A Better Way to Frame Social Inequity

Organizations might do more to address social inequity by discussing the disadvantages of the underserved, not the advantages of the privileged.

Conversations about social inequity often can be over before they start—especially if those in positions of privilege are accused of receiving unfair advantage, says Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an associate professor of management and organization at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.

“When you tell a person that what they have received is unearned, it triggers self-serving biases and they become less likely to rectify the inequity,” says Rosette in a Fuqua publication. “The way in which you phrase it makes a difference.”

In fact, companies might be more successful at addressing social imbalances if they focus more on the unfair disadvantages of the underserved and less on the unearned advantages of the privileged, say Rosette and co-author Christy Zhou Koval, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who earned her doctorate at Fuqua.

For example, Rosette and Koval asked 199 white study participants to imagine that just as they were to receive a bonus for sales performance, an audit reveals that their company had exhibited racial bias toward white employees in its sales assignments. The question: Would they be willing to share their bonuses with employees hurt by the biased policy?

Participants who were told the policy had disadvantaged black colleagues were willing to share more of their bonuses than those who were told the policy gave white employees unfair advantage. In the real world, Rosette says, those who are told that their privilege is unearned also are more likely to disparage members of the disadvantaged group, perhaps as a way to justify their inaction.

These findings show that “the manner in which you frame inequity or privilege, whether it’s focused on the self (my unearned privilege) or focused on the other (his or her unfair disadvantage) can influence the extent to which you want to rectify it,” says Rosette. Firms that focus on rectifying unfair disadvantages, she adds, could see more success.

“Framing advantageous inequity with a focus on others: A catalyst for equity restoration” was published in the May 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.