01 Dec 2021

Behind the Research: Letian Zhang Q+A


by Shona Simkin

Letian (LT) Zhang is an assistant professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit and teaches Leadership in the MBA required curriculum. We asked LT about his research in inequality, what he’s working on now, and what he likes to do in his spare time.

How did you become interested in your area of study?
My research looks at inequality in organizations and marketplaces. I got my training in sociology, and I've always been interested in understanding inequality as a phenomenon. I was born and raised in China and went to the South Side of Chicago for high school, then Stanford for undergrad. These three places are so different in so many different ways—culturally, socio-economically, and the resources they offer—it made me realize how different each person’s life could be simply as a result of where they were born. I think those experiences planted a seed in me: I began to pay close attention to social issues. There's so much that is determined by your environment and the people you’re surrounded by, and yet these things are distributed so unevenly. This got me really interested in studying sociology and thinking about questions related to inequality.

What are some examples of your research?
My recent work looks at what happens after a disruptive event in an organization in terms of inequality. We found that after an organization gets acquired through a merger or acquisition you see a jump in the proportion of racial minorities and women in management—there’s an improvement in equality. I wanted to figure out why that happens. I did a lot of interviews, and it turned out that a lot of it is because organizations have inertia—it's very hard to change an organization's culture and its existing practices, so a lot of inequalities get reinforced over time and it's very hard to shift them. But when you have a forced disruption like an acquisition, merger, or a restructuring process, it breaks down the inertia that reinforces inequality and gives organizations an opportunity to reduce the race and gender gaps in the workplace.

How do you go about getting those interviews and data?
The quantitative part comes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has this data—the ratio of gender and racial composition of every establishment over time. To really get the mechanisms of it, I did a lot of interviews with people involved in mergers and acquisitions—a lot of senior executives and people in human resources that I found through personal connections and through my colleagues at HBS.

What are you working on currently?
I'm working on another paper right now with a doctoral student. We're looking at the retail industry to see how ecommerce shakes up existing practices—their hiring practices and routines. We see a very similar story—retailers have a boost in their diversity management when they start an ecommerce site. A lot of this is because they have new ways of recruiting during those moments of disruption. The mechanism is slightly different, but it's in the same ballpark—disruption creates an opportunity to reset yourself in a lot of ways.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to play and watch sports, although my knees have gotten pretty bad so I'm not able to do as much playing. But I like to play tennis and pick-up basketball.

I also read books in different fields during my off-time to learn cool stuff in areas like biology, economics, and anthropology. If you think about the 16th- and 17th-century scholars, they were biologists, economists, sociologists, philosophers, and mathematicians all at the same time. But today we've become so specialized that we each only study one small thing. I try to read widely to remind myself of the big picture and to see what people in other fields are doing. For example, I was reading about how bees organize their communities—it's super fascinating—there are a lot of resemblances to humans, but there are also a lot of interesting differences. These are the things that make me love my job and inspire me.

Read more about LT Zhang in Working Knowledge. For updates on HBS faculty research, sign up for Working Knowledge’s weekly e-mail newsletter.

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