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

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


      White employees with Black supervisors experience greater racially based discomfort than do Blacks with White supervisors, 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. Bryan Schaffer of the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Dr. Christine M. Riordan of Texas Christian University.

      The research analyzed the results of a 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 revealed no significant differences in opinion in regards to gender or age, but found notable results for racial difference. According to the authors, worker/leader relationships are particularly crucial to organizational success and especially vulnerable to the effects of racial dissimilarity.

      The study included 125 White employees with Black supervisors, 179 Black employees with White supervisors, 620 Whites with White supervisors, and 76 Blacks with Black supervisors. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were White and 25 percent were Black.

      “Our most significant findings are that while Blacks and Whites both felt discrimination with racially different supervisors, Whites perceived less support from Black supervisors than did Blacks with White supervisors, and being racially different from a supervisor resulted in perceived discrimination that was both subtle and overt,” Riordan says.

      Riordan points out that the study did not measure actual examples of discrimination, only employees’ perceptions. Sometimes a worker’s perception of different racial treatment is really the result of not having been provided enough information. 

      “For example, sometimes the lack of adequate feedback on employee performance may lead workers to assume racial favoritism when someone else gets a promotion,” Riordan says.

      According to the study, White employees may feel greater unease with Black supervisors because they are unfamiliar with the situation, whereas Blacks 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,” 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,” she says. “People in a demographically mixed environment should seek commonalities such as a focus on work-group goals or similarities like children and personal interests.”

      “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,” Riordan 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 ingroups and outgroups among their workers, and that can be based on race rather than work performance,” says Riordan. “Race remains a main trigger in U.S. society. It’s still an issue.”

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