To prepare business students to be thoughtful leaders, this professor asks some pointed questions to uncover hidden biases and advantages.
Assistant Professor of Management and Director of Access and Outreach for Business Education, Rutgers School of Business–Camden
PhD and MA in Management, minor in Human Resource Management; MLA, minor in International and American Cultural Studies; BS in Psychology, minors in Human Resource Management and Spanish
According to AACSB International—a global organization with the goal of advancing innovation in business education—diversity management is an essential skill for students who wish to become successful leaders in the twenty-first century. But Dr. Oscar Holmes IV says that many business schools have yet to fully integrate it into their curriculum.
As an assistant professor of management at Rutgers School of Business in Camden, New Jersey (an AACSB-accredited institution), Holmes views providing instruction on diversity as a serious obligation, not just a good option to cover if time allows.
Teaching about diversity, he admits, is tricky. “It’s hard to have a conversation about systemic injustices,” says Holmes. “One, [diversity-related topics] are hard to approach, and two, some people think they already know everything about diversity.” In fact, he has noticed that this is a big problem for both educators and students. As the saying goes, “they don’t know how much they don’t know” about diversity.
Before Holmes could help students become champions of inclusivity in their future workplaces—and help Rutgers demonstrate why it has earned its AACSB accreditation—he needed to give them a wake-up call.
Challenge: Biases too hidden to be seen
Oftentimes, says Holmes, students have never examined what disadvantages and advantages they and their peers may have—whether those advantages are due to race, gender, or other identity structures. Even if they come from a more diverse high school, they may not have considered (or even noticed) specific inequalities, cultural differences, and other things that can affect inclusivity.
“[For example, in the US], men (majority or overwhelmingly White), six feet or taller, represent 60% of corporate CEOs, and only 15% of men are of that height or taller,” says Holmes. “People may not consciously think, ‘I’m going into work today and will discriminate against a short person.’ It’s an unconscious thing that happens. If you see a tall man, you may think he is in charge.”
Holmes’s goal was to awaken students to the labels they and others have been wearing (sometimes unconsciously) their whole lives, then demonstrate how to apply this awakening to a changing workplace landscape. To help students gain a better understanding of what systemic injustice looks like, Holmes knew he needed to first open their eyes to its existence—both obvious and obscured.
Innovation: An identity survey with easily visible results
In 2013, Holmes attended the international Equality Diversity Inclusion (EDI) Conference (held that year in Athens), where he learned an innovative approach that quickly put identity advantages and disadvantages into perspective. In a group exercise that called on participants to physically stand in a specific place according to their individual identity “score,” Holmes and other attendees surveyed their own observations, perceptions, and personal identities, then compared them with the attitudes and experiences of others in the room.
“This was the first activity where I saw someone quantify the different advantages and disadvantages for an additional social identity, in this case, race and gender,” says Holmes. “What most impressed me was the physical aspect of not just answering the questions but standing in an arc to see where you scored versus everyone else, and to see the diversity in scores among people who even share the same social identities. It increased my awareness of these issues in an amazingly profound way, and I knew I wanted to integrate it into my classes and expand on the activity to include an intersectional approach to social identities.”
Holmes created his own version of the exercise, which he calls the Intersection of Identity project. The initial exercise was built around the topics of gender and race, but Holmes has added elements including sexual orientation, disability issues, self-perceived attractiveness, gender identity, and religious background.
The topic may still be tricky, he admits, but the approach is straightforward, adaptable for just about any course (he uses it in several subjects), and sensitive to the needs of every student in the room.
“Organizational behavior provides frameworks for understanding and changing human behavior in all types of organizations. In this course, we examine some of the bases of individual behavior within organizations, then move to the level of the small group (generally a work group or team within a larger organization), and then examine the structure of larger organizations. The course is designed to provide a variety of learning experiences and opportunities.”— Oscar Holmes IV, PhD
Course: MGMT 303 Organizational Behavior
Frequency: One to two class meetings per week for a total of two and a half hours
Class size: Capped at 40
Course description: An examination of the human dynamics in organizations, focusing on individuals and small groups in organizational settings. Concentrates on communication, leadership, control systems, organization structures, and the thinking of leading organization theorists.
See resources shared by Oscar Holmes IV, PhDSee materials
Lesson: The Intersection of Identity Project
In naming this learning activity, Holmes explains that he uses Kimberlé Crenshaw’s research and her term intersectionality to highlight the understanding that “people do not just occupy a single social identity, but rather we are a constellation of social identities that have varying meanings and importance to us, and also that people react to that constellation quite differently depending on how they line up…. So instead of just talking about a man or woman (single social identity), the term intersection implies that we examine more than one social identity at the same time. So it could be a White or Black man or woman; or a Hispanic, Christian, gay man or woman.”
In the assignment, students complete a survey on a variety of identity-related topics, rating statements such as, “I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work” with a score of 0, 3, or 5. He starts with gender, which he has found to be one of the “easier” topics for most students to discuss, but the example he has shared here delves into race—which can be an eye-opener, as demonstrated by the five statements excerpted below.
Example: The Color-Arc Exercise
Note: Holmes adapted the following from Courageous Conversations About Race (Corwin, 2014 [second edition]), by Glenn E. Singleton.
Respond to each question using one of the following scores:
5 if the statement is mostly true for you
3 if the statement is sometimes true for you
0 if the statement is seldom true for you
Because of my race or color …
- If I wish, I can arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- If I should move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
After each survey section, students tally up their scores and line up in a U-shape based on their total, from low to high. For example, with respect to the statement “I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work,” women and men tend to be clustered at either end of the U, with women clustered at the lower scores and men clustered at higher scores. “For me to see at a distance, a woman at a 12 [out of 85], across the room from a guy who scored 85, it makes you think,” he says.
After the lineup, Holmes opens the floor to discussion. “First, I ask [students] what their observations are. It’s a reflective moment for people to start thinking,” he says. Next, he shares some of his own perceptions and tries to inspire deeper consideration of why we might hold biases that we are unaware of. (For example, he explains to women that, as a man, he just does not naturally think about what it might be like to feel unsafe walking alone at night.)
Finally, Holmes translates these scores and observations into the workspace. A White man, for example, may have an easier time speaking up for himself without fear of backlash than a woman. “I drive home the point that as future leaders, an essential part of their job is to develop their subordinates,” Holmes explains. “They can’t effectively develop their subordinates if they do not understand the systemic advantages and disadvantages that are germane to our society and our workplaces.”
Furthermore, Holmes uses the exercise to encourage his students to work for a different future. “I reinforce to these future leaders that these biased systems are already in place, and they will always be in place if we do not do the hard work to dismantle them. It’s my charge to [students] to dismantle them by giving them some tools that they can use, like this exercise.”
Tips: Bringing the identity survey to life
For educators wishing to use Holmes’s Intersection of Identity approach in class, he recommends being open, honest, and vulnerable—and keeping the following tips in mind:
Do not overestimate your own competency
“Before beginning this project, recognize your limitations as a teacher—your personal limitations,” advises Holmes. “I don’t think you need to be a research expert on the subject to do this exercise, but too often people think they can become diversity experts just based on their life experience. This is a disservice. Be prepared, do your homework, study, and have a level of competency.”
Broaden students’ perspective on privilege
Holmes uses a wide variety of examples—race, religious background, etc.—for good reason. By discussing a broad spectrum of topics that can differentiate us, he shows students that different people are “privileged,” depending on the situation. For example, he says, physical (dis)ability comes up frequently, because most of his students—no matter what their gender, race, or religion—do not need assistance to walk, hear, or see. “So they can easily recognize their privilege in these areas and understand how much time they save, and how many opportunities are afforded to them because of these abilities, that people who have mobility, hearing, or sight issues have to deal with,” says Holmes. “This builds the realization that all of us have some privileges.”
Demonstrate authenticity—and grace
Throughout the semester, Holmes shares personal stories of his own slip-ups or biases. “There’s no destination to get to in diversity management,” he tells students. “We are all making cultural faux pas. I screw up sometimes—and learn from my mistakes. These are teaching moments. Realize your mistake and admit you were not your best self in that moment.” This shows students that we all are human, and it may help them treat others (and themselves) with grace when they inevitably slip up.
Focus on solutions
Diversity and social injustice are trendy topics, and there are thousands of discussions swirling—but not enough is being done about the issues they reveal, says Holmes. “People always say we need to have a conversation about sex, religion, etc. I personally think we have too many conversations—we need to have solutions!”
When Holmes walks students through different scenarios, he makes sure that they do not become mired in debate but instead move on to the “what can I do about it?” stage. For example, in his organizational behavior course, Holmes talks about meeting a Native American man who was on a mission to eliminate “Indians” from use as sports-team mascots. Upon hearing the man’s observations, Holmes decided to “do something”: He immediately stopped supporting such teams, and he also brought awareness of the issue to those around him.
“Now, [students] have the awareness to bring down the old system,” he says. “This [exercise] gives them the motivation to do it.”
Holmes says that he has noticed students becoming aware of issues related to diversity and privilege. For instance, both undergraduates and graduates (he also uses the Intersection of Identity exercise in a graduate course, MGMT 505 Leadership and Managing Human Capital) will tell him they have decided to pursue internships in the area of disability and inclusion, or that their cross-race collaborations and relationships have become more manageable and less stressful.
Students who have lower scores in the exercise often comment to him that “they feel validated that they are not alone in the experiences that they have and the challenges they face. It’s even more powerful for them to have this validation in a business school class.”
Meanwhile, students who tend to score high in the exercises have told him they believe they now have more knowledge and understanding. “They feel like they would be better leaders now to all of their subordinates, as they now know they need to provide context and culturally relevant advice to coworkers and subordinates,” says Holmes.
Still other students have told him they aim to be proactive in looking for wider identity representation in their careers, for example when they are putting together panels or trying to hire new employees.
Finally, Holmes himself now receives requests to offer diversity talks in other organizations outside of school. He was the keynote speaker for the 2017 EDI conference, and he hosts a campus discussion series, Beyond the Mill, in which he interviews experts on diversity-related topics.
Judging from recent student course evaluations, Holmes’s exercises and teaching style resonate with his students. A few of their verbatim comments include:
“I loved the material that Professor Holmes taught and the way he taught everything related to real world lessons. I thought professor Holmes made the class and would recommend him to anyone.”
“I liked that Dr. Holmes always engaged us with the material. He would have us do activities and learn about current situations in the world to apply the class material, making it really fun and interesting to learn about. I’m a finance major, so before I took this course I thought I wouldn’t like it, but as the semester concludes this has been one of my best courses I’ve taken at Rutgers.”
“Professor Holmes was by far the best professor I’ve ever taken. He made the class interactive and made you think about business in a deeper way.”
“The class made me want to get more involved with the issues I’m passionate about, and made me want to give back to the community. It helped me understand people.”