February 23, 2006

New Study of Race in the Workplace Finds White the Most Uncomfortable

White employees with black supervisors experience greater racially based discomfort than do black employees with white supervisors. So finds one of the first studies to directly examine the relationship between worker perceptions of discrimination and demographic differences between workers and their bosses.

"Relational Demography in Supervisor-Subordinate Dyads: An Examination of Discrimination and Exclusionary Treatment" was authored by Dr. Christine Riordan of the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and Dr. Bryan Schaffer of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Dr. Riordan, a professor of management in the Neeley School of Business as well as associate dean for external relations, also holds TCU's Luther Henderson University Chair in Leadership. Much of her previous research in labor-force diversity, human resources, and leadership has been widely published in industry journals, and her work has been cited in many mainstream publications such as Working Mother magazine, Psychology Today, and the New York Times.

The new study recently was presented at the Southern Management Association meeting in Charleston, S.C.

The research analyzed the results of an extensive survey of 1,059 employees at a large Southeastern insurance company, looking at how employee/supervisor dissimilarities in gender, race and age affect employee perceptions of discrimination, supervisor support and relationship quality between workers and their supervisors.

The study discovered striking results for differences in race, but no significant effects for gender and age differences, thus revealing race to be the top demographic concern in the workplace. According to Drs. Riordan and Schaffer, worker/leader relationships are particularly crucial to organizational success and especially vulnerable to the effects of racial dissimilarity.

The study included 125 Caucasian employees with African-American supervisors, 179 African-American employees with Caucasian supervisors, 620 Caucasians with Caucasian supervisors, and 76 African-Americans with African-American supervisors. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were Caucasian and 25 percent were African-American.

"Our most significant findings are that while African-Americans and Caucasians both felt discrimination with racially different supervisors, Caucasians perceived less support from African-American supervisors than did African-Americans with Caucasian supervisors, and being racially different from a supervisor resulted in perceived discrimination that was both subtle and overt," Dr. Riordan says.

Supervisor support included the encouragement, assistance, feedback and advice that employees receive from supervisors. Employees enjoying good relationships with supervisors generally receive more information, access to resources, influence and confidence from their leaders.

Dr. Riordan points out that the study did not measure actual examples of discrimination, but employees' perceptions.

"Sometimes a worker's perception of different racial treatment is really the result of not having been provided enough information. For example, the lack of adequate feedback on employee performance may lead workers to assume racial favoritism when someone else gets a promotion," says Dr. Riordan.

According to the study, white employees may feel greater unease with black supervisors because they are unfamiliar with the situation, whereas black employees are often accustomed to having white supervisors. This discomfort can lead to perceptions of racially unfair treatment.

"Many earlier studies involving race looked at aspects such as employee loyalty and job satisfaction, but not directly at feelings of discrimination," Dr. Riordan says.

She suggests that one way to improve employee/supervisor relations in racially mixed workplaces is for workers and supervisors to seek other common ground.

"We relate better to those with whom we feel a commonality or similarity. People in a demographically mixed environment should seek common ground such as a focus on work-group goals or similarities like children and personal interests," says Dr. Riordan.

"The more similar you are to someone, the more prone you are to like that person. The more you like someone, the more favorable your relationship is, and people tend to be biased toward those with whom they have stronger relationships," she says. "Our study tested this and found it to be true. Our research was a closer test of this theory than has been done before."

Because worker and organizational performance is strongly influenced by the social dynamics of the workplace, one implication is that organizations can benefit by making sure supervisors are aware of who they're favoring and why, and how employees' perceptions may be affected.

"Supervisors form in-groups and out-groups among their workers, and that can be based on race rather than work performance," says Dr. Riordan. "Race remains a main trigger in U.S. society. It's still an issue."


Elaine Cole
Public Relations Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU