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Discrimination in the workplace

January 30, 2023
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Workplace discrimination impacts the lives and livelihoods of significant numbers of U.S. workers each year, damaging the health of companies as well as the people who work in them.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing many of the federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination, received more than 1.8 million complaint filings from 1997 through 2021, including 72,675 in 2021 alone.1

Addressing workplace discrimination is mission-critical

Understanding and effectively addressing discrimination in the workplace is a critical business competency taught by leading management researchers and practitioners, including Jennica Webster, Ph.D., of the Marquette online Master in Management (MiM) program.

Read on for an overview of federal workplace discrimination laws and an abstract of the recent Oxford Research Encyclopedia publication by Dr. Webster and her collaborator from Macquarie University, Dr. Raymond Trau, on the related topic of "Sexual Orientation (LGBTQ+) Issues in I&O Psychology."

I/O psychologists study humans at work

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology as "the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace. The specialty focuses on deriving principles of individual, group and organizational behavior and applying this knowledge to the solution of problems at work."

I/O psychologists use their research and expertise to improve organizational climate and help resolve problems in the context of organized work, including unfair treatment and discriminatory behavior. Dr. Webster is an award-winning researcher and educator whose work, shaped by her training as an I/O psychologist, focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion.2

Working definitions of discrimination and harassment

Discrimination in this context means unfair employee treatment based on a personal characteristic such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability or status as a protected veteran. It refers to employer actions such as discrimination in hiring, promotions, salary and job assignments. Harassment is unwelcome conduct of a discriminatory or sexual nature by anyone in the context of work, whether that is a supervisor, co-worker or customer.3

The EEOC and federal employment discrimination laws

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal employment discrimination laws. In addition to federal law, there are state laws addressing employment practices. The EEOC enforces anti-discrimination laws including:4

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991, Sections 102 and 103
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Sections 501 and 505
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

You can find summary information on all these laws on the EEOC website. The most sweeping and familiar legislation regarding employment practices is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Discrimination prohibited by Title VII

In Title VII, lawmakers recognized the vulnerability of different groups of people by naming each as a protected class. The list of protected classes includes:5

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Sex

The law protects people from being treated unfairly because of protected characteristics from the hiring process through all aspects of employment, including salary, benefits, promotions, discipline, layoffs, and firing. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits employers from retaliating against someone who has filed a discrimination claim against them. It also mandates that employers protect their workers from harassment based on one of the included classes, including sexual harassment, from all sources.

The protected class of "sex" has been amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to include medical conditions related to childbearing. In Bostock v Clayton County, the Supreme Court affirmed that this protected class also shields people from gender discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.6

Discrimination is more than just a legal liability

Aside from the moral imperative to treat workers fairly, organizations found guilty of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act or the other laws EEOC enforces may be required to pay punitive and compensatory damages.

The economic ramifications of discrimination extend much further. Investors are well aware of the business value of diversity at work and are increasingly likely to evaluate companies based on their organizational culture as part of their ESG investment criteria.7

Workplace discrimination is bad for business

Employment discrimination and workplace harassment are antithetical to diverse, inclusive workplaces. Research has shown that inclusive workplace cultures supporting diverse employees enjoy a 12% performance premium. Workers are also 20% more likely to stay with the company, reducing costs associated with turnover.8

Marquette professor authors reference work on sexual and gender minorities at work

Dr. Webster, associate professor of management and co-director of Marquette University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership, is the first author of a chapter on "Sexual Orientation (LGBTQ+) Issues in I&O Psychology" in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, published online on September 15, 2022.9

The chapter provides a brief overview of U.S. legal history regarding discrimination against sexual and gender minorities (SGM) in the workplace; a summary of current research on the prevalence and effects of SGM discrimination; and a thumbnail of SGM individuals’ coping strategies. The research summary highlights the adverse effects of discrimination on both the minority worker and the organization.

Noting the fluidity of language, the authors use the term "sexual and gender minorities" to refer to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer.

While they caution against the danger of overgeneralizing effects and outcomes, Webster and Trau draw some high-level recommendations for organizational and individual mitigation techniques from the body of research cited.

SGM workplace discrimination is widespread

Surveys show that nearly one-third of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals have experienced workplace discrimination, as have almost half of people identifying as transgender or gender nonbinary.

Interpersonal discrimination is even more widespread, with members of different sexual and gender minorities experiencing aggressive behavior from co-workers in varying amounts. Between 45 and 57% of minority respondents in the various surveys cited said they were the targets of aggressive peer behavior, including slurs, gender mischaracterizations and offensive comments.

Microaggressions are unintentional or unconscious offensive behaviors, including slights, insults and invalidations. They contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment for the SGM individual.

Discrimination hurts both the target and the organization

Employment discrimination related to hiring, evaluations, and promotions, and interpersonal discrimination, including harassment and microaggressions, can cause great suffering for the target while undercutting the organization’s productivity and financial performance.

Similar to the results for recipients of racially and ethnically motivated microaggressions, SGM targets experience lower self-esteem, well-being, and job satisfaction. They report increased trauma, negative emotions, emotional exhaustion, and paranoid cognition, which is a psychological state characterized by hypervigilance, sinister attributions, and rumination.

SGM individuals may conceal their identity to avoid discriminatory treatment at work. This can, in turn, lead to increased anxiety and internal conflict.

On the organizational level, these effects contribute to lower productivity and higher turnover, ultimately damaging corporate performance. Conversely, recent research has linked inclusive workplaces to better corporate financial performance and national-level economic development.

Legal and societal attitudes are shifting

Webster and Trau note that the legal and societal environment for SGM inclusion is dynamic, with recent changes trending toward more support for SGM workplace rights.

Ninety-three percent of U.S. people surveyed in 2019 “now agree that ‘gay people’ should have equal employment rights, up from just 56% in 1977.”9

The Supreme Court ruled in the 2015 case, Obergfell v Hodges, that same-sex couples were entitled to the same spousal employment benefits as heterosexual couples.

In 2017, a 1953 Executive Order that prohibited federal agencies from hiring gay and lesbian employees was revoked.

In the landmark 2020 case, Bostock v Clayton County, the Supreme Court held that “discrimination against SGMs is a type of sex discrimination and therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”9

Organizations across sectors are revising their nondiscrimination policies to include those with SGM identities and have begun to create corporate-sponsored diversity training programs and employee resource groups.

Formal and informal support improves SGM workplace outcomes

Leadership support of SGM-inclusive practices and anti-discrimination policies is essential for improving SGM workers’ outcomes. So too, are the attitudes and actions of colleagues and supervisors. In fact, supportive interpersonal relationships appear to be more critical than organizational characteristics or policies. “Researchers found that supervisor support was related to job satisfaction and co-worker support was related to life satisfaction.”9

Organizational strategies fostering inclusion

Anti-discrimination policies do more than just delineate acceptable and unacceptable behavior; they also signal welcome to their SGM employees and help other employees understand corporate values. Such policies support a diversity climate and positive social interactions in the workplace, leading to organization-wide benefits that can include better work-related attitudes and less psychological strain as workers can be their authentic selves.

Individual strategies for supporting SGM colleagues

Given the salience of socially supportive interpersonal relationships in shaping psychological outcomes at work, creating a climate that encourages co-workers to support and advocate for SGMs is an important byproduct of anti-discrimination policies.

In the absence of such policies, those who would be SGM allies need to have more oppositional courage—the willingness to face official or unofficial backlash for advocating for the rights of their SGM colleagues. Webster and Trau observe that would-be allies can also be inhibited by fear of an adverse reaction from the person they’re attempting to support. Noting that each situation has its own dynamic, they conclude:

“In general, SGM individuals want allies to (a) respect and support them, (b) provide them a sense of safety, and (c) stand up for them and speak up if needed to ensure that they are treated fairly.”9

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