Embracing Diversity

An Interview with Professor Holly Ferraro, Faculty Fellow, Center for Business Ethics

March 14, 2018

Many of us have read about the importance of both diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But what about the attitudes, behaviors, and feelings of employees in response to efforts to increase diversity and inclusion? Professor Holly Ferraro, Associate Professor of Management in the Albers School of Business, is spending this year as an inaugural Faculty Fellow to research this question. Her work focuses on what she calls diversity “embracement” by employees, which is part of a larger interest she has in seeing diversity as a moral imperative for business. In this interview Jeffery Smith, Director of the Center for Business Ethics, asks Professor Ferraro about her research and its impact for those leading organizations.


Professor Holly Ferraro, Faculty Fellow, Center for Business Ethics


JS: What, exactly, is diversity embracement and how are you planning to study it?

HF: Good question! While I think the definition of embracement will become clearer and more refined over the next year, I define it as a process of identity transformation to include one or more social roles. For example, if you give birth or adopt a child, your definition of self would change because you are now a “mother,” “father” or “parent.” Similarly, the role identities expected within a diverse workplace, such as being an “ally” of underrepresented employees, can provide a way of moving through the world in relation to others who may be quite different than oneself. These identities are prescriptive and carry with them behavioral expectations that can be internalized—or embraced—by individuals. Consider how the role of mother is imbued with a variety of meanings that are derived in a new relationship with a son or daughter.

I am also interested in embracement because organizations engage in many practices designed to enhance inclusion and yet many people feel marginalized within organizations because of their race, gender, physical ability, etc. I see embracement studies as having the potential to be important in explaining why people may encounter what are considered inclusive practices (such as employee resource groups) and yet not feel that they are included. It seems reasonable that something in the interactions people have with one another at work will influence their experience of inclusion.

JS: You make the case in your research that diversity-related issues in the workplace are important issues in business ethics. Can you explain this connection?

HF: Studies demonstrate that there is a business case for diversity; that is, businesses are more profitable, more creative, and get better outcomes when they are diverse. In my view, the business case is unhelpful—perhaps even dangerous—to creating more just, ethical companies. In contrast, embracing diversity is critical for business ethics as a discipline and as a practice. Why? Businesses are microcosms of the broader society and, as such, injustices in the broader world are replicated within and by organizations. If a society permits the oppression of a group of individuals, then businesses could be within the law and further oppress the group through, for instance, environmental impact in areas where the oppressed live. To organizational leaders, members of these people-groups aren’t employees (or very few are) nor are they customers, so they cannot enable the organization to be profitable. There is no business case for engaging with these people. In fact, by the business case argument, one may act ethically and ignore the rights of the group. I’m arguing that embracing diversity, which I believe includes understanding the history of oppression faced by some folks, is important for our study of business ethics, organizational functioning, and individual performance.

JS: What do you hope businesses or other organizations can learn from your work?

HF: This may sound trite, but first I want to learn from my work! Honestly, I was in the corporate world for 13 years and now I’ve been in academia for 12. That’s 25 years of movement toward, I hope, increasing consciousness of the relationship between business practices and the outcomes of people who are in stigmatized identity groups based on dimensions of difference like race, gender, and ability. I hope this work can help managers recognize what they owe their employees, customers, and community members. I know someone reading this is balking at the word “owe” but social responsibility is defined as the obligation of business to engage in ethical behavior, socially beneficial behavior. I believe social responsibility is not just toward those with dominant identities (whites, men, people with high incomes) but also those in subordinated identity groups. My hope is that my research will generate conversations that lead to more ethical behaviors toward those that have been deemed “the other.”