Discriminatory Managers Negatively Impact Output of All Workers

A recent study by Nicholas Heiserman of Oklahoma State University and Brent Simpson of the University of South Carolina finds that when people work for discriminatory managers, they put in less effort. That’s true both when managers are biased against them and when they’re biased in their favor.

Researchers placed nearly 1,200 participants in several experiments designed to mimic work settings, where they and other “workers” made decisions about how much effort to dedicate to a task.

In some experiments, participants complete number searches — by counting how many times “3” appeared in a large table of numbers, for example. The more searches a participant completed, the higher their effort was rated. Participants, working in pairs or in small groups, were told that their manager would award a bonus to one person based on how many number searches the workers completed.

To create a discriminatory situation, participants were told that there were two types of employees: blue and red. Participants were always assigned to be blue. One-third of the participants were told that the manager had a bias against blue employees, while another third were told that the manager was biased in their favor. The rest didn’t receive any information one way or the other.

We found that those workers who knew their managers discriminated — whether it was for them or against them — completed fewer number searches than participants in the control group. They also found that even though working for a discriminatory boss made everyone put in less effort, the disadvantaged showed the largest decline.

The authors conclude that this could lead to a vicious cycle, where targets of discrimination respond by putting in less effort than advantaged workers. In turn, their managers may come to see them as lazier, less competent, or less deserving of promotions — which can strengthen their original biases.

The full paper, Discrimination Reduces Work Effort of Those Who Are Disadvantaged and Those Who Are Advantaged by It,” was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. It may be accessed here.

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