Whenever I see the word “victim” in a diversity context I always want to roll my eyes. Not because it’s completely false, but because historically discriminated against groups are already behind the eight ball in so many ways; why slap that pitiful label on us, too?
Labels have power. They prompt negative and positive associations — usually negative — and when it comes to diversity, labels can have layers of bias attached to them as well. The word victim inspires crappy adjectives and images around weakness, pain, suffering, helplessness. Ew.
So, when a release on new research from VitalSmarts crossed my desk this week, I paid attention. The leadership training company asked 500 victims of discrimination — their words, not mine — to share workplace experiences that made them feel excluded, unwelcome, discounted, etc. based on their race, gender, age and a host of other diversity-related criteria.
Now, I’m a journalist, so I always give the word research a gimlet eye. Many studies, even with participant pools this substantial, don’t always pass the sniff test when it comes to credibility or academic validity. You have to beware of agendas, hidden or otherwise, from the research hosts. I’m not saying this research is cracked — I’ve worked with VitalSmarts before — I’m just acknowledging there could be some bias here that I’m not aware of. For instance, I don’t know how these alleged victims were selected.
I talked to my colleague Sarah Kimmel, the director of research at Human Capital Media — home of Workforce magazine — and she said this research looked “fuzzy” and should certainly be considered anecdotal. But it’s not to be completely discounted because the resulting analysis from these vctims’ stories is confined to this particular survey pool.
After analyzing the stories, David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, and Judith Honesty, CEO of Honesty Consulting, found workplace bias to be pervasive, permanent and unmanageable for victims. Specifically:
- Pervasive: 49 percent of victims said the discrimination happens regularly in their workplace.
- Permanent: 66 percent of victims said it has a large impact on their engagement, morale, motivation, commitment and desire to advance in the organization.
- Unmanageable: 60 percent of victims 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 used American psychologist and author Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness to measure the impact of discrimination on employee behavior: frustration, stress, depression and helplessness. They also identified seven themes in the stories indicating the most prevalent types of workplace discrimination. They are:
- 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 etc.
- You’re Not Credible. Employees are interrupted and discounted, excluded from meetings, passed up for high-visibility assignments or promotions, etc. Others hint the perceived lack of credibility is the result of race, sex, age etc.
- 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.
- Anything Goes After Hours. A manager or co-worker makes blatantly racist, sexist, or intolerant comments/jokes about others — customers, people in the news, etc. They feel it’s OK because they’re not at work or because they aren’t talking about an employee.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Whether this study is as sound as a drum or worthy of the side eye, there’s enough truth here to give HR and diversity leaders serious pause. These seven themes reveal a trend of subtle and harmful discrimination in the workplace that people you know or see every day on the job are experiencing. That’s not good.
“We catalogued hundreds of moments where victims were left questioning others’ intentions and their own perceptions,” Honesty said in the release. “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.”
As much flak as diversity-themed training gets for its lack of effectiveness, it’s necessary to combat this kind of discrimination. Unconscious bias training, for instance — if done well — can help to root out the biases we all have but are often unaware of; building awareness is the first step on the road to positive behavioral and cultural change. Then comes the learning. Specifically, how to deal with and prevent the aftermath — low engagement, high turnover, poor retention, subpar performance.
There are no quick fixes to these kinds of problems, but if organizations are willing to make a long-term commitment to build an organizational culture that is not only diverse but inclusive, the business impact — more innovation, higher engagement, easier recruiting and greater performance — can make it all worthwhile. And “victims” becomes just another unfortunate word.
Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.