allport wrote a book entitled ‘The Nature of Prejudice’ (Allport, 1954), in which he reasoned that antipathy was based on faulty generalizations about social groups and that every human has the tendency to think in such generalizations. Moreover, he wrote that people have a natural tendency to like people whom they perceive as similar to themselves better than those they think are different from themselves (Dovidio et al., 2005). This implicit thinking in ‘us’ versus ‘them’ terms often leads to subtle and sometimes overt forms of discrimination. The two most-cited social psychology theories on why discrimination happens are social cognition theory, and in particular the writings on stereotypes, and social identity theory, which explains the reason for in-group liking and outgroup disliking.

Social cognition theory: Stereotypes

Many of the things people think and do are based on implicit cognitive processes. In order to make sense of the world, people use implicit schema in their minds that help them do things automatically. People have the natural tendency to continually categorize things (Allport, 1954). This is a very efficient human characteristic: it helps us do many things without having to actively process information all the time. The mind works like a dresser with drawers that open when activated by some stimulus in the environment. For example, you only realize how convenient your morning routines are when you move to another house. All of a sudden, you need to update your mental schema that told you where to look for the plates, the coffee and the sugar. This updating process costs effort and energy. It is easier to rely on existing automated schemata than to put effort into creating new ones. Mental schemas help us to effectively function and survive.

Automatic mental sense making is also activated when people process information about new social events that they encounter. The process of attaching meaning to interpreting events is called attribution. Attributions are favorable or unfavorable dispositions toward social objects, such as people or groups, places, and policies (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Attribution leads people to make inferences about the causes of behavior and events. Even if we did not really observe anything about the cause, we are still able to come up with an explanation for what we see happening. For example, a teacher can attribute a student’s failing of an exam to the student’s efforts, or to the difficulty of the exam. This indicates that attributions about the causes of the behavior of others can be internal or external. Internal attribution means that the explanation for the behavior is sought in the motivation and characteristics of that person. For example, the teacher can attribute a student’s low grade to her lack of effort in studying. External attribution of behavior means that one thinks the behavior is caused by some external event. In this case, the teacher could attribute the student’s low grade to the fact that the exam was far too difficult for all students. Attribution theory examines how inferences about the causality of the behavior of others develop (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). Many attributions do not involve much active information processing about what really happens. They are activated in a split second. Attribution processes play an important role in how we observe the world around us and the people that we meet. Most of the time, we rely on a series of attributions rather than truly process all the available information.

A collection of attributions used to make sense of the social world is called a schema. Schemas about the social world are not necessarily correct; they are just a mental representation of reality. Schemas themselves develop in social interaction by looking at how others attribute meaning to events. The formation of schemas begins early in life, when children firstly interact with their parents. Parents are important influencers of their childrens’ mental schemas. Later on, school, peers and other people in the close social proximity of children help in attaching meaning and forming social schemas. Access to the broader social context is represented in socio-cultural norms, which are transferred and confirmed in social relationships at home and in school. The news, television and social media also continuously feed information about the world and shape its mental representation. This process of information processing about the social world is continuous over the life span.

So, social schema form throughout life and serve as relatively stable shortcuts to facilitate day-to-day life. Schemas are the mental structures that are activated in social events. They help us to be patient when we meet with older people in public transport, to politely stand in line and await our turn, and adjust our speech when we are at work instead of with peers. Schemas are quickly activated when meeting new people. They help us to attribute meaning to someone that you have never met before. Such judgments about other people are literally made in seconds. This happens because the mind needs minimal clues for activating a schema. The mind categorizes people according to salient characteristics and quickly activates the corresponding schema.

As schema activation happens based on a few characteristics, for example noticing that a woman is wearing a headscarf, the inferential attributions that are initially activated are also quite general. Schemas about people based on a few characteristics bear the risk of overgeneralizing or stereotyping, and that is precisely what happens. Stereotypes are socially shared sets of beliefs about traits that are characteristic of members of a social category (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Stereotyping is a trick of our brain to process information about others in an efficient way. It largely happens unconsciously, to everybody. It is impossible to say that you do not think in stereotypes, because that would mean that you first consciously process all the information about a new person before you form an image. As ethical as that may be, it is not how your mind works. However, this is not to say that stereotypes will dictate how you deal with others. The moment we learn more about another person, the initial salient characteristics will become less dominant and the stereotype is likely to be replaced by a more accurate understanding of the other person. Nevertheless, one should be aware of how stereotypes can influence our behavior.

Stereotypes can be triggered by a broad variety of stimuli, ranging from very subtle events (such as the presentation of a single word) to very obvious stimuli (such as explicitly reminding people of some group stereotype) (Wheeler & Petty, 2001). Easily visible characteristics such as gender, race and age are more likely to be used as categorization clues and are more likely to evoke stereotyped schemas than less visible characteristics such as work experience and education. Obviously, work experience and education are more important to the human capital of organizations than attributes associated with gender, age or other diversity categorizations. For example, some people associate the category ‘older workers’ with attributes like having physical limitations, conventional beliefs, lower productivity and being opposed to change compared to younger workers. The attributes related to an activated stereotype influence how people behave towards such older workers. When the implicit stereotype about older workers is active, recruiters will judge an older applicant also on stereotyped prejudices of older workers, which would lead to inaccurate and unfair selection decisions – discrimination. It is important to note that the implicit nature of stereotypes means that they will interfere with the judgments on the overall quality of the older candidate, even if the recruiter thinks that she is making a fair comparison between candidates based on job requirements. This illustrates how stereotypes can play with our minds and very subtly cause discrimination in organizations.

Whether or not characteristics become stimuli for stereotype activation, depends on the salience of the characteristic in a group. In a very diverse group, differences between people are not that salient. However, when you are the only person representing some characteristic, that characteristic becomes very salient, meaning that both other people in the group and yourself become very aware of the difference. Being very aware of being different than the other causes feelings of threat, and stereotypes are quickly activated to cope with this feeling of threat. This reaction is called stereotype-threat and it refers to the stereotype activating process that happens after a difference between people in a group has become salient. The salient difference activates the adhering stereotype and in turn, this influences both the behavior of others and your own behavior (Wheeler & Petty, 2001).

Stereotype threat follows from behavioral norms and expectations that are associated with stereotypes. Behavioral norms describe what people who belong to a certain stereotype are like, and also how they are expected to behave. In particular, these normative expectations can lead to disadvantages for members of minority subgroups at work. Imagine for example a situation where a woman wants to be promoted to a senior leadership role in an organization. Stereotypes describe women as kind and nice to others, as submissive and following, and as warm and caring for others. In a male-dominated organization, the promotion of a woman to a leadership position would make her ‘being different’ salient. The salience triggers the attributes associated with women among those who judge if she merits the leadership position. Then, the stereotype is no longer a neutral overgeneralization about how women are, but it becomes an implicit evaluation of how this woman in particular is expected to behave in a leadership position. These expectations are called social role expectations. Social role expectations are stereotyped beliefs about what people who belong to a minority group are like and how they are supposed to behave (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Such social role expectations are activated as soon as differences are salient to others. They are both descriptive, in terms of what the other is like, but also prescriptive, in the sense that the stereotype tells us how the other should behave. Because of their implicitness, others are often unaware that their views of individual members of minority groups are being fed with stereotypical beliefs. Being visible as a woman rather than as a qualified candidate for the job ensures a woman faces a stereotype threat. The stereotype prescribes that she will behave in a ‘nice and caring’ way, which is in conflict with the general beliefs about effective leadership, which is more described in masculine attributes (decisive, aggressive, taking initiative and dominant) than in feminine words (Schein, 2001). Moreover, she risks being judged for her performance in the job because of the same stereotype threat. This shows how stereotypes interfere with common beliefs about what attributes of good performance are, and how these may lead to indirect discrimination. Stereotyped norms interfere with performance evaluations of individual members of minority groups without both the rater and the ratee being aware of doing so. This illustrates how difficult it can be to overcome unequal treatment of minority members in practice.

The same implicit stereotyping process that influences the behaviors of others when confronted with salient characteristics of a person of a minority position are also activated in persons in the minority positions themselves. To cope with the feeling of threat that follows from being visible as an outsider in a group, individuals tend to act in accordance with the stereotype. Again, this is a subtle and implicit process. In practice, it means that minority members lower their aspirations for career growth because they self-stereotype themselves as ‘less suitable’ for higher positions. This process of self-stereotyping is another explanation for the continuing imbalance of the demographic representation in the higher echelons of organizations. Positive examples of success achieved by minority individuals in prestigious positions can help overcome negative self-stereotyping. People like Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey have provided great role models and thereby contributed to emancipating people of color around the world. Role models like Winfrey and Obama are important to mend common stereotypes about minorities.

As long as stereotypes are implicit, they will always influence our behavior. To change a stereotype, the cognitive schema needs a disruption that activates attentive information processing instead of automated information processing. Remember the example of cognitive schema disruption after moving house. When stuff, such as the sugar bowl, is not in the place where you used to find it, you need to mentally track each bit of information and reshape the schema associated with the location of the sugar bowl. A similar mental process is needed to mend stereotypes. Automated ‘other’ categorizations triggered by stereotypes have to be turned off by looking at the real characteristics of people, beyond the characteristics that are triggered by stereotyped attributions.

Social identity theory: Group processes

Being a member of a social group and comparing oneself with others and other groups causes people to build a mental representation of who they are. A social identity is phrased in terms of comparisons: “I am a young adult (not a child, not old)”, “I am a woman (not a man or alternative)”, “I play soccer (not another sport)”, “My family is from abroad (not local)”. All of these small statements and many more say something about who you are and make up your identity. Identity means that you identify with other persons to whom you are identical. Social identity plays an important role in understanding how discrimination works. As the work on social cognition and stereotypes highlights, discrimination is not the result of a direct dislike of minority groups, but it is the result of subtle cognitive reactions to perceived similarities and differences with others. Social psychologists like James (1890), Allport (1954), Festinger (1954), and Turner et al. (1979) have all contributed to the massive amount of theory and research on identity and group processes associated with discrimination and inclusion. Before Turner et al. (1979) proposed the logic of the social identity theory, James (1890) introduced the concept self-esteem and Festinger (1954) explained cognitive dissonance. These two theories were then adopted by Tajfel and Turner in their social identity theory to explain how one mentally uses group comparisons and disregards negative information to uphold one’s self-esteem. This process is explained below.

Self-esteem was first coined in 1890 by physician, philosopher and first lecturer in psychology in the United States, William James. It is considered to be one of the first psychological concepts ever. James reasoned that we evaluate who we are based on the evaluation of the things that we have and do, the groups we associate with, and the values we adhere to (James, 1890). Evaluations of oneself in general or in specific domains lead to a sense of self-accomplishment or failure. People with a high general self-esteem may answer favorably to questions like “I feel proud of who I am”. Domain-specific self-esteem shows in statements like “I am good at cooking”. One can imagine that negative self-evaluations and a low self-esteem invoke negative emotions. Individuals low in self-esteem may feel depressed, insecure to act or lonely. Instead, having a good feeling about yourself is beneficial to feelings of happiness, health and an active and social life. It is natural that individuals prefer to feel good about themselves and strive for high self-esteem. Self-esteem is not dependent on material wealth. Very poor people can have a high self-esteem, and very rich people can feel entirely worthless.

To understand how the mind works in upholding a high self-esteem, we can turn to Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance avoidance. Festinger reasoned that all individuals have an inner drive to hold their cognitions about the world in harmony and they try to avoid disharmony. For example, one’s view of the world could be that the man should provide for his family, and that this is not a task for women. Often there is not much objective information whether your view on the world is right. In situations in which individuals cannot rely on objective information, they turn to comparing their opinions and abilities with others. In a patriarchal society, many others will share the view that women should not be the breadwinner. In this example, meeting a woman who does in fact provide for her family would disrupt the cognition of the world. To avoid cognitive dissonance, the mind immediately begins to reframe its attributions to the situation in such a way that one can reaffirm harmony with their world view and feel good about themselves again (Festinger, 1954). Maybe this woman’s husband is ill, or maybe this woman is one of those stubborn feminists? By attributing causes to the anomaly, the mind reduced cognitive dissonance and succeeded in keeping a harmonious view on the world and to feel good about oneself.

Self-esteem and cognitive dissonance avoidance are important components of social identity theory (Turner et al., 1979). The contribution of the work of Tajfel and Turner is that they pointed at the importance of being part of a social group for self-esteem and for explaining cognitions about the word. People have a natural tendency to see themselves as part of a social group. According to the minimal group paradigm, the silliest things can lead people to see similarities between them and form a smaller group within a larger group. For example, students who are put together because they like the same music will immediately start behaving as a group and consider themselves better than the other students in the group. Examples like these illustrate that social groups are formed naturally and that group participation automatically invokes social comparison processes. Experiments show that even when complete strangers are assigned to random groups based on no criterion at all, they immediately start identifying with the group to which they were assigned. An example of early experiments on the minimal group paradigm can be seen in the movie “Stanford Prison Experiment (2015).”

Group membership is an important source of personal pride and self-esteem as it provides a harmonious frame of reference about the world and who we are. Individuals build their social identity, a sense of who they are in society, on the basis of the groups in which they participate. As illustrated above, a social identity links to different groups (like one’s generation, gender, sports or work activities, or ethnic descent). Individuals identify themselves and others with different social groups by forming categories into which they classify. Group identification is the outcome of this classification. “I am a woman, and you are a man, so we classify into different groups”. By comparing yourself and others to known social groups, individuals mentally categorize their social position and that of others in society. If one has a positive feel about the worth of their own group in society, this upholds one’s positive view on the self (Turner et al., 1979). In contrast, when the evaluation of the group with whom they associate is unfavorable, individuals can develop a low self-esteem. This phenomenon can be observed in individuals from minority groups in society, who typically have a lower education and career expectations than those in more favorable groups.

Identifying with a group also means understanding the boundaries of group membership. Social categorizations are all implicit assumptions about who belongs to a group and who does not. Those that do belong to a group are the in-group members, while all others are out-group members. Members of the same social group are called in-group members. In-group members show high social exchange reciprocity to each other. They display solidarity with each other and help each other wherever possible. This reciprocity strengthens the social ties between ingroup members, which results in in-group members feeling good about being part of that group and about their social identity derived from it. Out-group members are perceived to be ‘different’ from the in-group. By making comparisons between the in-group and out-group, individuals attribute meaning about their position in society. These comparisons can be quite rude when it concerns out-group members. Perceived differences between people in the in-group are often underestimated.

This contrasting that occurs between in-group and out-group members contributes to maintaining a harmonious view of one’s own position in society and makes them feel good.

Being a member of a group brings many advantages because groups are naturally effective social structures for survival. Teamwork, learning, and caring all happen within groups. When all members of a work team identify as a group, this will benefit their performance. However, there will always be demographic and nonwork-related diversity among the members of work teams. If not managed well, this diversity could activate social categorization processes that lead to fault lines along non-work-related characteristics. A workgroup that is divided between an in-group and an out-group along non-work-related characteristics can be characterized by bad communication, exclusion of knowledge and can cause overall lower performance. This is an explanation of why diverse teams are not automatically well-performing teams (Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007).

The process of categorizing people in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms serves to maintain a positive self-esteem and ensure a coherent word view in several ways (Abrams & Hogg, 1988). First, comparisons with people outside of one’s own group strengthen their identification with the in-group, which contributes to a high self- esteem. Downward comparisons with the characteristics, members, and benefits of other groups strengthens the social status of one’s own group as well as one’s belongingness to this group. Hence, when individuals evaluate their own group positively as compared to outsiders, this enhances their self-esteem (Turner et al., 1979). However, when the social comparison favors the other group as better than their own group, one feels a threat to their social identity and self-esteem. To maintain coherence in their social cognitive structure, people will try to reduce this cognitive dissonance. They will use information about these outsiders to re-evaluate their beliefs about the in-group, the outsider group and their own self-identity. Especially when the out-group closely resembles the in-group, a process of active cognitive comparisons is triggered. This could lead to the insight that the out-group is not too bad after all, or worse, that the out-group is better than one’s own group. In the latter case, behavioral and cognitive strategies are activated to rebalance one’s cognitive harmony. For example, one may decide to categorize oneself into a different group and start identifying with a higher status group. Alternatively, one narrows the gap between groups by cooperating with the other group, or to merge both groups by cognitively reducing the perceived differences.

Comparison processes between self (in-group) and others (out-group) can explain why discrimination happens. In the logic of protecting the worth of their own group and enlarging differences with the others, it is easy to see how this can lead to exclusion. Luckily, social identity theory is not only important to understanding the causes of discrimination within organizations, but also provides clues for solving differences between groups and creating stronger work units. One important lesson is that the inclusion of people in groups depends on the cognitive frame of what a group is. Many in-group preferences and much out-group discrimination are more motivated by preferential treatment of in-group members rather than direct hostility toward out-group members. By managing group composition so that a salient and symbolically meaningful work unit is fostered, by using inclusive communication styles and by applying inclusive management, the cognitive structure of ‘us’ can be mended such that ‘us’ and ‘them’ definitions happen more along functional distinctions between groups, rather than along demographic and non-work related fault lines.

In summary, social identity theory explains why social comparisons between the self and others happen along social categories and how these lead to preferences to work and live with those who are more alike than with those who are perceived as members of another social category. The theory also provides insights into preventing discrimination, by enlarging the perceptions of social categories along work-related characteristics rather than stereotypes.

Inclusion theory

Recently, scholars added a new perspective to the social cognitive and social identity approaches in order to understand the effective management of diversity. The perspective builds on the moral take that diversity is a value in itself, and not a problem that should be smoothened so that everyone is the same. Building on the concepts of self and group identity, Brewer (1991) developed the optimal distinctiveness theory, which resonates in inclusion-oriented diversity perspectives. Optimal distinctiveness theory states that despite the fact that group memberships are prerequisites to develop a social identity, within a group everyone still has the need to be seen as an individual with a unique worth (Brewer, 1991). In other words, there is a core to who you are that is unique to you and that makes you stand out in a group. In any close group with whom you identify, you have the innate need to be seen and appreciated for your dissimilarities. It is a basic human need to be considered a bit unique next to being a group member. For example, a lawyer’s social identity at work is shaped by a proud membership of a prestigious law firm, and within that context on the team of direct colleagues who are specialized in tax law. However, among those close peers, each employee has the need to be appreciated for their unique experience and knowledge in, for example, family businesses and tax law. The same goes for social peer groups. For example, when one of the men in a close-knit group of childhood friends comes out as being gay, optimal distinctiveness appreciation by his peers will safeguard their friendship. The optimal distinctiveness theory predicts that individuals feel and perform at their best when they know they are part of a preferred group and at the same time get room and appreciation for being unique. The optimal balance between social identity and self-identity is itself a social schema that develops within the context of family, peers and society throughout life. The need to be different may therefore be stronger in some cultures than in others. However, even in the most communal cultures, all individuals have this spark of uniqueness for which they care to be valued (Becker et al., 2012).

The lesson from optimal distinctiveness theory for organizations is that for the optimal performance and well-being of a diverse workforce, it is not enough to prevent discrimination, but it is also paramount to ensure that each individual in the organization is appreciated for their uniqueness. This notion is captured in the concept of inclusion. Indeed, inclusion is the outcome of optimal distinctiveness. In inclusive organizations, policies, practices and leadership are all aimed at valuing each individual for their ideas and contributions without them having to sacrifice their uniqueness or feel that they have to conform to the majority (Shore et al., 2011). Inclusive organizations foster a climate in which all individuals feel welcome in any formal and informal social gathering in organizations, that all hear about formal information and informal gossips and that all bond in the social network that is the organization, without individuals feeling left out. A climate of inclusion is the shared belief between all employees and leaders of an organization that each employee is appreciated for what they contribute to the organization as well as for who they are. A climate of inclusion cannot be realized by just stating policies and procedures. This is because a climate is a shared belief, and it therefore depends on how leaders communicate about the value of individual diversity, on role modelling, and on strategies to show the value of diversity.

Inclusion theory has transformed the view on diversity management from preventing discrimination, which suits the moral view on equality as procedural or individual justice, to ensuring inclusion, which fits the moral view on equality as recognition of diversity. The next section reports on research evidence related to the theories on diversity as described in this chapter.

Key research

There is an abundance of research on stereotyping and social identity. The meta-analyses selected below are relevant because they provide evidence for interventions that reduce discrimination and promote inclusion in organizations.

  1. Stereotypes. Some interesting meta-analyses provide insight into the persistence and effects of stereotypes about demographic characteristics like gender, age and color and how they influence social role expectations about minorities in relation to expected job performance.

    1. Stereotype threat. Several meta-analyses support stereotype threat theory; the idea that once a stereotype has been activated, the behavior towards target minorities will adhere to the stereotype, thereby having negative consequences for minority members. A meta-analysis by Appel and Weber (2021) shows how negative stereotypes about minorities communicated in mass media like on television or the internet really lead to stereotype threat behavior in real life, which impairs how minorities are treated at school and at work. The media play a key role in contributing to the forming and confirming of stereotypes.

    2. Gender. There is much evidence that leadership is generally described with words like ‘power’ and ‘decisiveness’, which indicate behavior that is culturally ascribed to men (Koenig et al., 2011). This male stereotype about leaders can act as a barrier for women to enter leadership roles. In their meta-analysis, Anne Koenig et al. (2011) compared almost 200 research studies on how people describe leadership. These studies confirmed that common descriptions of ‘typical’ or ‘effective’ leaders better correspond with the social role of men than of women. Some nuance was found: the description of stereotypical leaders has become a bit more feminine over time, and was less strong when respondents work in sectors like education. Women themselves also attach less importance to masculine behaviors for good leaders. This change in the gendered stereotype of a good leader goes hand in hand with an increase of women in leadership positions and illustrates how stereotypes can be mended when there are role models that show that women are also good leaders.

    3. Age. Thomas Ng and Daniel Feldman examined empirical evidence for stereotypical assumptions about older workers. They found 413 research papers that might confirm stereotypical views that older workers are less motivated, less willing to do training and development, less willing to support change, less healthy and endure more family-related problems (Ng & Feldman, 2012). The research studies they selected all objectively compared older and younger workers’ self-reported motivation, career aspirations, health and the like. Not only did they find no support for most of the stereotypes, but they even found that older workers report slightly higher levels of motivation and health than younger workers. The only stereotype for which some evidence was found is that older workers participate less in training and development activities. Ng and Feldman warn that this finding may be a result of stereotype threat towards older workers rather than a true dislike of training and development by older workers.

    4. Ethnicity, color or race. Discrimination of persons from ethnic or racial minorities at work is widely reported in much of the meta-analytical research. (Zschirnt & Ruedin, 2016) concentrated on discrimination in hiring by summarizing research using correspondence tests. In correspondence test research, researchers apply for real jobs with fake motivation letters and resumes. The application letters and resumes are the same, except for the manipulation of the name (domestic or foreign) and the place of birth (similar). By comparing which fake applications pass the initial round of selection, they can observe the effects of salient ethnicity markers for hiring. The few characteristics about minority applicants provided in the application trigger stereotypes about ‘what such people are like’, which tend to be more negative than those of the majority of applicants. By comparing 43 correspondence test studies performed in 18 different countries, they confirmed that discrimination in hiring exists across all countries and for all kinds of minorities (Zschirnt & Ruedin, 2016). In fact, they found that the chance to make it to the second round of the hiring procedure is 49% lower for minority members than for majority applicants. Zschirnt & Ruedin (2016) point at social identity processes that can account for this finding, where employers unconsciously prefer their own in-group candidates over out-group members.

This brief overview of research on stereotypes indicates how such stereotypes trigger behavior towards minorities, how job performance criteria are also stereotyped and may lead to exclusion when there is no stereotypical match between believed job requirements and an applicant’s stereotypical characteristics, and how simple salient features in an application letter may trigger a stereotype that leads to rejection.

  1. Social identity research happens both in experimental and in organizational settings. It shows the advantages of in-group identity, as well as the problems associated with in-group versus out-group distinctions in teams.

    1. Heterogeneous groups are prone to social categorizations that result in diverse behavior towards in-group and out-group members. For example in their meta-analysis, Mesmer-Magnus and DeChurch (2009) found a persistent negative effect of team heterogeneity on team information sharing and consequentially lower team performance. Balliet et al. (2014) did a meta-analysis on in-group and out-group dynamics across 212 studies reporting on decision-making experiments, and found that people behave more cooperatively with in-group members compared to out-group members. The findings indicated that intergroup discrimination in teamwork does not happen because of disliking out-group members, but rather is the result of favoring in-group members. Finally, in another meta-analysis, Robbins and Krueger (2005) found that individuals are more likely to ascribe others to be similar to themselves when talking about their in-group than when describing people in the out-group. Each of these studies illustrate how social identity leads to social categorization and favoring ingroup over out-group members.

    2. In-group favoritism is a positive attribute when it comes to employees’ identification with the organization as a social category. (Riketta, 2005)’s meta-analysis established that organizational identification positively relates to work-related attitudes (satisfaction and commitment) and behaviors (job performance, retention and absenteeism). Higher levels of organization identification were found for employees who say they work in more prestigious organizations and in high-status jobs. This confirms that the status of the social groups with whom one identifies relates to self-esteem.

    3. A known example of the consequence of in-group and out-group distinctions is leadership. Meta-analyses on leadership effectiveness show that social identity processes happen with regard to subordinate-to-leader appreciation Barreto and Hogg (2017) as well as with regard to leader-subordinate appreciation (Yu et al., 2018). Subordinates appreciate their leader by comparing them to prototypical leaders. If their group leader more resembles a prototypical leader, the leader is more favorably evaluated than less prototypical leaders. Comparing 35 independent studies, Barreto and Hogg (2017) found that leader prototypicality explained 24% of the variance in leader effectiveness evaluations. This illustrates that it is harder for non-prototypical leaders to be accepted as an effective leader. On the other hand, leaders themselves also identify more closely with some of their subordinates than with others, which leads to in-group and out-group subordinates. A meta-analysis by Yu et al. (2018) shows that in-group subordinates who have a good relationship with their leader receive more attention and resources, which enables them to perform better. In contrast, out-group members have a more instrumental relationship with their leader and do not receive extra benefits and thus perform worse. Inclusive leaders that manage to have good relations with all their subordinates have better-performing teams.

There are other domains where research has demonstrated that social identity explains what happens, such as in mergers and acquisitions (how do employees of two different organizations form a new organization?), in performance evaluation and reward (how are the ratings of ‘others’ influenced by in-group/out-group dynamics?), in international human resource management (how do locals and expats collaborate?), and employee health and well-being (how does exclusion relates to bullying, strain and health complaints).

  1. Inclusion has been researched in general populations and in organizations. Central questions on inclusion are how equality beliefs matter for the prevention of discrimination and for the well-being of all employees.

    1. In the population as a whole, the question is what effect individuals’ diversity beliefs have on the stereotyping of minorities and the support for diversity policies. To investigate this, Leslie et al. (2020) collected 167 independent studies in different countries. They contrasted individuals’ beliefs that minimize differences (equality as individual or procedural justice and group justice), with multiculturalism beliefs (equality as recognition of everyone’s diversity). Multiculturalism beliefs proved to be the strongest predictor for lower stereotyping and higher support for diversity policies.

    2. Organizational research has concentrated on how diversity management contributes to a climate of inclusion whereby all employees feel equally appreciated for their performance and at the same time valued for who they are as an individual. A meta-analysis of 109 samples about pro-diversity climates in organizations demonstrates that a climate that promotes inclusion relates to higher levels of employee well-being than a climate where diversity is promoted. This was especially the case in organizations with much ethnic and race diversity (Holmes et al., 2020). A similar conclusion is drawn in a meta-analysis on the positive effects of inclusion climates in human service organizations (like nursing and childcare) (Mor Barak et al., 2016).

These studies provide substantive evidence that employees do well in and appreciate inclusive organizations that view equality as diversity from an optimal distinctiveness theory point of view.

HR practice

There are many HR practices that can be used to advance diversity and inclusion in organizations. The three models for advancing equality that were introduced in the theory section (procedural or individual justice, group justice, and recognition of diversity) each offer different human resource management practices.

HR practice fro individual justice

This model is aimed at preventing discrimination by ensuring that all employees are treated equally. This starts with dealing with discrimination claims, taking into account the influence of stereotypes on employee-related decision-making, and changing stereotypes about minorities in all managers and employees.

  1. Anti-discrimination policies that explicate what to do in case of harassment and discrimination claims can be adopted. Such policies include opening safe channels for complaints and the explication of the chain of responsibilities for validating the claim and describing the means to take appropriate action.

  2. Monitoring means that all employee-related procedures at work are non-discriminatory and that decision-makers are held accountable for adhering to equal procedures for all employees.

  3. Prevent bias in decision-making. Make all employee procedures for performance evaluation and decision-making for selection, development and advancement bias-proof. Some interventions include anonymized application procedures and using diverse groups when making selection and promotion decisions. By taking away all non-job relevant information about applicants from their applications, decisions cannot be influenced by stereotype threat. When this is impossible, it is a good idea to ensure that the decision making team itself is diverse, so that the diversity of a minority candidate is less salient. This will reduce the chance of stereotyping the candidate. A procedure could be that all selection teams should consist of at least three members, of which one is a woman and one a minority member.

  4. Change common stereotypes. Training and communication aimed at changing stereotypes about minorities can also be adopted, with the aim of minimizing the triggers for stereotype threat. The essence of these interventions is to update the stereotype so that the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ become less salient, and that job-related characteristics rather than stereotyped characteristics can be used to judge the qualities of individuals at work. Examples include diversity training for all management and employees, especially training aimed at changing behavior and stereotypical cognitions about others (Bezrukova et al., 2016). In addition, it helps to provide minority role models and communicating about such successful minorities in the organization, making sure that their pictures are on websites, in information newsletters and in all company communication.

HR practices for group justice

Central in the group justice model is advancing minorities to eventually achieve a more equal representation of minority groups at all levels of the organization. Interventions that fit this model range from supporting minorities to strengthen their skills to compete for career opportunities, to making management accountable for hiring diverse candidates, and setting quotas for the representation of minorities in an organization.

  1. Recruitment channels. If more minority candidates apply, the chances increase that a minority candidate meets the job criteria. Recruitment strategies can target minority candidates directly by using specific communication channels for specific minority groups.

  2. Training and coaching of minorities. These practices are aimed at developing the skills of minorities for them to gain confidence in their own qualities and develop skills that prepare them for their careers. Coaching can reduce self-stereotyping cognitions that lead minority employees to think that they are not good enough. Training can support minorities in developing career competences such as leadership, presentation skills and networking (Foster Curtis & Dreachslin, 2008).

  3. Mentoring. A mentor is a senior manager in the organization who can provide minority employees access to closed, “old boys” networks in the higher ranks of the organization. Through personal connections, the mentor can introduce the employee to social networks or provide referrals by suggesting the employee for career opportunities in their networks. This can help minorities to pass the initial screening that they would meet if they were in an open competition for that position (Merluzzi & Sterling, 2017).

  4. Accountability. Make managers accountable for hiring and promoting minorities and embed this responsibility in their performance targets. Accountability can also be realized by including targets for diversity in the human resource management strategy and showing how the targets are met in a company’s public annual report.

  5. Affirmative action goes one step further. Affirmative action policies actively promote the hiring and promotion of minority employees when there are also equally or even more suitable majority candidates. These policies are often disputed from a fair treatment perspective as they discriminate against individual majority employees. Another critique on affirmative action is that it leads to stigmatization because it serves as a lens that enlarges the salience of diversity characteristics which will evoke stereotype threat. Despite these concerns, affirmative action has proved to be an effective strategy to achieve group justice. The perceived risks can be reduced by effective management (Crosby et al., 2006).

HR practices for inclusion

To advance optimal distinctiveness for all employees, additional human resource strategies are needed that build on the prevention of discrimination and the advancement of minority groups.

  1. Climate of inclusion. A climate of inclusion cannot be produced from one intervention but grows slowly as a shared understanding of the organization’s recognition of the value of diversity. Whether a climate of inclusion exists necessitates asking employees themselves. An organization is truly inclusive if all employees respond positively to statements about feeling free to be who they are, psychologically safe, safe from harassment and discrimination at work, appreciated for individual differences, and included in information sharing and team decisions.

  2. Individual consideration. For every employee to feel included and able to fully participate, organizations need to consider the needs of every individual. Specific actions in this regard could involve removing practical obstacles like installing ramps for persons in a wheelchair, or attending to religious diversity by providing a prayer room for Muslim employees. Since every individual has unique needs, to be able to fully participate, organizations should plan regular conversations with employees.

  3. Inclusive leadership. To employees, their supervisors are the closest representatives of an organization. Their behavior is crucial in realizing optimal distinctiveness for individual employees. Supervisors can be trained in and evaluated on using an inclusive leadership style. Such a leadership style would consist of leader behavior that facilitates belongingness (by supporting individuals as group members, ensuring justice and equity, and involving all in decision-making) and that values uniqueness (by encouraging diverse contributions and assisting all employees to fully contribute) (Randel et al., 2018).


Building a climate of inclusion starts with the tone set at the top of the organization. Top management should live and breathe a vision that embraces the value of diversity. For example, by celebrating diversity by being present on world women’s day, or giving a speech at the gay pride, top management show their support for and value in diversity. Policies for procedural or individual fairness and group justice should fit this lived vision, making it easier to cascade them down into the organization.

The increasing demographic diversity in organizations challenges the notion of equality for employees. Equality is a complex construct and requires reflection on how people are equal and on what basis.

Three models for equality are proposed:

  1. equality based on individual or procedural justice

  2. equality as group justice, where diverse groups are equally represented in all layers of the organization

  3. equality as the right to be valued for being different.

The three models are linked to social psychology theories about discrimination and inclusion.

First, social cognitive theory explains how stereotypes are triggered and then influence behavior (stereotype threat) and attitudes (social role expectations) towards individuals with salient (notable) diversity characteristics.

Next, social identity explains how the desire to uphold one’s self-esteem and the need to compare with others to feel good about oneself results in subgroup formation about us (the in-group) and them (the out-group). In-groups are ascribed favorable characteristics while out-group members are described in terms of overgeneralized stereotypes.

Finally, the optimal distinctiveness theory states that no identity is completely dominated by group membership because all humans have an innate need to be different and to be appreciated for their difference in the social groups to which they belong.

Research provides substantive support for all three theories. For individual well-being, the prevention of discrimination is important, and the appreciation of uniqueness is even more important. Each model of diversity has its own HR practices to achieve equality according to the norm, for which the social psychology theories provide practical suggestions such as preventing discrimination to mend stereotypical thinking, affirmative action to build group justice, and promoting a climate of inclusion to appreciate diversity of all.

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