When Confronting Bias, Beware the Counterclaims

Discussions of discrimination in the workplace have a better chance for resolution when managers understand the common ways dominant groups deflect criticism.

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Imagine you’re the manager of a diverse team. One day, you are troubled to hear that several Black employees feel unwelcome in the workplace. They report that two White employees were joking with other colleagues about a photo of themselves posted to social media showing them wearing racially insensitive costumes to a party. You want to be an inclusive and responsive leader, so you call the two offending employees into your office individually to address the report.

The first employee — we’ll call him Michael — goes on the defensive, complaining that this is a classic case of “reverse racism” and that he is being unfairly targeted by the Black employees because he’s White.

The second employee, John, also tries to portray himself as the victim, but in a different way. He argues that his free speech is being imperiled. He says that efforts to control what he can and cannot say in the workplace threaten his fundamental rights.

What do you make of these arguments? Would you be inclined to believe both of them, or one employee more than the other? How would you address the situation with your team?

When members of groups with more power and resources — what social scientists call dominant groups — are accused of discrimination against those with less power and fewer resources (nondominant groups), they will sometimes seek to deflect criticism by portraying themselves as the victims of discrimination. This is known as competitive victimhood. Some go a step further and invoke victimhood on a new dimension of harm, changing the topic to freedom of speech, for instance, or religious liberty. We refer to this as digressive victimhood.

Competitive victimhood claims aim to make the dominant group seem virtuous and stop the criticism levied against them.

In recent research spanning three studies of 3,081 people, we explored how people respond to claims like the ones in the scenario above. We found that people consistently respond more favorably to digressive victimhood claims (like John’s) than competitive ones. Because digressive victimhood claims complicate conversations around bias, their effectiveness means that managers may end up neglecting to address the original instances of bias they are meant to respond to.

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