In the past few decades, organizations have attempted to break some of the diversity barriers to advancement by creating affinity groups or purposely placing a large number of demographically similar employees with a more senior mentor to help them navigate the traditional corporate advancement ladder. While several researchers have found that the social cohesion between demographically similar junior and senior employees helps organizations retain young and high potential professionals, researcher Katherine Milkman from Wharton recently discovered a downside: In service organizations where promotion is necessary to stay employed (academics, law, consulting, etc), work groups that contained many same gender or same minority group members tended to have employees leave in greater numbers because they felt that the competition reduced their chances for employment.
While these organizations have no explicit quotas, the group of too many underrepresented employees may lead to structural marginalization…departments or areas which become undervalued as a whole. As Milkman asks, “Am I the best woman or am I the best minority in the group, or should I just cut and run?” In her study, Milkman points out that it is irrelevant whether or not the organization is truly acting with an implicit quota. If employees have the perception, it can lead to the same result. And in case you’re wondering, it appears that the effect may not be limited to minorities or women. Male employees also perceive their chances of success as hampered by the presence of a large number of other males.
The bottom line is that leaders may want to revisit the practice of clustering same-sex or same-race employees in work groups in order to foster cohesion. If the policy or practice invokes internal group competition for a limited number of opportunities, the unintended consequences may be greater than the benefit. It might make more sense to continue to create opportunities for senior management mentoring of same demographic employees, but to do so across organizational areas so that the internal competition is limited. While there are many limitations to this research, as there is with any social science study, it is at least worth considering…especially if your efforts are not creating the high potential workforce that you desire.