Organizations often take pride in their histories, viewing them as a source of identity and prestige. However, recent research — conducted as part of my dissertation at Ohio State University with my colleagues Dr. Steven Spencer and Dr. Laura Wallace — sheds light on a concerning trend: the celebration of organizational history can have unintended consequences, particularly for members of historically marginalized groups. In a series of studies, we found that Black participants, when exposed to company mission statements celebrating organizational history, demonstrated a lower sense of belonging and intentions to apply to jobs at those organizations. This research suggests that when organizations such as companies or institutions of higher education celebrate their history — as many organizations do — they may inadvertently undermine efforts to foster diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments. 

Understanding the Research Findings

According to our research, celebrations of history can undermine a sense of belonging among Black individuals. Why does celebrating history reduce a sense of belonging for Black participants? 

Many organizations have histories of marginalizing Black Americans, a fact that Black Americans are particularly knowledgeable of. When these organizations celebrate their histories in company materials such as mission statements or employee testimonials, it can suggest that they are unaware of or condone this racist past. Even in cases where there is no explicit reference to racism or discrimination within the organization's history, our studies show that the mere act of celebrating history can evoke concerns about fair treatment in the present.

This effect persists regardless of whether there are visible cues of marginalization, such as photos of predominantly white individuals or companies founded in regions associated with historical racism.

Moreover, the research highlights that it's not the mere mention of history that is threatening; rather, it's the lack of clarity regarding whether the organization historically marginalized Black individuals. Organizations unable to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion in their past may inadvertently alienate Black individuals by celebrating their history.

Implications for Institutions of Higher Education 

Many institutions of higher education celebrate their histories, even though their histories explicitly excluded students of color, women, or members of other historically marginalized groups. For example, their websites often include detailed descriptions of their founding and important milestones throughout their histories. Many have classrooms decorated with photos of or buildings named after prominent (often white, male) historical figures. Although these messages may seem relatively harmless from a majority group member’s perspective, this work suggests that they may reduce sense of belonging and intentions to apply to the institutions for prospective students who are members of historically marginalized groups. Once these students matriculate into the institution, celebrating history could continue to reduce their sense of belonging, and ultimately affect their decisions to remain enrolled over time. 

Actionable Recommendations for Organizations

  1. Mindful Communication: Organizations should carefully consider how they communicate their history. While acknowledging historical achievements and milestones can be valuable, it's essential to do so in a manner that is inclusive and sensitive to the experiences of marginalized groups.
  2. Transparency and Accountability: Organizations should strive for transparency regarding their historical practices, particularly concerning issues of diversity and inclusion. This may involve acknowledging past mistakes and outlining concrete steps taken to address them.
  3. Promoting Diversity and Inclusion: To mitigate the negative effects of celebrating history, organizations should prioritize diversity and inclusion efforts in both their past and present narratives. Highlighting initiatives aimed at promoting equity and representation can help reassure marginalized groups of their value within the organization.
  4. Educational Initiatives: Implementing educational programs within the organization can increase awareness of historical injustices and their ongoing implications. By fostering a deeper understanding of the societal context in which organizations operate, employees can become more attuned to the potential impact of celebrating history on marginalized groups.
  5. Intersectional Approach: Recognize that the negative impact of celebrating history may extend beyond Black individuals to other historically marginalized groups, such as women, Native Americans, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Adopting an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion efforts ensures that the needs and experiences of all individuals are addressed.

Looking Ahead: Future Directions

This research opens avenues for further exploration into how organizations can navigate discussions around their history in a manner that promotes belonging among all individuals. Future studies should explore the intersectionality of the impact of celebrating history, examining how different marginalized groups respond to historical narratives. Additionally, exploring the effectiveness of various strategies, such as historical education and inclusive storytelling, can inform best practices for fostering a sense of belonging and equity within organizations.

View the original article

If you can’t access the full text