The Scholar

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McKenzie Preston

Doctoral Candidate, the Wharton School


McKenzie Preston is an organizational behavior researcher and incoming Assistant Professor at NYU Stern School of Business. He is currently completing his doctoral degree at Penn’s Wharton School of Business. He studies questions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), leadership, and voice in the workplace.

McKenzie’s research has been published in leading management journals, such as Academy of Management Journal (AMJ), Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (OBHDP) and Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.

It’s been more than 30 years since scholar Stella Nkomo called out the organizational sciences for ignoring the significant role that race plays in the workplace. Her 1990 review of the literature determined that race was “invisible” in the research despite its influence on managerial decision-making.  

A new study co-authored by Wharton’s McKenzie Preston picks up where Nkomo’s review left off. His paper, “Is Justice Colorblind: A Review of Workplace Racioethnic Differences Through the Lens of Organizational Justice,” is the first comprehensive look at the topic in nearly two decades, with a specific focus on organizational justice. He and his co-authors combed through the literature and determine that not much has changed. There’s been little meaningful progress in reducing the negative effect that bias and discrimination has on minority employees, from hiring to compensation to promotion.

“Hoping or pretending that race is inconsequential at work does not make it so,” Preston said. “These findings emphasize that research on race in the workplace remains critical.”

Preston graduated in May with a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and has accepted a faculty position at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He spoke to the Wharton Coalition for Equity and Opportunity about the paper and its implications.  

Q: Let’s start by defining the term organizational justice. What does it look like in the workplace?

Organizational justice refers to people’s perceptions of fairness in their workplace. It has three key components:

  • Distributive justice is about the fairness of outcome distributions (Do people feel they get rewarded and recognized proportionally to their contributions?).
  • Procedural justice is the fairness of the processes and policies used to make decisions that affect employees (Are these processes consistent, ethical, unbiased and receptive to voice?).
  • Interactional justice is about the quality of interpersonal treatment (Do employees feel respected and valued by their managers and the organization?).  

In a just workplace, you’d expect to see no systemic differences in resources and opportunities for individuals from different backgrounds, transparency around employment decision criteria, consistent rule application, opportunities for employee input, and leaders who treat all staff with dignity and respect regardless of demographics.

Q: Why did you and your co-authors want to study this topic?  

We wanted to study this topic because despite growing societal attention to racial inequities, there remains a striking divergence in perspectives on the role and impact of race in organizational settings. Some accounts point to racial inequities being pervasive and ingrained in the workplace, while others seem to downplay or question the significance of race as a factor influencing employment experiences and outcomes. This disconnect is clearly illustrated by a public opinion poll that showed that while 82% of Black Americans reported believing that Black employees are treated less fairly than White ones in employment decisions, the percentage of White Americans who agreed was only 44%. 

My co-authors and I were motivated to provide a comprehensive picture of what evidence in the past 20 years has documented racial differences and injustice across the organizational life cycle, from staffing to organizational separation. We felt that examining organizational justice principles — specifically, distributive justice, procedural justice, and interactional justice — could provide clear, indisputable evidence and a valuable framework for understanding the root causes driving racial disparities in workplaces.

Q: What are the main findings in your literature review?  

There are two key findings:

There are clear racial disparities across multiple aspects of the employee experience, including hiring, performance evaluations, compensation, promotions into leadership, and even terminations. These disparities manifest as differences in distributive justice (inequitable outcomes), procedural justice (biased processes), and interactional justice (unfair treatment).

The magnitudes of these disparities are generally modest, but they persist over time and compound over an employee’s tenure, leading to substantial disadvantages for racial minorities compared to their White counterparts. Even seemingly small racial disparities in experiences like interpersonal treatment can compound over time and translate into substantial discriminatory impacts on hiring, compensation, promotions and other key outcomes.

Q: Did anything surprise you?

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that while there has been some narrowing of racial gaps in certain areas like hiring over past decades, the overall patterns suggest remarkable persistence with little meaningful decline in racial differences across key workplace experiences.  

A second surprising finding relates to scholarly disinterest in racial differences. Our paper clearly documents how important race is in predicting workplace outcomes and experiences. So, we were surprised to discover that employee race is not often reported in academic papers in top tier journals. In fact, research shows that only 22% of papers in top tier management journals in the past 10 years reported race. For a field with such a high emphasis on social and practical impact, the failure of researchers to recognize race and its impact significantly limits our understanding of workplace phenomena and racial justice.

Q: Quantifying bias is difficult because there are so many other factors beyond race that can influence workplace outcomes. But your paper cautions readers against “rationalizing” these results. Why? 

We caution against rationalizing, or trying to explain away, the racial disparities documented in the paper for several reasons. First, the studies that we included in our paper accounted for legitimate employee differences. Many of the studies statistically controlled for factors like job performance, human capital, and tenure when examining racial disparities. Statistically controlling for these factors means the observed racial differences in outcomes cannot be simply explained away by differences in qualifications or productivity.  

Second, equity in processes and treatment should be universal standards, regardless of differences in qualifications and performance. That is, even if one tries to attribute racial differences in outcomes like hiring, compensation, or promotions to factors like differential qualifications or job performance, there is no justification for racial minorities experiencing less procedural justice (biased implementation of processes) or interactional justice (disrespectful treatment and poor communication).  

Third, rationalizing perpetuates stereotypes and inhibits progress. Trying to legitimize racial inequities by pointing to group differences in ability or merit inadvertently reinforces stereotypical associations between race and competence. This can create a self-fulfilling cycle where these stereotypes lead to further biased perceptions and treatment of racial minorities. 

Rationalizing moves the goalposts for fair treatment rather than holding organizations accountable to unbiased policies and processes. It distracts from the core issue that all employees, regardless of race, should experience equitable procedures and dignified treatment in their workplace. Legitimizing and rationalizing disparities ultimately perpetuates the unjust status quo.

Q: If you were to conduct this study again in 50 years, what do you hope to find that is different? 

My sincere hope would be to find that racial disparities in the workplace have been significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether. However, based on the persistent patterns documented in this paper spanning decades, I have somewhat tempered expectations. 

On a personal note, as someone from an underrepresented racial minority group myself, the findings hit particularly close to home. These findings represent the harsh reality of having to face institutionalized disadvantages in accessing equitable opportunities and treatment in the workplace. The weight of having to work harder, be more qualified, and still potentially face biases in how I am perceived, evaluated, and compensated is demoralizing. 

At the same time, I am driven by a sense of responsibility to use my privileged position as a researcher to advance knowledge that can dismantle these unjust systems. So, my greatest hope is that 50 years from now, scholars of the next generation can look back at this paper and view the racial disparities it documents as reflections of a regrettable past, not an ongoing reality.  

The paper’s co-authors are Derek R. Avery, inclusive leadership professor at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business; Alison V. Hall, management professor at the University of Texas at Arlington; Enrica N. Ruggs, management professor at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business; and Ella Washington, practice professor at The Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.