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Study examines causes of workplace discrimination

Researchers believe that friendliness toward similar people, not hostility toward those who are different, is to blame for many cases of discrimination.

When asked to identify the reasons why someone might discriminate against another person in the workplace, most people might say that hostility over differences plays a role. That is, one person dislikes another because he is different somehow. New research shows, however, that hostility due to differences is not the driving force behind many cases of discrimination, but rather favoritism.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, Santa Cruz examined data collected from over 50 years of studies regarding discrimination. Surprisingly, in most cases, the discrimination discovered in psychological studies arose from instances of individuals attempting to help people rather than to harm them. Nevertheless, in most of these studies, the authors considered discrimination to be a function of only hostile feelings, not friendly ones.

The authors of the recent study, published in the journal American Psychologist, propose that many instances of discrimination stem from individuals watching out for members of their “ingroups.” An ingroup is a group of people an individual feels some sort of connection with – this connection can be based on any number of factors, including race, gender or even neighborhood or occupation. An “outgroup” is a group of people that an individual is unable to identify with personally, no matter the reason.

The authors of this review are optimistic that their research will help experts better identify and prevent instances of discrimination in all walks of life, including the workplace. While overtly discriminatory policies have been on the decline in the U.S. for several decades, it is clear that instances of discrimination based on ingroup affiliation remain quite common. What is worse, this type of discrimination is particularly pernicious because of its subtlety: when asked to recommend someone for a job, for example, an individual is much more likely to sing the praises of someone similar to him. No hostility toward others who are different may be present, but the overall result is the same.

While the U.S. has made great strides since the 1960s in developing laws to protect everyone in the workplace from discrimination, the reality is that it is still a significant problem. Those who believe that they have been discriminated against at work due to race, disability, age or gender should consider speaking to an experienced employment law attorney. An employment law attorney can provide you with expert legal advice tailored to your circumstances and can recommend what steps to take next. Do not delay, speak to an employment law attorney today.

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