The United States is one of the most diverse nations on the earth, originally conceived so, and often described as a great melting pot, as “all nations are melted into a new race of man, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” (St. John de Crèvecoeur, 1782). Yet, despite the country’s diverse population, the workplace remains a place of inequality as women and minorities continue to earn less than their white male counterparts (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009) and advance less in managerial and professional positions (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). The question of workplace diversity is a polarizing debate with proponents of diversity measures arguing the business benefit of diversity (Herring, 2009) and opponents arguing that diversity programs are a form of reverse discrimination (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). To what degree should employers, in either government or business, seek to promote diversity and encourage equality and what are the ethical considerations of such a position? Both the government and business employers are powerful entities that can continue to enhance the dominant position of white males, or attenuate the existing dominant hierarchy by increasing diversity and working to break the glass ceiling. Given both types of institutions are granted their power by civil society, a society that is increasingly made up of minorities (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008), it is a societal obligation, the ethical choice, and good business, to increase diversity, address equality issues in the workplace, and turn the American melting pot myth into reality.
Employers are powerful institutions that are responsible for allocation of resources like salary, benefits, bonuses, and company stocks, based on employee role, span of control, and contribution to the organization. While equal rights and equal pay legislation made it illegal to discriminate “based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin“ (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2011b, p. 1), the number of workplace discrimination cases continue to rise and cost employers more than $319 million in 2010, not counting litigation costs (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2011a). Many employers invest in extensive human resource organizations that have a sophisticated grasp on the implications of equal rights legislation on organizations; and they employ professionals, like I/O psychologists and attorneys, to establish fair policies and employment practices, and decrease litigation risk to an organization (Aamodt, 2010). In fact, employers often perform statistical analysis of employment practices to understand whether the practice could have an adverse impact against members of a protected class. For example, testing is a practice employers use for employee selection in the hiring process; even when an employment test is determined to be reliable, valid, and cost-efficient, care is taken to assure testing predicts performance equally well for all applications (Aamodt, 2010). Because governments and corporations have a fiduciary duty to citizens and shareholders, employers should continue to care about the issue of adverse impact, but more importantly, both government and corporations have a civil responsibility to treat members of society fairly, because societal institutions derive their legitimacy from the consent of civil society (Castello ́ & Lozano, 2011; United States, 1776). In light of the growing minority population, pervasive inequality in the workplace, and the origin of organizational legitimacy, it is an ethical responsibility for employers to increase diversity, but how far should employers go? More importantly, what specifically should employers do to increase diversity?
Determining the extent employment practices should be adjusted, to increase diversity is challenging without a theoretical perspective that identifies the basic constructs that maintain inequality. In Social Dominance, Sidanius and Pratto (1999) argue that in societies with an economic surplus, dominant hierarchies are formed that maintain control over distribution of resources in a complex interplay between institutions and individuals, coordinated through legitimizing myths that justify unequal distribution of resources. In order to attenuate the effects of dominant hierarchy-enhancing institutions on subordinate minority groups, legitimizing myths need to be understood and reframed. An important legitimizing myth in the immigration debate is the notion of the United States as a meritocracy, also know as the American Dream, where “individuals can control their economic well-being and are responsible for their economic success or failure” (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009, p. 343), despite their differences.
Figure 1 highlights the relationship between the semantic frames of the American Dream and the diversity debate, with common challenges to diversity (Morrison, 1992), structurally related to the legitimizing myth of the American Dream. In order for employers to gain acceptance for diversity programs, diversity needs a new semantic frame inside an organization, that of diversity as fair, ethical, beneficial, and distinctly American. The new semantic frame requires organizational support that includes practices that promote accountability, and the recruitment and development of members of protected classes into leadership positions (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). Instead of simply addressing the risk of adverse impact, leaders, human resource professionals, and I/O psychologists should take a proactive role in developing practices that promote diversity.
In fact, I/O psychologists have a greater ethical responsibility and greater opportunity than most because of their status as professionals and their deep knowledge of the subject. Lefkowitz (2003) addresses the ethical responsibility arguing that I/O psychologists expertise must benefit all of society rather than simply the clients that pay for their expertise. The opportunity for I/O psychologists is threefold, to promote fair testing and evaluation practices, to promote development and recruitment practices that increase diversity, and to challenge discriminatory practices. Testing and evaluation practices should do more than simply promote decision-making flexibility, rather they should be part of a comprehensive assessment practice that consider the benefits of organizational diversity, going beyond the narrow view of test scores. I/O psychologists should play a central role in promoting diversity by building development and recruiting practices that support diversity goals. Finally, when faced with discriminatory practices that represent an ethical dilemma, I/O psychologists are required to attempt to resolve the ethical conflict in accordance with APA guidelines (American Psychological Association, 2010); should discriminatory practices go unresolved, I/O psychologists should seek employment elsewhere, because failure to act is abrogation of responsibility to the society that grants I/O psychologists professional status.
In conclusion, the United States is at a crossroads, where minorities will soon be in the majority and the country needs to rethink the legitimizing myths that support the continued domination of women and minorities by the white male majority. As hierarchy-enhancing institutions, employers are in a unique position to embrace diversity programs, not only because they make good business sense, but also because embracing diversity is a sound ethical choice. However, embracing diversity will not be easy, not only because the existing legal framework enhances the existing dominant-hierarchy, but also because organizations will need to move away from the adverse impact thought processes of the past and towards the positive impact thought processes of the future. I/O psychologists that value a diverse perspective are poised as thought leaders in the coming future. Most importantly, it is time to change the semantic frame outlining the diversity debate from the American Dream back to the melting pot, and in so doing focus the dialogue on the positive impact of diversity on our nation, and the great changes we can create in the world.
Aamodt, M. G. (2010). Industrial/organizational psychology : an applied approach (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct: 2010 Amendments. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct Retrieved September 25, 2011, from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx
Castello ́, I., & Lozano, J. M. (2011). Searching for new forms of legitimacy through corporate responsibility rhetoric. Journal of Business Ethics, 100(1), 1-19. doi: DOI 10.1007/s10551-011-0770-8
Fiske-Rusciano, R. (2009). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Herring, C. (2009). Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review, 74(2), 208-224.
Kinicki, A., & Kreitner, R. (2008). Organizational behavior : key concepts, skills & best practices (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.
Lefkowitz, J. (2003). Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. H. (1782). Letters from an American farmer; describing certain provincial situations, manners, and customs, not generally known; and conveying some idea of the late and present interior circumstances of the British colonies in North America. Dublin,: Printed by John Exshaw.
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U.S. Census Bureau. (2009). Table HINC-05. Percent Distribution of Households, by Selected Characteristics Within Income Quintile and Top 5 Percent in 2009. In new05_000.htm (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.
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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2011b). Federal Laws Preventing Job Discrimination: Questions and Answers Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html
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Life often dishes out irony as if humans required it for sustenance. I began this class thinking myself a digital native, although I had yet to hear the term. Working for major software corporation for many years, I ran successful Content Management and Collaboration technology consulting practices that helped our customers take advantage of web technologies and thought myself well-versed in the implications of digital communication on things like security, identity, brand, presence, and other dimensions of the implementation discussion. I expected to come into this class and excel simply based on the fact that this was a realm I understood and I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. For while my understanding was perhaps sufficient to help a customer address a need, I missed the big picture that a solid theoretical foundation provides. In addition, I could have likely added far more value to my customers by helping them think through the implications of digital media on their business, relationships with customers, relationships with partners, and opportunities and risk to their brand reputation. Life is full of ironies.
During the course, I started a blog to chronicle my personal journey to graduate with honors, but more importantly as a personal exploration of digital media, and found myself grappling with issues I had previously only encountered as a thought experiment during the class; a powerful way to learn, indeed (Rock, 2011a).
There are a number of perspectives that have influenced my thinking during the course. I was struck by the simplicity and elegance of Symbolic Interactionism as a theoretical framework, and because it leads to an important philosophical question about the growth of meaning; how will humanity transform as the volume of interactions grow exponentially as the rest of the world joins the network? In the past, interactions tended largely to be bound in both time and space and now neither is true, there are very few boundaries in the virtual world.
Social shaping of technology is another theoretical perspective that influenced me during the course. I believe there are deterministic elements of technology that ties to the capabilities that technology affords, and yet observe that often people use technology in ways that designers never envisioned. Who would have thought during design that Twitter could help overturn an authoritarian regime? From a purely business point of view, social shaping theory means that we in the software engineering business need to pay close attention to how our products are used.
Of course, the question that most dominated my thoughts during the course was the democratic nature of the medium. The Arab Spring opened my eyes to the fact that something very different was happening in the world and digital media was at the center of it. I realized very quickly, that digital media was having profound implications on humanity and wondered at the implications for family, my business, nations, and myself. It appears to me that Internet and the World Wide Web are significantly shifting the balance of power between individuals, minorities, and dominant hierarchies and believe that humanity may be on the cusp of a new understanding of what it means to be human. Long have our differences been used as a means of controlling access to resources and our entire system of economics is based on that idea. I think that the Web is going to give us an opportunity to rethink what it means to be human and how to share. I know that others see the Web as simply a reflection of humanity, but I do not ascribe to that view because the balance of power is changing, myths are being exposed for what they are, and once dominant entities have given way, while others continue to fight. It may sound like I am subscribing to some utopian view, and in the end, perhaps I am. However, throughout history, most power struggles have been violent, and if we look to the example of Libya, this power struggle between Netizens and the dominant hierarchies that control them has the same potential. I am a firm believer that the natural state of humanity is freedom and so the idea of such a powerful equalizing force appeals strongly to my ideals.
Business has changed significantly over the last twenty years, particularly with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, resulting in fundamental changes to the way business is conducted, as disruptive new business models replace industry norms. The Internet and the Web have connected people and businesses in ways never before imaginable, creating significant new opportunities to create value and disrupt existing markets, as Google did to advertising, Amazon did to retail, and Netflix did to Blockbuster and the home DVD market. It appears that many U.S. corporations exist in the space between the traditional business models of the 20th century and emergent business models characterized by fundamentally different consumer behaviors, and are likely to experience significant business disruption by both competitors and consumers alike that take advantage of a new balance of power inherent on the Web.
The Relationship between the Web and Power
The Web has made revolutionary changes to people’s relationship with each other and with information, as the Web has become the de facto standard for communication and information access in our time (Smith, 2010). Allowing people to communicate in ways never before imagined, the Web has also changed people’s relationship with media from largely a consumption culture to more of a participatory culture, where individuals are both consumers and producers of media (Shirky, 2009). The change to a participatory culture has had profound implications on the way consumers interact with each other and with government and corporate institutions, as mainstream media institutions are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information, rather individuals and institutions are free to organize, collaborate, share, and develop media according to their own wants and needs (Shirky, 2009). The result is that millions upon millions of people, or the crowd, are using the combined power of access to information and the ability to organize to gain power over government and corporate institutions. Hanley (2010), describes the transformational nature of the web as a constant power struggle “in a constant ebb and flow of winners and losers” between individuals and governments, between consumers and corporations, and even between corporations, or between governments.
However, it is not enough to note the power struggles without understanding the unique, power-sharing, nature of the web.
Power to Change Dominant Hierarchies
The Web has demonstrated a significant range of capability to shift power balances or completely upend existing dominant hierarchies, and Social Dominance Theory is a useful lens to evaluate the power of the Web to create change. Social Dominance Theory (SDT) is a general theory that explains the stability of social inequality in societies with an economic surplus, arguing that three systems, age, gender, and an arbitrary set, oriented on religion, race, nationality, class, ethnicity, or otherwise, combine to maintain dominant hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). SDT argues the maintenance of inequality occurs not only with the application of force, intimidation, or discrimination practiced by dominants against subordinates, but rather, “the decisions and behaviours of individuals, the formation of new social practices, and the operations of institutions are shaped by legitimising myths…consensually held values, attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and cultural ideologies” (Pratto, Sidanius, & Levin, 2006, p. 275). Legitimizing myths provide a means of justifying, either morally or intellectually, dominating behavior (Pratto, et al., 2006). For example, a legitimizing myth about Mexican illegal aliens is that they are do not pay taxes, use an unequal share of social services, have higher rates of criminal activity, and take American jobs; a myth that was used to gain passage of the controversial Arizona law, SB1070 (Rock, 2011d). How then, given the complex interplay between individual behaviors, institutional and societal practices, and cohesive power of legitimizing myths, are the power of dominant hierarchies changed by people using the Internet and the Web?
What is Different about the Web
Dominant hierarchies are maintained with myths that focus on the trimorphic systems of differences, age, gender, and arbitrary differences like race, class, or ethnicity (Pratto, et al., 2006). However, on the Web, identities are amorphous, sometimes anonymous, and crafted by individuals (Baym, 2010), eroding the power of the arbitrary-set system to dominate, by allowing individuals to choose which acculturation to accept or shed on a moment’s notice. Simply put, individuals can shape their personas and this is a key difference from the physical world, that expects behaviors aligned with age, gender, and arbitrary-set systems.
The Web also serves to erode the power of legitimizing myths because the more than a quarter of the world’s population (Hanly, 2010) has access to the what amounts to the sum of human knowledge (Wesch, 2010). Wesch describes the new media landscape as “ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous communication, ubiquitous information, about unlimited speed about everything, everywhere, from anywhere on all kinds of devices and this makes it ridiculously easy to connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate and publish” (Wesch, 2010). Ubiquitous access to information makes it very difficult for myth to exist as anything but a myth, because facts and reality and the impact of legitimizing myths are spread across the web at blazing speeds in the form of images and videos that cannot hide fundamental truth, while the diffusion of the net resists attempts to suppress information. Gilmore (2011) described the nature of the networks treatment of information as “the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. In the virtual environment, information flows freely and individuals and groups are able to challenge the assumptions of legitimizing myths will information, while circumventing the information control efforts of dominant hierarchy institutions, acting as gatekeepers, that may attempt to control information flow. Examples of people using the Web to challenge dominant hierarchies are everywhere, including the Chinese people’s challenge to the government during the Sichaun earthquake (Shirky, 2009), the Iranian people’s challenge to the government following the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election (Hanly, 2010), and the recent Arab Spring in the Middle East that has overturned many existing regimes (Rock, 2011b). The Web is a great equalizer that erodes the power of dominant hierarchies and changes the power dynamics between individuals and institutions, moderating the impact of dominant institutions, or in extreme examples, seizing control of dominant institutions. While recent events have highlighted the effects of the Web on the balance of power between citizens and governments, what is the impact on business world?
The Web and Corporate Power
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the business world is about profit. To the extent that a corporation can dominate a market or industry, a corporation can expect to grow and pass along profits to its shareholders and the greater the profit, the greater the earnings of shareholders and corporate officers. As noted in the introduction, the Web is having a disruptive affect on the corporate world, where some corporations are seeing their business models and practices challenged, and others are attempting to harness the Web to reach new customers and commoditize existing marketplace leaders. What differentiates the businesses that take advantage of the new medium versus those that diminish? What business characteristics allowed Amazon to disrupt first Borders and now Best Buy? How did Netflix destroy Blockbuster so quickly? What prevented Blockbuster and Borders, both companies with dominant market positions, significant capital, and great brand recognition, from capitalizing on the opportunity the Web provides? Perhaps most importantly, what can companies with dominant market positions learn about the changing balance of power?
Corporations that dominate their respective markets are targets for disruption, because marketplace leaders have the highest expectations on their performance. Well-run companies deliver consistent earnings by using technology to “transform labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value” (Christensen, 2000, p. xiii). In the book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen (2000) argues that well-run companies avoid disruptive technology because disruptive technologies tend to have lower profit, smaller initial markets, and address customer’s future, rather than current, needs, and therefore, good business leaders are reluctant to invest. Put another way, the investment is fraught with risk. Were Blockbuster and Borders simply risk-averse organizations in a traditional innovator’s dilemma, or did Amazon, for example, have other advantages besides technical innovation? To answer this question, we need to look to the equalizing power of the Web.
As we examined earlier, ubiquitous access to information has an empowering quality and in the business world, the crowd of consumers can not only access more product and service information than ever before, but can also produce product and service information, creating far more consumer power than existed in previous generations. Amazon is a great example of a company that harnesses the power of the crowd to provide product information in a metaphor that now dominates the retail industry as companies like Walmart, Best Buy, and others attempt to replicate the transparency and engagement Amazon provides. In addition, Amazon recognized that the Web offered greater customer reach and the ability to commoditize brick and mortar stores that required expensive storefronts and the labor to operate them. The result was compelling, as Amazon consumers were offered more information and cheaper products, but more importantly because consumers were offered product insights from other consumers. Amazon understood that the Web could change the relationship between consumers and products and built a platform that enabled the consumers to engage in a direct relationship with product manufacturers in a show of both altruism and activism; altruistic when sharing positive product experiences, and active when sharing negative experiences. In short, Amazon built its business on an understanding of changing consumer behavior enabled by the Web.
Risk and Opportunity: A Progressive Example
In order to understand the changing power dynamics of the Web, I conducted an experiment that simply pitted a consumer and customer, namely me, against a dominant corporation, in this case Progressive Insurance Company. The opportunity presented quite naturally as it simply required a corporation to behave in its own interests, rather than the interests of a single customer, a situation not terribly difficult to find. I recently had a family outing on our boat and found that it was losing power and taking on water. We quickly got the boat out of the water and found that the engine ruined because a mechanical malfunction allowed salt water into the engine. After filing a claim with Progressive, the claims investigator took the claim information and determined that they would likely deny the claim. I saw the opportunity to explore the power of social media and to observe what affect it might have. I put up a blog on WordPress and registered the domain name of Progressivefail.org, putting the story of Progressive’s impending denial on the Web. Next, I began posting links to existing customer stories of claim problems and consumer satisfaction surveys on Progressive’s track record of paying claims and published the posts via Facebook and Twitter (Rock, 2011c). I also posted links to Progressives Facebook and Twitter sites and received an immediate response from Progressive’s Twitter account indicating they would look into it. Within a day, the blog had 87 views and was the first hit on Google when searching for the term “progressive fail; within four days I had received 242 views and the check was in my hands.
The Progressive example highlights how the Web can shift the balance of power between a corporation and their customers. By simply sharing customer stories on Progressive’s social network, a nearly immediate change took place. The surprising element of the example is not the immediate payment, but the implication that a single consumer was able to use the Web and Progressive’s own social network to potentially inflict brand damage far beyond the monetary scope of the initial claim. While Progressive likely intended their use of Facebook and Twitter to open a positive two-way asymmetrical dialogue with their customers, they opened themselves up to significant risk by simultaneously providing consumers with the ability to damage their brand and reputation. In this example, Progressive is the dominant hierarchy and the legitimizing myth is that of capitalism; it is more necessary for Progressive to profit than to address the specific need of a single customer.
The implication is that a corporation that opens a two-way dialogue with customers on the Web has both risk and opportunity. If the corporation treats its customers fairly, the Web will work in its favor, while the reverse holds true; should a corporation be perceived as unfair, customers have the power to negatively affect a corporation’s brand and either way, the Web has given consumers far more power over corporations than ever before.
Individuals, corporations, and governments are all part of a major transformation afforded by the Internet and the World Wide Web, characterized by ubiquitous access to all the information of human society. Serious implications exist that have yet to be fully understood, or explored; notions of privacy, intellectual property, ownership, relationship, consumer, and producer are all being challenged and reinvented on the Web. Corporations and governments both have a significant opportunity to take advantage of the Web to build better versions of their selves as they engage the power of the crowd; but they need to beware, because 20th century intentions and behaviors are transparent to the crowd. Corporations that use the Web to engage customers, need to recognize that social networks are not simply another channel to reach additional customers, rather that use of social networks require ethical business models, because the crowd is vocal. Corporations can no longer exist in the space between the traditional business models of the 20th century and emergent business models, and are likely to experience significant business disruption by both competitors and consumers alike that take advantage of the new balance of power inherent on the Web.
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