December 06, 2006


Workplace discrimination has a legal definition, but much of the anti-diversity hostility in the workplace falls outside the reach of courtroom remedies. Complicating the issue: while the emotional and psychological feelings associated with workplace discrimination and hostility are indefinable, they are just as costly to everyone involved. Complex as the situation is, addressing it is vital to the interests of businesses and their employees.

So say diversity experts Dr. Christine Riordan of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Dr. Melenie Lankau of the University of Georgia, and Dr. Julie Holiday Wayne of Wake Forest University. The three wrote "It Is All in How You View It: Factors Contributing to Perceptions of a Hostile Work Climate," a pivotal chapter in Diversity Resistance in Organizations , a collection of new essays offering probing insights into labor-force diversity challenges. The book is scheduled to be published in spring 2007 by Lawrence Erlbaum. The essay was also presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Academy of Management in August in Atlanta, Georgia.

"We focused this chapter on individuals' perceptions of their work climate. Our goal was to make business managers and academic researchers aware that harassment extends far beyond the legal definitions," says Dr. Riordan, a professor of management in the Neeley School of Business at TCU and a leading authority on labor-force diversity.

"Most of the previous literature examined legally defined harassment, but we looked at perceived hostility from the targets' point of view. It's crucial to understand the factors contributing to perceptions of hostility because serious negative outcomes result from those perceptions," she says.

Several employee characteristics are protected from discrimination under federal law, including race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age and disability. For harassment to be illegal, the affected individual must be in a protected class and the target of severe or pervasive conduct.

But workers needn't be members of a protected class or the victims of overt hostility to feel they are in an unfriendly, unwelcoming environment, says Dr. Riordan. "A situation doesn't have to reach the level of legal status to be costly."

Targeted individuals may experience stress, depression, anger, illness, fear, anxiety, damaged self esteem, a sense of being devalued and excluded, reduced organizational commitment, low job satisfaction, and derailed career aspirations, among others.

For organizations, the costs include high absenteeism, high turnover, low morale, poor employee performance, reduced work output, lost revenues, potential lawsuits and a damaged reputation.

Certain characteristics of the coworkers, the workplace, and the victims themselves all contribute to perceptions of hostility, says Dr. Riordan. The contributing characteristics of coworkers include being members of the demographic majority, a lack of experience in multicultural environments, prejudicial beliefs, conscious or unconscious biases, insensitivity to social cues, and insufficient social skills.

Characteristics of the workplace include the demography of the workforce, demographic differences between managers and subordinates, established behavioral and structural norms within work groups, attitudes and conduct of top managers, and organizational policies and practices.

For the victims, their own characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs strongly influence their perceptions of hostility. Factors include membership in an underrepresented group, a high motivation to achieve (resulting in vigilance against success-inhibiting conditions), a greater sensitivity toward inequities, and a personal history of being harassed or discriminated against.

The good news: "Employers can take many practical, proactive steps to prevent or address the factors that contribute to perceptions of hostility in the workplace," says Dr. Riordan.

Here are some suggested steps that companies can take: 

  •   Strive to recognize all forms of discrimination, including those that are overt, subtle and
  •   Implement strong, clear organizational policies and practices explicitly encompassing all
      forms of discrimination and
      harassment, not just those that are legally actionable.
  •   Organize training programs in multicultural interpersonal skills, and in recognizing 
      and eliminating biases and stereotypes.
  •   Hire workers who display multicultural tolerance, and terminate employees who persist in
      behaving inappropriately.
  •   Require those in authority, from top managers to unit supervisors, to intervene in cases of
      discriminatory or harassing behavior, and to exhibit the desired behaviors.

In short, businesses should strive to create inclusive, welcoming work environments for all individuals. Anything less carries the potential to wreak great harm on organizations and their employees.  


Elaine Cole
Public Relations Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU