What do companies get out of focusing on recruitment and retention of women and minorities? Not much, if you believe the title of a recent Harvard Business Review article:  “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men”.  That’s a rather disturbing answer for companies that have been investing millions of dollars in diversity strategies and initiatives.  Luckily, there’s more to an article than its title, and a closer look at it suggests there’s a more optimistic answer to the question.

The authors, three researchers from American universities, shared the results of two studies on the effects of communication about diversity policies on perceptions of fairness. The first study produced evidence indicating that even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the mere presence of a diversity policy leads people to discount claims of unfair treatment. In other words, they believe the company is fairer than it is.

In the second study, they found evidence that white men who were provided with recruitment materials mentioning the company’s pro-diversity values were more likely to believe that they might be discriminated against than white men who were given materials that didn’t mention pro-diversity values. These effects occurred even among those who endorse the concepts and values of diversity and inclusion.

What are we to conclude from these studies?

First, as the authors point out, the mere presence of a diversity policy may protect a company from some discrimination claims. They refer to a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Walmart as an example of this protection.  The Court decided to deny a request to certify a class action lawsuit on behalf of 1.5 million female employees alleging gender discrimination. The reason? Walmart’s announced diversity policy explicitly prohibits sex discrimination. The decision does not prevent individual female employees from bringing their own cases to court, but the practical result of the decision is to drastically diminish, if not eliminate, Walmart’s exposure to liability. For many companies, this is reason enough to have a diversity policy.

Second, white men may feel threatened by communication of pro-diversity values.  Some companies may think this is a reason not to have a diversity policy. After all, what’s the point of having one, if merely informing your employees about it can provoke this kind of negative reaction?

Dropping diversity policies for that reason would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some diversity policies are actually effective. A longitudinal study by researchers at University of California, Berkeley , Harvard University, and University of Minnesota,  based on U.S. federal data describing the workforces of 708 private sector establishments over a thirty-year period, produced evidence that organizations that establish responsibility for diversity lead to the broadest increases in managerial diversity. Interestingly, one of the most common diversity initiatives – diversity training – does not by itself increase the share of white women, black women, and black men in management. Mentoring and networking show only modest effects. Organizations that assign responsibility for diversity see more positive effects from diversity training and evaluations, networking, and mentoring.

What should we conclude from all of this?

Diversity is not achieved, and its benefits don’t materialize, as the result of proclaiming pro-diversity values or training managers in such things as unconscious bias or appreciating differences. Diversity is a specialized field within change and strategic management, and companies are well-advised to seek expert, research-based assistance when designing and implementing their own diversity strategies.