Another Downside to the Downturn: Workplace Discrimination Increases

Posted: March 4, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

When the economy worsens, what happens to diversity programs and affirmative action policies in the workplace?

Eden King
Eden King
Photo by Evan Cantwell

New research by Eden King, Mason assistant professor of psychology, suggests that workplace discrimination can actually increase when people feel threatened by outside factors such as finances.

A recent study by King and co-researchers showed that people who support diversity programs have changing attitudes in times of economic strife. In addition, those in hiring positions may be less likely to hire a minority job applicant in an economic downturn.

Many workers are experiencing negative financial repercussions, including reduction in bonuses, fewer promotions, furloughs and layoffs. Competition for fewer jobs and resources often increases stigmatization and tension among workers and can leave minority groups as real outsiders, King says.

“The reality is, diversity programs and disadvantaged groups may be the first to go in times of economic uncertainty,” says King. “This causes real problems for people of socially disadvantaged groups.”

King and her co-authors found that when white men and women were told that the economy might take a downturn, and were then asked to evaluate four equally qualified candidates for a job, they favored the white male candidate. On the other hand, when another group of white men and women believed that the economy might improve, they tended to favor the female Hispanic candidate.

“In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points,” says King. “But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that’s when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head.”

King says that managers and human resources employees should be cautious about prejudice in today’s unstable workplace.

“They need to understand that the short-term solution of cutting diversity programs might ultimately end up costing them even more in the long run.”

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