Abstract: Inclusion Policy-Practice Decoupling in the US Army (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Inclusion Policy-Practice Decoupling in the US Army

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Michalle Mor Barak, Ph.D., Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Gil Luria, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Sara Kintzle, PhD, Research Associate Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Leslie Schnyder, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Michele Calton, PhD, Research Psychologist, The U.S. Army Research Institute
Eva Alday, MPH, Project Specialist, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Carl Castro, PhD, Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Background and Purpose: Promoting diversity and inclusion in civilian and military workforces is highly relevant for advancing social work science for social justice. People who volunteer for military service represent the diversity of the US society. Consistent with its overall values, the Army has definitions of diversity and inclusion and has recognized the importance of diversity in its ranks. Yet contrary to expectations, organizational research indicates that welcoming diversity without fostering inclusive climates does not necessarily lead to improved individual and organizational outcomes (e.g., Mor Barak et al, 2016). This is indicative of a lack of inclusion-specific initiatives and of policy-practice decoupling -- observable gaps between espoused declarations (policies) and enacted procedures (practices) (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Simply stated, decoupling refers to failing to “walk the talk”. This study explores inclusion policy-practice decoupling in the U.S. Army and aims to promote a deeper understanding of organizational inclusive climates.

Methods: Employing qualitative methods, we recruited 120 active-duty enlisted soldiers from different posts to participate in focus groups (n=19). The focus groups, lasting about one hour each, were recorded and transcribed. Participants came from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds (53% White, 24% Black, 15% Other, and 8% not reported), with 30% identifying as Hispanic/Latino and 28% identifying as women. Using thematic analysis, three researchers generated a list of codes based on close review of the data. Coders met periodically to discuss their analyses. Main themes emerged from the coding process, with 96% rater agreement and data was coded a second time based on the main themes developed.

Results: The overarching theme regarding policy was that soldiers perceived diversity as “treating everyone with dignity and respect”, corresponding to one of the Army’s seven Core Values. Yet, Soldiers did not quite understand what inclusion meant and were not familiar with the Army’s definitions (Policy). Several themes emerged regarding everyday inclusion practices. Soldiers indicated that leaders did not discuss inclusion in their direct communications and did not outline behaviors expected from Soldiers related to inclusion of all members of the Unit (practice). In addition, soldiers perceived the implementation of diversity and inclusion through a limited lens pertaining only to required training - SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention) and EO (Equal Opportunity) – both aimed at avoiding negative discriminatory and/or illegal behaviors. Soldiers noted that these trainings focused on what not to do in order to avoid “getting into trouble”, rather than on positive behaviors promoting inclusion (Practice).

Conclusion and Implications: Overall, the findings from this exploratory study indicate lack of familiarity and awareness of the Army’s inclusion definition. They also point to specific practices that were incongruent with promoting inclusion such as lack of leadership communication, narrow/unfocused scope of training, and unclear expectations regarding Soldier and leader inclusive behaviors. These findings highlight the need for leader targeted training on inclusive policies and behaviors, as well as accountability measures to ensure implementation of inclusive practices. Future research should promote a deeper understanding of policy-practice decoupling to advance social work science for social justice.