Office holiday parties and similar work events are supposed to nurture esprit de corps, yet racially diverse employees could walk away feeling even more disconnected from their colleagues than when they arrived, according to a Columbia Business School study.
“Some of the popular strategies for fostering closer co-worker relationships, including company-sponsored social outings and teambuilding self-disclosure exercises, may not be as effective as expected for those employees who are racially dissimilar from their co-workers,” according to the study, published in the September/October 2013 issue of Organization Science.
“The results are quite ironic,” said Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School and the study’s lead author. “Managers think these well-intentioned attempts at promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace have a positive effect on employees, yet the feedback we received from our study says these exercises are not helping to bridge interracial gaps. This could be a huge roadblock for companies wanting to leverage their full potential in the competitive global marketplace.”
The authors conducted their study to test the common belief that workplace-sponsored events—such as parties, company picnics and after-hours cocktails—lead to stronger employee relationships.
The study, by Phillips, Ohio State University professor Tracy Dumas and The Wharton School professor Nancy Rothbard, relied on two surveys: one focused on 228 MBA students and the other on a nationally representative sample of 141 U.S. workers.
Researchers questioned the students and workers about attendance and behavior at company-sponsored events such as holiday parties and picnics; social events such as after-work cocktails; professional development seminars; spiritual events; and affinity groups.
Racially Dissimilar Enjoy Events Less
Both studies revealed that the correlation between these gatherings and employees’ enjoyment was stronger and more positive for those who were racially similar to their colleagues than for those who were dissimilar.
“Those who were racially dissimilar from their co-workers were either just as likely or more likely to engage in integration behaviors with co-workers as were employees who were similar to their co-workers,” wrote the researchers, who defined “integration behaviors” as office parties and comparable events. “However, racially dissimilar employees may have integrated primarily for external rewards or because of a sense of obligation and the pressures of social norms.”
“They’re going out of obligation, not out of a desire to build relationships,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “Companies may think they’re helping, but they would be better off giving people opportunities to repeatedly interact, like taking a walk every day and getting a chance to really know each other.”
For workers who were racially dissimilar from their colleagues, some of the discomfort came from discussions during social events that highlighted differences between the groups, the study discovered. For example, if one group of racially similar colleagues has a conversation about rock music, a racially dissimilar co-worker might feel excluded because she likes gospel music.
Said Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, associate professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business: “Let’s take the typical company holiday party. It can be socially awkward and particularly laborious to initiate conversations with co-workers that do not pertain to work. The burden of social interaction and networking is placed on the employee. This burden may be particularly heavy for dissimilar-racial-group members because their racial distinction may serve as a proxy for perceived differing values, viewpoints and opinions.”
The study pointed out that racially dissimilar employees often feel that that their co-workers misunderstand them, which may lead them to conclude that their efforts to socialize and build relationships are futile.
“Regardless of the good intentions behind organizational initiatives that encourage the integration of employees’ work and nonwork lives, it is clear that these efforts are not consistently helpful in improving co-worker relationships, especially when people are dissimilar from their co-workers,” the researchers observed.
The lesson for companies, according to the researchers, is to find other ways to foster good employee relationships, such as including racially diverse employees in company problem-solving, charity events and long-term work projects.
“Icebreakers and interactive games can reduce this burden and minimize the awkwardness,” Shelby Rosette said. “If company parties can incorporate events to highlight those aspects of the employees' lives that they may have in common, this could potentially mitigate those feelings of separation, isolation and difference for members of dissimilar racial groups.”
Phillips said companies shouldn’t cancel their office holiday parties, but, rather, should arrange other team-building events that are repetitive and that strive toward a common goal.
“If you just put people in a room and tell them to mingle and bond, you watch people gravitate toward people like themselves,” she said. “It’s normal. So you have to structure activities so people can accomplish things together and provide opportunities for these people to have shared experiences—meaning things they can do together that really helps them know a lot about another person, something around which they can develop shared values.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.