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Amber Stark

SIOP Anti-Racism Grant Funds Michigan State University Study on Corporate Statements

By Julie Carle

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing worldwide demand for change, a Michigan State University Organizational Psychology research team studied corporate statements in response to racial injustice.

Drs. Lauren Collier-Spruel and Ann Marie Ryan, whose research was expanded thanks to a 2020 SIOP Anti-Racism Grant, stated their most significant findings from each of the three studies included:

  • The majority of the 88 Fortune 100 corporate statements they analyzed specifically mentioned the names of Black people who were murdered, and half of the statements that mentioned planned actions to address injustices described doing so through monetary donations. Actions such as training or other forms of support were mentioned less frequently
  • Employees shared perceptions of their organizations' statements with the research team. In general, the employees viewed making a statement more positively than if the company hadn’t made a statement.
  • All employees indicated more negative perceptions when there was a lack of communication; however, Black employees felt more negative perceptions when there was no communication and felt similarly positively when top leadership issued a statement.
  • When the research team developed stimuli based on existing corporate statements, they found that statements describing specific planned actions were viewed as more credible. Black employees viewed the statements as more credible than non-Black employees, in general, and when racial justice was ambiguously framed (described as an event versus a murder) but an emotional tone was used, the statement was viewed as less credible.

The research, titled “Performative Gesture or Genuinely Supportive: The Impact of Workplace Responses to the Racial Injustice Movement on Employees,” was prompted by the significant uptick in the number of institutions and organizations that made statements following Floyd’s murder.

In explaining why the research team chose the topic, Collier-Spruel said, “While organizations that value diversity invest in efforts to support diversity and inclusion, it’s rare that research centers the experiences of the people who these efforts are supposed to support. Without understanding what works and what doesn’t, some organizational diversity efforts could become performative at best and harmful at worst.” 

The researchers wanted to better understand what resonated with employees, especially what impact the statements had on Black employees.

Collier-Spruel and Ryan, a SIOP Fellow, were already planning a study on perceptions of organizational statements prior to when the SIOP Anti-Racism Grants were announced. When they saw the call for proposals, they knew it could fund additional follow-up studies on the topic. Receiving the grant enabled them to examine statements that were being made and run experiments to understand which parts of the statements may interact to impact perceptions.

Immediately after the Floyd murder, the corporate statements ranged “from expected platitudes to disappointing silence, a response that is all too common,” Collier-Spruel said. “As the months progressed, more organizations began making statements that were unambiguously supportive of Black Lives Matter and mentioned long-term ways in which they planned to address racism within their company, and in some cases, in society.”

For the first study, the researchers used content analyses to examine 88 statements released by 69 of the Fortune 100 companies in the 3 weeks immediately following Floyd’s murder. The statements included internal memos to employees and external communications that were publicly available on social media, websites, and/or press releases.

They used a deductive approach to code for three specificity dimensions: the specificity of description of events in the period of May-August (??) of 2020, specificity of language used to describe diversity, and specificity of description of organizational diversity actions planned. They also used an inductive process to identify additional themes that emerged from the data.

The researchers found that 67% of statements specifically mentioned the names of Black people who were murdered, whereas 23% described injustice in more broad terms (e.g., event, occurrence). Additionally, many of the statements were not specific about their diversity values or ideology.

For the second study, Collier-Spruel and Ryan surveyed 407 working individuals to determine how Black and other employees felt about the actions. The respondents were 45.2% Black, 39.6% White, 7.9% Hispanic, and 5.2% Asian, and 51.4% identified as female.

For the third study, they conducted an experiment with 380 working adults (50.8% Black) to see how individuals reacted to statements that differed in ambiguity or specificity in planned actions, emotional tone, and specificity of language regarding racial injustice, such as referring to events generally or to murder of George Floyd specifically.

“We examined whether these factors led to individuals viewing the organization as a more or less attractive place to work,” Collier-Spruel said.

Statements were seen as more credible if they contained a clear plan for action and Black people reported more positive perceptions than non-Black people in terms of attraction to the organization when an emotional tone was used in the statement.

Collier-Spruel said additional research is needed to find what leads to seeing corporate social advocacy statement efforts as genuine versus image or profit motivated. They have advanced the conversation through sharing the findings on an MSU Psychology Corporate Social Advocacy website.

This update is the first in a series highlighting winners of the SIOP Anti-Racism Grants.

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