Wednesday, February 22, 2012 Strategic Human Resource Management Blog
Business Ethics: Speaking Out Against Workplace Discrimination by Maria Triana

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees filed a record number of workplace discrimination charges against employers in 2011. In addition to being morally wrong, workplace discrimination is expensive for employers. Even the perception of discrimination can lead to high turnover, low morale, and legal action.

In a 2011 article published in the Journal of Business Ethics (DOI 10.1007/s10551-011-0817-x), my colleagues and I report disturbing findings based on our study of whether and how employees respond when they witness workplace discrimination against minority co-workers. We found that when organizations were perceived to discriminate against minority employees, other workers generally did not try to help the targets of discrimination. Contrary to the idea that discrimination should inspire people to aid the victims, it appears that mistreatment of minorities at work may be met with a “bystander effect” (when multiple people observe an urgent situation but fail to act because the responsibility to intervene does not rest on any one person.)

However, our research did find one important exception to this troubling apathy: in the face of workplace discrimination, employees who place high personal value on diversity were more likely to assist the targeted individuals. From a practical perspective, it is important for organizations to recruit and retain employees who value diversity in order to neutralize the bystander effect and thus increase the chances that someone will intervene in instances of discrimination.  The Wisconsin School of Business recently hosted a bias literacy workshop which sparked much discussion about diversity and discrimination in the workplace. This workshop is one example of ways in which the Wisconsin School of Business contributes to diversity discussions that promote ethical and fair workplaces.