Why hiring minorities won’t help your diversity cause

China's booming rent-a-foreigner market may take tokenism to another level, but research shows hiring minority groups to make up numbers isn't enough.

Consumer perception in China is a foreigner’s minefield. What the Western world would condemn as racist or offensive simply works in China, while what would be considered standard practice may flop facedown.

Chinese American journalist wrote about the White Guy in a Tie phenomenon in China earlier this year, positing that the average Chinese consumer associates authority, professionalism and prestige with the Caucasian race.

According to Chen, businesses can rent laowais—foreigners—to show up at parties, to “masquerade as CEOs and doctors, even to act as emissaries of Obama.”In May this year, a Chinese laundry detergent brand, Qiaobi, came under fire in the West for featuring an ad where a black man is “laundered” into a shiny, fair-skinned Asian man through the skin-colour altering powers of their product.

Interestingly, the ad received fewer than 2,000 views online, barely registering on the radar of Chinese consumers. The rest of the world, however, were aghast at the blatant racism. The detergent company’s half-hearted apology only cements this racial hierarchy inherent in its corporate culture.

Customers respect ethnically diverse brands

In Europe and America, consumer perception celebrates diversity, seeing an ethnically varied business as more ethical, and therefore more trustworthy and worth their business.

A 2014 study by the University of Texas revealed that customers tend to form strong positive associations with businesses that had a salesforce with the same ethnicity as them.

“If I work for a service or sales company, my company should reflect the audience I am seeking. When customers share the same ethnicity with their salesman or customer service agent, they generally have a more favourable perception of the business,” Elten Briggs, associate professor of marketing, said, commenting on this research.

By 2051, one in five people in the UK will be from an ethnic minority background, representing a massive proportion of consumer spending and political voting power.

If consumers readily associate brand strength with ethnic diversity as that University of Texas study illustrates, it may be time to actively diversify our workforce.

Diversity on-demand

In the UK today, one in ten employed people are black, Asian, or from other ethnic minority groups (BAME), yet only one in 16 of top management positions and one in 13 management positions are held by people with these backgrounds.

A lot of companies recognise the need for a diverse workforce. Studies have shown its immediate impact on productivity, innovation, creativity, and customer engagement.

However, boosting workplace diversity is at risk of becoming a box-ticking exercise that flies in the face of the meritocratic values that makes the cogs in our capitalist economy turn.

What about meritocracy?

The term suggests a utopian ideal where merit trumps all other qualities in candidates, whether in office or in the corporate world.

Ironically, though, it was actually coined as part of British sociologist and Labour politician Michael Young‘s 1958 dystopian satire, “The Rise of the Meritocracy.”

In Young’s view, a true meritocracy would mark the end of human progress, causing a different kind of elitist war: one waged between the intelligent ‘ruling’ class and angry, oppressed idiots.

In the modern context, a meritocratic recruitment process implies one left unmarred by unconscious bias.

But if a candidate has the right skills for the job, why should the colour of their skin, gender, or sexual orientation matter?

Why should a white candidate be passed over for a job if they have the same or better skills as a person of colour? Isn’t that a form of racism, too?

Diversity researchers say no.

A study by MIT and Indiana University revealed that when an organisation promotes meritocracy, and believes it is objective and rewards ability and effort over any other factor, managers ironically show greater bias in favour of white males.

Women, ethnic minorities, and foreign-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same departments, having the same managers, the same resources, and importantly, receiving the same performance score.

According to lead researcher, Emilio J. Castilla, when people think they are unbiased, they give themselves leeway to discriminate. They assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate.

However, studies repeatedly show that all kinds of stereotypes are filters through which we understand the world. Unfortunately, it is primarily in favour of majority groups. This is a perverse form of discrimination that stems from good intentions.

Overcoming ‘diversity discrimination’

In the UK, BAME employment rates are at their highest levels in 15 years.

However, employment targets for minority groups can devolve into tokenism if it is not supported by other initiatives, like a review of corporate culture and recruitment processes.

Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission called for the introduction of targets after it was revealed that ethnic minorities were still facing inequality in employment.

The report found that unemployment rates were significantly higher for people from all other ethnic minorities (12.9 per cent) compared with white British people (6.3 per cent) in 2013.

This inequality was also prevalent in career progression, with the commission revealing that just 8.8 per cent of those from an ethnic minority are working as managers, directors and senior professionals, compared to 10.7 per cent of white British people.

According to Kate Headley, the director at diversity consultancy The Clear Company, explains why this issue can’t be addressed by targets alone.

“In the first instance, the barriers to employment need to be addressed otherwise we could see more BAME individuals hired to meet targets, but subsequently greater staff churn as these individuals ‘bounce’ off the ingrained corporate culture that isn’t necessarily conducive to true equality,” she explains.

Creating an inclusive culture

An inclusive culture involves the full and successful integration of your staff, regardless of their personal background or affinity.

While setting employment targets for minority groups is a starting point, workplace inclusivity requires an environment where differences are acknowledged and respected, but pose no barrier to individual career growth, productivity, or the general employment experience.

Inclusive cultures include formal and informal policies and practices that start with:

  • Representation: The presence of minorities, women, and differently abled people across a range of employee roles, and leadership positions
  • Receptivity: Respect for differences in working styles, and flexibility in tailoring positions to the strengths and abilities of employees. This could include flexible working hours during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, employee benefits like a daycare allowance for new parents, standing desks, accessible elevators, and other requirements for mobility.
  • Fairness: Equitable access to all resources, opportunities, networks, and decision-making processes. To make sure all of your staff receive the same opportunities, name-blind aptitude tests could be an option for promotions. A mentoring programme could help strengthen the pipeline of diverse new talent to enter senior roles, regardless of their background.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.