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The Stress of Workplace Discrimination

What Can Employers and Employees Do?

The Stress of Workplace Discrimination

How to Respond to Workplace Discrimination

When Audrey Murrell's mother was a biology student in the 1950s, she was told that she had to wait for all the white students to finish their experiments before she could use the lab.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when Murrell was a graduate student herself. The discrimination she faced was not as blatant but just as real. She was excluded from study groups, and other students would take all the copies of homework assignments before she could get one.

"You're left with this feeling of ‘is this discrimination, or is it me, or is it them?'" says Murrell, associate professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. "You know it's them, [but] it's just harder to prove, because it's not obvious discrimination."

Discrimination in the workplace and academia leads to more than just a bad day. It takes a toll on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of employees and students.

"There are two broad categories of overt discrimination -- threats and intimidation," says Murrell, who for the past 15 years has researched issues such as affirmative action, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment and mentoring practices. "It's clear [these are] discrimination. Then there are subtle forms of discrimination that are more challenging and harder to detect."

Workplace Discrimination Is Common

Forty-six percent of African American workers believe they have been treated unfairly by their employers, compared with 10 percent of whites, according to a 2002 Rutgers University study, "A Workplace Divided: How Americans View Discrimination and Race on the Job." The study also found 28 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Hispanics/Latinos have experienced workplace discrimination, compared with 6 percent of whites.

"Often, the burden falls on the worker to prove that he or she is being discriminated against," says Murrell. "This can lead to a lot of self-doubt and lack of confidence. Then you're likely to see withdrawal, detaching oneself from the job, which leads to internal bitterness and anger."

The feelings of hopelessness, mistrust, despair and alienation common among people facing bias don't stop at the end of the workday. Stress and depression don't just affect employees at work but also at home among family, friends and loved ones.

Hard to Ask for Help

A related issue is the stigma that still surrounds mental health and illness in the African American community. "There's this belief that we have to appear strong at all times," Murrell says. "Many of us don't believe in going to a therapist and discussing our personal business with a stranger. [But] bias and the way it affects our physical and emotional state has very real consequences. Employers have to take notice as well, because these things will negatively impact performance."

What Should Employers Do?

Murrell says employers can address workplace bias through the following actions:

  • Recognize the difference between job level and job title. An employee may be granted a particular title, but if the level of responsibility and challenges haven't changed, the worker can feel he is being appeased and that he isn't fully trusted or valued within the organization.
  • Examine barriers to both entry and advancement.
  • Study companies that consistently do things right. Pay attention to diversity leaders, and integrate their best practices into your workplace culture.
  • Concentrate on targeted recruitment strategies.
  • Create focused employee-development initiatives such as formal mentorship programs that equalize resources and facilitate diversity.
  • Form affinity or diversity groups within the company.

What Should Employees Do?

Workers also play an important part. According to Murrell, they should:

  • Participate in company-sponsored affinity and networking groups.
  • Join external professional organizations.
  • Develop informal social support networks made up of people who can offer insight into workplace issues.
  • Consider therapy or counseling. Community-based employee assistance programs also offer more holistic approaches to dealing with workplace issues.
  • Seek out a job coach who can help you move to the next level in your career.
  • Keep a detailed log of events in case you decide to file a complaint with your supervisors, human resources department, union, a lawyer and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

"Today's discrimination is a lot more subtle," Murrell says. "If we don't tell younger people out there that discrimination has taken a different form, then they'll think they're the problem."


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