Now that the American workforce is more diverse than ever before, what do we do with the differences? The old-school approach is to pretend that racial and ethnic distinctions either do not exist or do not matter—a worldview called color blindness.
As a new psychology study shows, however, “just sweeping race under the rug can be bad for everybody in an organization,” says Victoria C. Plaut, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia and the study’s lead author.
Color blindness cloaks difference like the emperor’s new clothes: Everyone can see that race and ethnicity influence people, but no one can talk about it. Rather than making minorities feel comfortable, though, this implicit gag order actually leads them to feel less loyal to their employers and less engaged with their work, find Plaut and her colleagues.
In contrast, acknowledging and even celebrating diversity—a worldview called multiculturalism—inspires greater commitment, pride, and conscientiousness among minority employees. Organizations with these “psychologically engaged” workers, in turn, are more productive and profitable and have less turnover than do organizations with a more alienated workforce, previous research shows.
To examine how colorblind versus multicultural worldviews affect minority workers, Plaut and her colleagues surveyed 4,915 employees across 18 work units in a large U.S. health care organization. The researchers found that the more a unit’s white employees espoused color blindness, the less psychological engagement its minority employees reported. Conversely, the more a unit’s white employees endorsed multiculturalism, the more loyal and enthusiastic its minority employees felt.
Verizon Communications Inc.’s Matthew J. Dreyer agrees that a multicultural outlook helps harness the human potential of diverse workplaces like his. “By definition, a color-blind approach denies a key dimension of diversity and discourages employees from bringing their whole selves to work,” says Dreyer, who is a member of Verizon’s diversity management team. “We use a multicultural approach that not only acknowledges our employees’ diversity, but also encourages them to bring their unique ideas, talents, backgrounds, and perspectives to work.” Employees respond favorably: Verizon routinely makes the top 10 lists of best places for minorities and women to work.
In their study, Plaut and her coauthors further discovered that the more color-blind the unit, the more racial bias minority employees experienced. Plaut gives two explanations for this finding. “Other research shows that if you think you should avoid the topic of race, you act more distant with people of other races,” she notes, which may leave minority workers feeling bewildered and left out. A more insidious reason is that “some people actually use color blindness to maintain the racial status quo,” she says. “If diversity feels threatening to you, you may claim to be color blind to block efforts to create greater equality.”
At the same time, noticing race and ethnicity does not mean indulging hackneyed prejudices, Plaut warns: “This research does not say that you should judge people by the color of their skin instead of by the content of their character. Rather, it says that ignoring race in a color-coded society can lead to negative consequences.”