Faculty Spotlight

August Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor, Ryan A. Smith

Aug 16 Faculty Spotlight

Diversity is a critical part of SPIA's identity, more than half of our students and alumni are from traditionally under-represented groups, and many of our professors engage in vital discourse and research projects concerning it. In this month's faculty spotlight Associate Professor, Ryan A. Smith discusses the challenges of workplace diversity, his fascinating research projects (including an ongoing analysis of death row inmates' last statements), and more.

What are the biggest workplace diversity challenges you believe need to be addressed over the next decade and beyond? What can be done to address this issue?
Over the last 50 years, employment laws and employment policy has led to an unprecedented rise in the number of employees in the workplace who were once summarily denied access due to their race, color, religion, sex, nationality and physical ability. But while progress has been made at recruiting and retaining the best and brightest employees from all backgrounds at the entry ports and lower levels of many organizations, persistent disparities in terms of who gets access to decision-making positions at work remains a problem in our society. This, in my mind, is the biggest workplace challenge facing our country in the next decade and beyond.

Scholars generally agree that the increase in demographic diversity in the United States is not a theory subject to debate. It is a social fact. Organizations able to leverage that diversity by recruiting, retaining, and promoting the best and the brightest from all backgrounds will have competitive advantage of those organizations that recruit from a small, select group of homogenous people. When artificial barriers are removed and concrete support is provided, people from all backgrounds excel.

While diversity programs and policies purport to address these issues, many simply don't work for any number of reasons including: lack of real support at the top of organizations. In other cases, the people charged with the responsibility of developing and implementing diversity policies may not believe in them, or they view them as a threat to their autonomy, or they are not truly empowered (by higher-ups) to promote the changes that are needed. That said, we know what works and what doesn't work to increase diversity representation among decision-making positions in organizations. Frank Dobbin (Harvard University), and his co-author Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University), have written extensively on the topic. During my four-year stint as Ackerman chair, I invited Professor Dobbin to campus to deliver the Ackerman lecture. His message, based on the most definitive study to date, was clear then and continues to receive widespread attention now. The most effective programs offer voluntary diversity training, self-managed work teams and cross-training (to increase contact between groups), college recruitment of women and minorities, mentoring, diversity task forces and diversity managers (to promote accountability). Accountability is the structural linchpin—without it, programs tend to flounder.

Can you tell us about the research projects you have currently underway?
I have a number of ongoing research projects. The first study, which bridges my past research on workplace authority and racial attitudes, is linked to the diversity topic discussed above. In fact, it is somewhat of a response to Frank Dobbin's research. I'm working with Matthew Hunt (Northeastern University) on a project that examines the racial stratification beliefs of white Americans who have decision-making authority at work and whites who lack such authority. Using national data, we analyze whether these groups vary in belief trends, as well as in overall levels of support for, and in determinants of, beliefs about racial inequality. We find that among both groups (whites with and without decision-making authority), support is greatest for a "lack of motivation" explanation of black disadvantage, followed by (in order): explanations focusing on blacks' lesser educational chances; discrimination against blacks; and, lastly, blacks' supposed lesser ability. Further analyses reveal more agreement than disagreement across levels of workplace power in whites' explanations of racial inequality, which we interpret in line with Group Position Theory. We believe that our results lend support for the contention that researchers should more systematically consider the attitudes of those in authority when studying what works and what doesn't work to ameliorate existing racial inequality in the workplace. Put simply, current research privileges analysis of laws, policies, the political climate, and specific workplace diversity practices, at the exclusion of the core beliefs of persons charged with actually implementing and enforcing diversity programs.

The second project, which is radically different, is an ongoing analysis of death row inmates' last statements--a nascent area of social science research, but one with important policy implications concerning the death penalty. Prior research has shown that religious expressions are among the most frequent utterances expressed by death row inmates at the moment of imminent death. However, beyond knowing the frequency of religious expressions in absolute terms and relative to other utterances, we know very little about the functional use of religion for capital offenders once they enter the death chamber. The study is a discourse analysis of 392 last statements of death row inmates. Drawing on terror management theory and religious coping theory as explanatory frameworks, I find that at the moment of imminent death, a majority of inmates draw on their religious beliefs to establish meaning, control, and closeness to God, relatives and friends. Beyond that, the data also show that inmates use religious expressions as a way to signal a transformed life, as a way to level the playing field, and to request forgiveness and mercy for state officials and others involved either directly or indirectly with the execution. Capital punishment, some have argued, cannot exist without dehumanizing those we execute. I conclude that by drawing on religious expressions at the moment of their imminent demise, death row inmates are engaged in a desperate search for significance—a last chance, if you will, to reclaim their humanity.

Tell us about your teaching. What is most important to you? What classes will you be teaching in the fall semester?
First, let me say that I've been on sabbatical for a year and I look forward to getting back into the classroom. I find teaching in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) quite enjoyable. The students bring a wealth of knowledge and practical experience that allows for a more interactive and dynamic exchange in the classroom.

I will be teaching Public Personnel and Human Resources Management (PAF 9117) in the fall—a course that provides an introduction and overview to the field of Human Resources Management. In such a course you have to explore selected problems and opportunities managers encounter as they interact with and make decisions about employees. Since many of our students are employed, I encourage them to bring their work experiences to the classroom as a way to illuminate the various HR topics we discuss such as recruitment and selection, performance appraisal, diversity management, employment law, career development, compensation, employee rights, workplace bullying, rudeness at work, and the relationship between human resource management and organized labor.

I will also be teaching the Capstone Seminar (PAF 9190) this fall. I love teaching the capstone course. In the capstone seminar, students are asked to apply the knowledge and skills learned during their graduate experience at SPIA toward the development and completion of a capstone project that focuses on an organization of choice, a specific policy of interest, or a combination of both. I implore students to choose a topic they feel passionate about. In the past, students have written on topics as varied as homelessness, community-based organizations, CUNY's smoking policy, school choice, rent regulation, etc. Students often enter the capstone course with misgivings about their writing, presentation, or research skills. However, most complete the course with a heightened sense of personal accomplishment and a skill-set (e.g., writing executive reports, conducting research to go in a report, oral presentations etc.) that often proves transferable to a variety of organizational settings. Most rewarding is when the students experience moments of revelation—that is, when they admit that their preconceived ideas about their topic are challenged by their own research, or when they offer their final capstone paper as a deliverable to the organization they have studied. Those are proud moments that have lasting impact.

However, my favorite course to teach these days is Managing Cultural Diversity in the Workplace. I developed the course four years ago. First offered as a special topics course, I am happy to report that the course has been officially added to SPIA's curriculum. This is an important addition given the stated commitment of SPIA, Baruch, and CUNY to diversity issues for which I wholeheartedly support.

Managing Cultural Diversity in the Workplace explores selected problems and opportunities managers encounter as they lead, interact with and make decisions about employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. Part of my teaching philosophy includes the notion that students should have a say in what they are being taught. So, students are given the option to tailor the second half of the course by selecting the diversity topics of most interest to them. We focus primarily on the public and non-profit sectors of the economy but, for purposes of comparisons, we also engage the for profit sector. The increased population diversity in our society means that the available labor pool (supply-side) by which employers (demand-side) select qualified candidates for employment will increasingly be made up of workers from diverse backgrounds. That poses what sociologists call a "sociological problem." That is, how do you maximize the potential benefits and minimize the potential costs that come with managing workers from diverse cultural backgrounds? This, of course, is a question of leadership competency. Where do you go to develop that competency? I offer Managing Cultural Diversity in the Workplace as a starting point. The course is simply an attempt to keep pace with the reality of our changing society. The old models of management, established when the workplace was largely homogeneous, are all but obsolete. Because diversity comes with both challenges and opportunities, I encourage students to interrogate the rhetoric of understanding and valuing workplace diversity. They study why it has become such an important managerial topic in the United States and globally and they are asked to critically evaluate the extant literature on diversity management and inclusion with an eye toward assessing the efficacy of various strategies to bring about a representative workplace.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.