Discrimination in the workplace, subtle yet prevalent, erodes productivity and engagement

stock image | St. George News

PROVO (PRNewswire) – A new study shows 1 in 4 who say they are victims of workplace discrimination experience detrimental frustration, stress, depression and helplessness on the job.

The study, conducted by VitalSmarts, a Top 20 Leadership Training Company headquartered in Provo, found that 27 percent of those who experience discrimination at work report the bias to be common, impactful and beyond their ability to manage – a triple threat of factors.

To measure the impact of workplace bias, David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and author of the New York Times bestseller “Crucial Accountability,” and Judith Honesty, CEO of Honesty Consulting, asked 500 who said they were victims of discrimination to share their stories. Each subject experienced incidents in the workplace which resulted in them feeling unwelcome, excluded, discounted or disadvantaged because of who they are – their race, age, gender, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, medical condition, pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation.

By analyzing the stories, Maxfield and Honesty found that bias in the workplace is pervasive, permanent and unmanageable for those who said they were victims of discrimination. Specifically:

  • Pervasive: Of those who said they were victims of workplace discrimination, 49 percent said the discrimination happens regularly in their workplace.
  • Permanent: Of those who said they were victims of workplace discrimination, 66 percent said it has a large impact on their engagement, morale, motivation, commitment and desire to advance in the organization.
  • Unmanageable: Of those who said they were victims of workplace discrimination, 60 percent said they did not feel they could master incidents of bias in the moment or prevent them from recurring in the future.

Maxfield and Honesty rated the stories based on Martin Seligman’s work on “learned helplessness” to measure the impact of discrimination on employee behavior. Seligman has found that the way people perceive an event determines the impact it has on their behavior. Events that are seen as permanent, pervasive and beyond their control lead to frustration, stress, depression and helplessness.

Additionally, they found seven themes in the stories indicating the most prevalent types of workplace discrimination.

  1. Don’t be yourself. Employees are warned to avoid showing who they really are; i.e. to avoid talking about her “wife,” to dress in a more “feminine” way et cetera.
  2. You’re not credible. Employees are interrupted and discounted, excluded from meetings, passed up for high-visibility assignments or promotions, et cetera. Others hint the perceived lack of credibility is the result of race, sex, age et cetera.
  3. Oops, just kidding. A manager or co-worker makes a blatant racist, sexist, intolerant comment to a colleague and then tries to walk it back.
  4. Anything goes after hours. A manager or co-worker makes blatantly racist, sexist or intolerant comments/jokes about others – customers, people in the news, et cetera. They feel it’s okay because they’re not at work or because they aren’t talking about an employee.
  5. You’re unwelcome. Employees are excluded from conversations at both work and social gatherings. Co-workers or managers “forget” to invite them to meetings or give them information they need to do their job. Others fail to socialize with them or change the subject or stop socializing when they join.
  6. Gotcha. A manager or co-worker seeks to tear down their colleague or believes others, even when they aren’t credible; dishes out unequal punishments; finds faults to the extent of distorting the truth.
  7. Unconscious bias. Women, minority or older employees are told they “lack executive presence,” “don’t fit our culture,” “are too aggressive” even though their performance would be seen as exemplary in a white, male or younger employee.

Honesty said these seven themes reveal a trend of subtle – yet harmful – workplace discrimination. While overt bias is likely not tolerated, under-the-radar forms of discrimination are pervasive and severe across corporate America.

“We catalogued hundreds of moments where victims were left questioning others’ intentions and their own perceptions,” Honesty said. “The inner litany sounds a bit like, ‘I’m upset, but I don’t know if I should be, or if I have a right to be.’ At best, this shadowy bias is exhausting. At worst it’s soul destroying to both the individual and the organization.”

Maxfield said it’s important leaders demonstrate and teach skills for confronting bias in a way that uncovers what really just happened.

“Our research shows people who initiate honest, frank and respectful dialogue build understanding and cultures of respect,” Maxfield said. “These are the kinds of cultures that promote rather than erode performance and engagement.”

Maxfield and Honesty share five skills to confront and reduce subtle to overt forms of bias in the workplace:

  1. Use CPR – Content, Pattern, Relationships. When confronting bias, should you talk about the content (a one-time incident), the pattern (a series of incidents) or the relationship (the impact of a pattern on your ability to work productively with others)? Many stories described “microinequities” – small incidents that wouldn’t be worth addressing except that they are a part of a pervasive pattern. If you confront the one-time incident, you’re likely to be seen as overreacting. But if you address the larger pattern or relationship concern, you can demonstrate that these microinequities add up to soul-crushing impacts.
  2. Start with heart. Before you speak up, identify what you really want to happen. Is it enough for the bad behavior to stop? Or do you want an apology, punishment and reparations? Also consider that you’re likely going into the conversation with a lifetime of grievances. How responsible is the person in front of you for that history? Likely, he or she plays a smaller role than what you may be attributing to his or her actions.
  3. Master my stories. Before speaking up, separate the stories you bring to the situation from the facts of the other person’s actions. Only then, can you master your own strong emotions.
  4. State my path. Discover what really just happened – no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, then tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you.
  5. Make it safe: Is a person who exhibits unconscious bias automatically a bigot? If so, then we’re all bigots. It’s challenging to describe biased behavior without the other person feeling attacked.

About VitalSmarts

Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Inc. company, is home to the award-winning (registered trademarks) Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Change Anything, and Influencer Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 1.7 million people worldwide.

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3 Comments

  • youcandoit March 25, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Especially living in utah the Mormons have their own employment agency. I was asked in an interview what religion am I he said because most of their customers are Mormons. I felt like saying I’m not a two faced hypocrite. I reported them all the state did was give them a letter of the do and don’t s. I thought it was awkward especially his secretary said out of 30 resumes I impressed the president of the company. Whatever their loss

  • Proud Rebel March 25, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I realize that work place discrimination exists. But where should the line be drawn between “discrimination and reality?”
    Saying out of hand that women, or whatever generalization, are unqualified for a job is most likely discrimination. However, saying that one person who happens to be a minority does not have the qualifications for a particular job is much more likely to be honesty.
    I’m so sick and tired of this victim mentality! If we really look for it, each and every one of us can find a situation in which we were victimized. But intelligent, mature individuals realize that this is life, and move on.
    Before complaining about being the victim, realize that “I was a victim of” whatever has happened to you, is the litany of too many people who have failed at something, and just given up.
    Make sure you actually have a legitimate complaint, before saying that you’ve been discriminated against. It’s quite likely that you (the individual,) has not been, but that there is a legitimate reason why something happened.
    However, if there is a pattern of you, (the group of minorities,) being left out of, or passed over for something, then you have a valid complaint, and trying to do something about the situation to correct it is the right thing to do. And often takes a great deal of courage.

  • commonsense March 25, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    Judith sounds like the stereotypical victim. I’m not productive and its someone else’s fault.
    Coddling sensitivity is counter-productive. Confidence and power come from exerting oneself instead of blaming.

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