The office holiday party; the company softball league; the baby shower for the woman who sits three cubicles down the hall; happy hour with your co-workers: These are all part of the social rhythms and obligations of the modern workplace — some company sponsored, others initiated by employees — ostensibly meant to help us form and maintain close relationships with our colleagues.
But according to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, these teambuilding activities can have unintended consequences for certain employees. While social events help homogenous teams form close bonds, they do not have the same benefits for racially diverse groups of co-workers. In a new paper, titled “Getting Closer at the Company Party: Integration Experiences, Racial Dissimilarity, and Workplace Relationships,” published in February in Organization Science (in the Articles in Advance online platform), Rothbard, Tracy Dumas of Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School found that members of racially diverse teams felt less comfortable and less happy when participating in events that merge their personal and work lives than their counterparts in homogenous teams.
“Going to company picnics and chatting about non-work matters with co-workers at the water cooler — what we refer to as ‘integrative activities’ — are not as enjoyable, and are in fact can be uncomfortable, for members of diverse teams,” says Rothbard. “Rather than bringing people closer together, these activities can underscore our differences.”
As the American workplace becomes more and more racially diverse and the nature of work includes more knowledge-based jobs, Rothbard’s study has implications for how companies should strive to nurture close and supportive office environments. According to statistics from the Center for American Progress, people of color comprise 36% of the U.S. labor force; about 16% are Hispanic, 12% are African American and 5% are Asian. (The remaining 3% do not identify in any of these racial categories.) Meanwhile, middle- to high-skill service jobs make up a larger share of the economy — a reality that highlights the importance of collaboration and creativity among employees.
“From an organizational perspective, these kinds of activities are done with pure intentions — managers are trying to cultivate an office atmosphere where people feel welcome and part of a community. But managers need to be sensitive to what others may be feeling,” she says. “When companies sponsor social activities for their employees or initiate a diversity training program, they need to ensure they are creating an atmosphere where employees are likely to feel comfortable and have a good experience.”
Rothbard acknowledges that fostering close bonds among a racially diverse group of co-workers is not easy. “There is no straightforward, easy fix. These dynamics are deeply embedded in our social structures — not just in the workplace, but in our culture.”
The Perils of the Water Cooler
Previous research has shown that teams composed of coworkers who maintain close relationships tend to perform better than teams that don’t. Close teams tend to be more collaborative and more helpful to one another, and they have better rates of work attendance and lower rates of turnover. In addition, members of close teams feel more job satisfaction than others.
Research has also demonstrated that employees who integrate their personal and professional lives tend to have more positive relationships at work than those who keep the two domains separate. Those who blur the boundaries between work and home do so in a variety of ways, from small gestures such as displaying photographs of family and friends at their office, to larger ones such as socializing with colleagues outside of work or bringing family members to events sponsored by their employer.
“This partly explains why so many managers prescribe integration as something that’s expected,” says Rothbard. “Workers are actively encouraged to attend company sponsored events, but managers also express norms about the ways in which they expect employees to act. Managers say they want their employees to be authentic at work. There’s this feeling of: ‘We want you to feel at home here. We want to get to know you, and you should want to get to know everyone else.’”
It’s a well-intentioned approach, for sure, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive group dynamic, says Rothbard. Even seemingly benign topics of conversation, such as taste in music, can result in social discomfort in a racially diverse team. “Let’s say, for example, you’re in a homogenous team where everyone is roughly the same age and racial background. You share that you like rock music. That’s uncontroversial, and it creates a bond with your colleagues. But in racially diverse groups, a similar personal disclosure by someone who enjoys, say, gospel or rap … may only highlight their differences.”
For their paper, Rothbard and her colleagues conducted two studies. The first focused on a population of 228 MBA students enrolled in both full- and part-time programs. The second involved a nationally representative sample of 141 individuals in the U.S. working population. Their goal was to test the assumption that disclosing more about our personal lives — whether at a full-fledged company gathering or just in casual conversations at work — leads to closer relationships with our coworkers, and to determine the role that diversity plays in these relationships.
Both studies involved multiple surveys that collected information on the participants’ demographic characteristics, family structure and work tenure, and included questions on respondents’ “integration behaviors,” such as attendance at company-sponsored events, participation in company-sponsored service activities and attendance at after-hours social events. (For the study using MBAs, part-time students completed the survey based on their current work experiences, whereas full-time students completed the survey based on the job they held before enrolling in business school.) A subsequent survey collected data on the participants’ coworkers. Participants listed up to 10 colleagues with whom they interacted on a daily basis, and then rated how close they felt to each of those individuals on a scale of one to five. They also provided characteristics about those coworkers, including their race.
The results of both studies were the same: Integrative behaviors make people feel closer to their coworkers — but only when those co-workers are of similar racial backgrounds. For those who are racially dissimilar from their colleagues, the effect disappears. “It’s a remarkably robust finding, and it replicates very strongly,” says Rothbard. “We saw a similar pattern with how people experienced these integration activities: Essentially, people in racially diverse groups enjoyed them the least, and felt the least comfortable.”
To dig deeper into the possible reasons for this disparity, the research team added an additional question to the second study. (Generally speaking, this study involved more women and minorities, older people and a wider range of occupations.) They asked respondents: “Why are you motivated to attend company-related social events?” They found that people who were racially dissimilar from their colleagues tended to have an external motivation for turning up at these events, meaning that they attend not because they want to, but rather to improve their work status, to score more highly on performance appraisals, or because their manager and coworkers want them to attend. In other words: They feel like they have to.
“It’s important not to blame the victim here,” says Rothbard. “Colleagues in racially dissimilar groups do not enjoy these company-sponsored social events as much, but they are not dealing with their discomfort by not going to them. They actually report going to these kinds of events more than those in homogenous groups. They are going. They’re just not experiencing it positively.”
This study focused on race, but Rothbard says there are other possible social scenarios among diverse sets of coworkers that might lead to the same kind of social uneasiness. Take coworkers with diverse political views, for instance. “If you work in a group that is comprised of co-workers who primarily have liberal Democratic political views, disclosing your Republican political views or bringing your partner who works for the Republican National Committee to the company mixer might not feel as comfortable for you,” she notes.
Cultivating a ‘Culture of Respect’
Rothbard’s study suggests that it may be harder for racially diverse teams of coworkers to get close to each other through social events. But it should not be interpreted that people from different racial backgrounds cannot work together effectively or form supportive relationships. The key to better work relationships, says Rothbard, is for managers to be “vigilant monitors” of group dynamics. “Managers need to be attuned to the level of conflict people may be experiencing and work hard to cultivate a culture of respect,” she says.
In an environment where employees are respected for the knowledge, background and insights they provide, workplace relationships — including interracial relationships — are generally stronger. This is mainly due to the implicit expectation among coworkers that they provide each other with both emotional and professional support. Diversity should be spoken about openly and celebrated.
“We tend to project our own worldview, and we create barriers for people to express themselves, but we need to be more sensitive,” she says. “When coworkers are socializing with each other, it’s important that each person feels they are heard. They need to feel validated.”
The study also draws attention to the difficulties associated with implementing useful diversity training programs. Research on the value of these programs is mixed. Some studies indicate that diversity education leads to greater group cohesion, while others suggest that groups of employees who have undergone these kinds of training programs tend to have lower team performance. “Even in light of this past research, what our study suggests is that companies can’t just slap together a diversity program and assume that everything will be fine. It needs to be carefully thought out, and executed with a close eye on the experiences of participants, because this may have an influence on the effectiveness of the training,” says Rothbard.
“There’s no free lunch here. It takes a lot of work.”