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Research Examines Negative Reactions to Affirmative Action Policies

May 3, 2011

Assistant Professor Lisa Leslie of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies finds the reason for negative reactions to affirmative action plans is more complicated than racism.

Organizations commonly, and often effectively, use affirmative action policies to promote a diverse workplace. And those who do tend to have more women and more minorities represented in their management positions. However, affirmative action plans can also have an unintended, negative effect on their non-beneficiaries.

In "But Affirmative Action Hurts Us! Race-related Beliefs Shape Perceptions of White Disadvantages and Policy Unfairness," Assistant Professor Lisa Leslie of the Carlson School's Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies and colleagues explored why whites and men often have negative reactions to these policies and what organizations could do to mitigate such reactions. The research, co-authored with Garriy Shteynberg (Northwestern University), Andrew Knight (Washington University), and David Mayer (University of Michigan), was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115.

"One of the explanations that people have proposed for why whites react negatively to affirmative action plans is essentially that they're racist - that the individuals have some level of prejudice that causes them to not like these programs," says Leslie. "But the issue is more complicated. We wanted to not only look at people's level of prejudice, but also their feelings about their own in-group."

To do so the researchers used collective relative deprivation, a construct that's based on one's social identity (either race or gender) and reflects the extent to which a majority group might feel disadvantaged relative to the advantages afforded minorities.

In their research, Leslie and colleagues conducted a study that asked undergraduate students (both male and female) to report on their level of racism and whether they feel their own in-group is disadvantaged in society. The researchers then manipulated the description of a company's affirmative action plan to portray it either as a race-based or an equal opportunity program. The experiment then measured the participants' reaction to the company based on the type of policy that was adopted.

The researchers then replicated the laboratory experiment in a field sample where working adults reported on their racist and collective relative deprivation beliefs, whether their employing organization had a race-based Affirmative Action plan, and their reactions to the company, specifically their perceptions of the fairness of the organization's selection and promotion policies.

The findings? The researchers confirmed that those who hold racist beliefs react more negatively to a race-based affirmative action plan. What was surprising was that even in the absence of racist beliefs there was still a negative reaction among those who feel their group is disadvantaged in society.

"This challenges what people had thought previously--that whites don't like these policies just because they're prejudiced against an out-group," said Leslie. "We found their in-group attitudes also matters. Only those individuals who were low on racism and also low on collective relative deprivation did not have negative reactions."

"The key reaction that drove perceptions that the company's policies are unfair is a belief that whites are disadvantaged in organizations with affirmative action plans. That directly stems from the notion that people erroneously assume affirmative action plans imply preferential treatment."

According to Leslie, organizations that make it known to employees that their policies do not equate to preferential treatment will likely experience an increase in the effectiveness of their affirmative action plans while mitigating the negative reactions to said plans.

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