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Discrimination Leads Corporations to See Asian-American Executives as 'Saviors'

New research reveals Asian Americans are more than twice as likely to be appointed chief executive if a company is in decline.
People work on various floors of an office building in London, England.

People work on various floors of an office building in London, England.

There is widespread suspicion that women and minorities only get appointed to top corporate jobs when companies are in deep trouble. A 2012 study provided evidence that this "glass cliff" phenomenon is real, and dubbed it the "savior effect."

New research reports those "saviors" are very often Asian Americans. Analyzing five decades of data, it finds they are 2.5 times as likely to be appointed chief executive officer if a firm is in decline.

The apparent reason: Tough circumstances require a boss who is willing to make personal sacrifices, and many people view ethnic Asians as being predisposed to fit that profile.

"Our results provide clues about the invisible mechanisms that hold broader patterns of discrimination in place," writes a research team led by Seval Gündemir of the University of Amsterdam.

"Our findings suggest that Asian-American leaders are preferred under circumstances that are narrowly defined, short-lived, aversive, and provide them with little freedom to establish that they possess attributes that make them effective leaders in all circumstances—not merely during periods of decline."

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, features an archival exploration of 4,951 chief executives and the circumstances under which they were hired. The companies were spread around North America (96 percent were in the United States), and represented 357 unique industries.

Using a data set that goes back to 1967, the researchers looked at new chief executive hires and noted whether the new executive was Asian American. Using three criteria, they then calculated whether a firm had "entered a markedly distinct downturn" due to "internally generated" problems (as opposed to broader economic trends).

"Organizations were almost two-and-one-half times more likely to hire Asian-Americans CEO during periods of decline," they report. In contrast, they found firms in trouble were not more likely to hire whites, Hispanics, or African Americans to these top jobs.

So, good news for Asian Americans? Not so much. For one thing, only 12 percent of companies hired a chief executive while they were in decline.

Furthermore, "this ostensible advantage is short-lived," the researchers write. "Among leaders who are selected as CEOs in times of decline, Asian-Americans do not have a longer tenure as CEOs than whites. Thus the attribute that 'opens the door' for Asian-Americans during periods of decline does not keep the door open."

But why are ethnic Asians more likely to be hired during tough times in the first place? A series of follow-up studies suggest the "model minority" stereotype plays a large role.

One study featured 227 U.S. residents recruited online who read information about a fictitious company that was searching for a new senior leader. Half read an article in which they company's stock was rising, while the other half read one that said it was falling.

All participants were then presented with a series of self-sacrificing behaviors, and asked if they thought the new chief executive should engage in them. These included giving up their bonus and working overtime, including weekends.

Finally, they read about two equally qualified candidates—"Alex Wong" and a white man named "Anthony Smith"—and, using a one-to-seven scale, indicated their interest in hiring him.

The results: Alex, but not Anthony, received higher marks when the company was in trouble. Further analysis, along with the results of a second follow-up study, revealed this was due in large part to the assumption he would be more likely to engage in those self-sacrificing behaviors.

The findings suggest women and Asian Americans are both favored in tough times, but for different reasons. A 2011 study found women are "seen to be good people managers and can take the blame for organizational failure." Asian Americans, on the other hand, are seen as being willing to put the firm's welfare ahead of their own.

Both results suggest stereotyping continues to play a role in hiring decisions, advantaging women and minorities under certain less-than-ideal conditions, but disadvantaging them the rest of the time.

As Gündemir writes, even "seemingly positive stereotypes" can effectively perpetuate discrimination.