Managers seeking to reduce racial discrimination in their service interactions should find ways to build interdependence among employees, a recent study by Jirs Meuris, an assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, suggests.
Meuris looked at one form of police-citizen interactions—cite-and-release decisions—to find out whether more interdependent employee work roles influenced racial discrimination in these decisions. During a cite-and-release decision, officers decide to give suspects of misdemeanor offenses either a citation (a summons to show up in court at a future date and released, viewed as the more desirable option) or suspects are cited and taken immediately to jail.
The results showed that white suspects were more likely to be cited and released than minority suspects for the same crime, a finding that aligns with prior research in the field. As racial diversity increased in the officers’ department, this disparity widened. Meuris argued that this can happen because increases in racial diversity can result in conflict among employees, which could spill over outside of the workplace. However, when the officers involved were part of a community policing initiative that promoted the interdependence of their work roles, increases in racial diversity did not increase racial disparities in cite-and-release decisions because interdependence decreases the degree to which racial diversity leads to conflict.
“The paper was based upon this assumption that if we want to reduce racial discrimination in police interactions, we just need more diversity among officers.
I realized that if we could take some of the ideas we have in management about diversity in organizations and transfer them to police departments, then maybe we could improve outcomes in these areas that are important to us as a society.”Jirs Meuris
Meuris says the study was a welcome “return to his roots” (he holds a bachelor of criminology from the University of Maryland, College Park), and was sparked in part by how most of the existing organizational behavior research on diversity relates mainly to performance and turnover.
“The paper was based upon this assumption that if we want to reduce racial discrimination in police interactions, we just need more diversity among officers,” Meuris says. “I realized that if we could take some of the ideas we have in management about diversity in organizations and transfer them to police departments, then maybe we could improve outcomes in these areas that are important to us as a society.”
The study used cite-and-release data taken from three separate U.S. Department of Justice data collections. The data set included roughly 200,000 cite-and-release decisions from 93 U.S. police departments, and spanned a nonsequential five-year period between 1997 and 2013. Meuris then focused on six misdemeanors that commonly receive citations.
The findings suggested that minority suspects were more often taken to jail for the same offense as their white counterparts who were given citations. Racially diverse police departments without a community policing program where there was a low level of interdependence among officers saw an increase in this disparity between white and minority suspects, while diverse departments with a high level of interdependence from a community policing program did not see this increase.
Managers play a key role
While interdependence from community policing is specific to police departments, Meuris says organizations from any industry can think along those lines.
“In this context, like any organization, we want to have diversity to be successful,” he says. A key takeaway of the study is the need to create a workplace where diverse co-workers can form strong relationships—community policing lends itself to that in this context by centering on a common goal—not just have people co-exist in the same office.
Managers have a critical role to play in managing diversity, Meuris says.
“If the goal is to reap the benefits of diversity, then that’s going to require helping employees build relationships, make connections, and work together. However, if diversity is not adequately managed and it’s happening solely because ‘it’s the right thing to do,’ it’s less likely to have benefits. It turns out it can have the opposite effect.”
Even though the study is highly contextualized, Meuris says, it points organizations in the right direction.
“I think the paper helps by saying, ‘If your organization does this, you avoid a pitfall of diversity and are more likely to reap its benefits,’” he says. “Becoming more diverse can have a negative impact on racial disparities in service interactions when organizations don’t also implement ways to break down silos between employees from different racial backgrounds.”
Read the paper: “Can Racial Diversity Attenuate Racial Discrimination in
Decisions within Police Department,” published by Organization Science.
Jirs Meuris is an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business. He is a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Research on Poverty and the Center for Financial Security.