By Jane Cho
The lunch cafeteria in my New Jersey high school was populated by several different cliques: the athletes, the cheerleaders, the math club kids, the metalheads, the theater crowd, the all-black-wearing smokers. As a Korean-American teenager in the ‘80s, I had a perm, Aqua Net-sprayed bangs and friends in several different groups. This was unusual, since most students tended to stay within their own cliques. (I was what social scientists refer to as a “code switcher,” someone who communicates and moves adeptly between different identity groups.) The racial divides in my high school certainly played a role in how cliques were formed, and influenced the perception of in/out group identity.
Unfortunately, these kinds of social and racial barriers tend to persist into adulthood and often become more difficult to traverse. Many corporate cafeterias resemble the high school lunchrooms of the ‘80s, dotted with groups segregated by race, status, or social identity. These persistent divisions have real consequences, both for individuals and for the bottom line of the companies where they work.
A new study on the racial wage gap by researchers Elizabeth Ananat, Shihe Fu and Stephen L. Ross found a link with geography—the larger the city, the larger the racial wage gap. The study was recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
They suggest that the racial wage gap might have more to do with what economists call “spillovers,” patterns of social interaction that are influenced by race, rather than overt prejudice. A “spillover effect” describes the way that the informal sharing of valuable information in social settings influences how things work. Lunches, drinks after work, parties, company ski weekends—these are often the places where business is done, careers are made, and strategic connections advantage those who are able to access those often-closed networks
Though blatantly exclusionary clubs have mostly gone out of fashion and hard-fought legal protections are in place for targets of discrimination, minority groups often still struggle to access the closed social enclaves reserved for the powerful and well connected.
Where minority groups are less successfully integrated, they are more likely to miss out on the benefits of “spillovers,” where tacit knowledge sharing opportunities are so beneficial to those who have access to them. This applies to groups that are traditionally in the majority, like white men, if they are in a group where they are the minority.
Researchers have long established the business case for leveraging diverse talent. Many effective strategies have helped business leaders unlock the complexity often associated with diversity and capitalize on the advantages of a diverse team. Businesses that do not take full advantage of spillover effects for all their employees pay a price in lost opportunity. In other words, there is a huge benefit to the Spillover Effect, and it can directly affect career success, personal wages, company profits, productivity and innovation. When organizations lack the strategy or tools to bridge divides across diverse groups, individuals lose out on opportunities and companies lose out on tapping into talent and fresh ideas.
A view of the lunchroom in any organization can be a powerful indicator of the informal organizational context, revealing the implicit values and norms that influence individual behavior. Where and with whom people sit to eat lunch might signal how comfortable individuals feel about crossing lines between diverse groups.
In the emerging field of social networks analysis, researchers are establishing the power and importance of informal relationships. Theories of network diversity and tie strength have implications for how individuals approach career development and its impact on organizational commitment, employee engagement, and work satisfaction.
Take a look around your lunchroom. What does it look like? Is it reminiscent of high school cliques or is it a desert wasteland, empty of people because they hide out at their desks? Most importantly, what does your organization do to create and take advantage of the “Spillover Effect?”
In an upcoming article we’ll look at the power of mentoring and other strategies you can use to get employees to take their trays and walk bravely across the lunchroom.