Forty years have passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to engage in racial employment discrimination in the United States. Many scholars agree that this enactment has played a significant role in reducing this type of discrimination. Indeed, all accounts seem to suggest that blatant or outright prejudice is seen infrequently in modern workplaces. Nevertheless, a new and subtler form of prejudice, which is known as aversive or modern, has taken its place. Holders of these beliefs feel that racial discrimination is a thing of the past, minorities are pushing too hard for further change, and many of the gains attained by minorities have been unwarranted. Consequently, despite legislation outlawing racial discrimination and a reduction in old-fashioned prejudice, systemic inequalities have persisted, racist attitudes have evolved, and discrimination continues.
The purpose of this article is to acquaint readers with the current state of knowledge concerning racial discrimination and its impact on careers. To begin, discrimination is defined comprehensively. Subsequently, the effects of racial discrimination on careers are examined at two stages: pre- and post-organizational entry. At the pre-entry stage, factors such as teacher and guidance counselor prejudice, inequalities in schools, questionable higher education admissions criteria, and biased personnel selection practices are discussed. At the post-entry stage, the focus shifts to systemic discrepancies in human resource management practices such as employee placement, performance appraisal, promotions, compensation, and layoffs. In short, a comprehensive look at how discrimination affects career development and progression is provided.
To provide conceptual clarity, any discussion of discrimination must begin with a definition. Within the context of employment, racial discrimination can take one of two forms: adverse impact or disparate treatment. Adverse impact refers to situations wherein members of a particular racial group are intentionally or inadvertently systemically disadvantaged. For instance, if a cutoff score on a test is used in making hiring decisions and this criterion places Native Americans at a relative disadvantage (i.e., the proportion of Native Americans meeting this threshold is less than four-fifths of that of the majority group), then it can be said that this procedure results in adverse impact. Conversely, disparate treatment is an intentional discrepancy in the treatment afforded to members of different racial groups by employers or fellow employees. For example, executives at Texaco in the 1990s explicitly decided that African Americans in general were less qualified for managerial positions and therefore promoted them considerably less often. In this entry, both forms of discrimination are considered and discussed.
Racial discrimination can have a significant impact on an individual’s career before he or she ever applies for a job. During primary education, which remains highly racially segregated despite the outcome of the Brown v. Board of Education case 50 years ago, minority and majority group members tend to undergo very different experiences. For instance, racial and ethnic minority youth are disproportionately more likely to attend schools that are disadvantaged in terms of the resources (physical and human) available to promote student intellectual and emotional development. Hence, the facilities, educational materials, curricula, and instruction received often tend to be inferior to those experienced by much of the majority group. In addition, minority youth are more likely to drop out of school, which contributes further to their subsequent disadvantaged position in the labor market.
Within this segregated school system, minority youth often encounter teachers and counselors who harbor prejudice and bias against them. For instance, evidence indicates that minority students are disproportionately more likely to be placed in vocational courses and less likely to be placed in college preparatory courses than their majority group counterparts, irrespective of their test scores. Studies also show that teacher prejudice and bias tends to result in lowered expectations of student performance. These lowered expectations produce a type of Pygmalion effect, wherein students are treated differently according to the teachers’ perceptions and ultimately produce outcomes that confirm the teachers’ initial bias. Furthermore, teachers’ low expectations often result in students developing and holding low self-expectations that produce negative self-fulfilling prophecies (i.e., you don’t expect to accomplish much, so you don’t). This helps explain why minorities in secondary and postsecondary education tend to perceive fewer vocational opportunities than their White counterparts. Consequently, before officially beginning their careers, many minorities’ prospects have been irrevocably diminished.
Another obstacle to minority achievement is getting into college. Although other criteria are often involved in the admissions process, the two most important tend to be high school grades and standardized test scores, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American Collegiate Test (ACT). Working against minorities is the fact that high grade point averages earned at economically disadvantaged schools receive less weight during admissions decisions than those from schools with more resources. In addition, a number of questions have been raised regarding whether the SAT and ACT, the most commonly used standardized tests, are culturally biased in favor of majority group members. Regardless of this alleged bias (which has yet to be adequately verified or refuted), a more pressing issue with regard to these tests is their ability to predict collegiate academic performance. Recent research suggests that reports of their validity in this regard may have been exaggerated. Thus, by relying heavily on test scores when making admissions decisions, schools may not only be adversely impacting minorities (who tend to score lower), but the variance in these scores that forms the basis of their decisions may not translate into actual differences in college grades.
Individuals who manage to achieve in spite of the aforementioned obstacles must then obtain employment befitting their credentials. Despite laws prohibiting discriminatory personnel selection, recent empirical results suggest that inequalities persist. In fact, evidence indicates that many employers consider a White male candidate with a criminal record to be more hirable than a Black male without one. Merely being thought to be a minority may be enough to disqualify applicants from further consideration. For instance, having a name linked to minority groups (e.g., Jamal or Lakisha) on one’s resume considerably decreases the probability of receiving a callback from a prospective employer. Furthermore, increasing the quality of the credentials on the resume has no effect for these individuals, irrespective of whether the position applied for is at the entry level or executive level. One potential explanation for such blatant discrimination is that those responsible for hiring have formulated or encountered business-oriented rationales for why the company should hire majority, as opposed to minority, group members. Individuals who endorse the tenets of modern racism tend to view these rationales as an adequate justification to discriminate against minorities.
After the initial stages of job seeking, discrimination often continues to act as a hurdle to be overcome. Many companies use cognitive ability tests to screen job applicants. Although these tests usually do an adequate job of predicting performance, their use as a screening mechanism often has an adverse impact on the hiring of minorities. Furthermore, interviewers, who are often White, tend to be biased in favor of members of their own racial and ethnic groups. More recently, these findings have been extended to include panel interviews, indicating that panels are apt to discriminate against minorities unless there are minorities on the panel. Interestingly, it appears that even when interviews do not introduce racial bias into the selection process, interviewers may retain prejudiced impressions of the minority applicants (e.g., that they are less intelligent than White applicants) that they have chosen to hire. Clearly, discrimination remains an obstacle to attaining employment for many racial and ethnic minority group members.
Unfortunately, the impact of racial discrimination on careers is not limited solely to the preemployment experiences discussed above. In fact, research suggests that it may be equally, if not more, pervasive after minorities have been hired. Initially, minorities tend to be placed under the supervision, and in the immediate company, of other minorities when hired. Although the repercussions of this practice may not be immediately apparent, its implications for the careers of minorities are grave. By limiting the workplace interaction between minority employees and their majority coworkers and supervisors, who tend to hold the balance of power within U.S. organizations, companies are constraining minorities’ advancement and developmental opportunities. Effectively, these individuals are less able to form mentoring relationships with those in power, less likely to be assigned to work on high-level projects, and less likely to be identified early as prospective future organizational leaders.
Discrimination also tends to rear its head in the process of performance appraisal. Evidence indicates that minorities receive lower performance evaluations and subsequently are less often recommended for promotions. Although many experts have contended that these differences are attributable to actual performance differences, several findings suggest otherwise. Rather, it appears that even after accounting for any existing differences in human and social capital, racial differences in promotions persist. It has been demonstrated recently that the impact of these promotional discrepancies increases over time. This suggests that employers, indeed, are engaging in discriminatory appraisal processes and that the effects of this type of discrimination on minorities grows over the course of their careers. These artificial constraints on minorities’ career advancement possibilities collectively represent what is commonly referred to as the glass ceiling effect.
Given the inequalities in placement, appraisals, and promotions cited above, it is not surprising that a considerable pay gap remains between the compensation received by majority and minority group members.
This gap is especially prominent for Hispanics and those of African descent who receive between 70 and 75 cents for every dollar received by their White counterparts in comparable positions. Similar to promotions, it appears that these disparities in compensation cannot be attributed solely to differences in human capital. Instead, majority group members tend to enjoy disproportionately favorable returns for their human capital investments (e.g., education, training, experience) relative to their minority counterparts. In fact, evidence indicates that minorities even receive lower payoffs than comparable White employees when switching jobs from one organization to another. Furthermore, the latter are more likely to have social ties to organization members who aid them in negotiating higher starting salaries. Perhaps even more disturbing is that any initial pay gaps only tend to widen with time, leaving minorities further disadvantaged as their careers progress.
A less often discussed source of discrimination that affects minorities originates from customer preferences, whether they are actual or perceived. It seems that organizations whose clientele are primarily White are less likely to hire minorities based on their belief that their customers prefer to see employees of their own racial or ethnic group. This tendency to try and match employees to customers is even more pronounced when the degree of employee-customer contact required for the positions is high. Accordingly, the race of a company’s customers also predicts wages. Organizations that hire more minorities are those that serve a greater proportion of minorities and, therefore, typically pay their employees lower wages. What this means for minorities is that their occupational options often are restricted to those organizations that pay less and cater primarily to members of their own groups.
Further complicating the careers of minorities is the old adage “last hired, first fired,” which suggests that minorities are discriminated against in the making of termination as well as selection decisions. Belief in this adage appears to be relatively high among minority and majority group members alike. In fact, minorities have reported perceiving greater discrimination concerning terminations than hires. Moreover, 72 percent of all respondents in a recent study reported believing that minorities are unfairly targeted for layoffs. Recent experimental evidence corroborates this belief, indicating that White employees are less likely to be laid off than non-White (e.g., Asian American, African American, and Hispanic) employees.
In conjunction with the discrimination experienced when attempting to secure employment, this contributes to a vicious cycle of unemployment that disrupts the careers of many minorities.
A final, and somewhat less systemic, form of racial discrimination occurs in the form of prejudice and harassment from coworkers. Despite the fact that these actions are less likely to be formally institutionalized than those discussed thus far, the impact on victims’ careers can be equally damaging. For instance, the amount of prejudice and discrimination one experiences elevates stress levels, blood pressure, and reported illness while deteriorating mental health and general well-being. Studies show that many minorities are exposed to discriminatory treatment at work on a routine, if not daily, basis. Such hostile environments are said to have a negative diversity climate, which tends to lower commitment to the organization and one’s career, and satisfaction with one’s job, manager, and career. As might be expected, more diverse companies tend to have more positive diversity climates, and consequently, voluntary turnover among minorities is considerably lower in these organizations. Thus the impact of this consistent disparate treatment on the career development of its recipients is significant.
It is important to note that all racial and ethnic minorities tend to experience discrimination. Whereas most examination of the topic has focused on African and Hispanic Americans, some evidence indicates that those of Asian descent often are victims of discrimination as well. In particular, there appears to be a glass ceiling limiting the advancement prospects for members of this group as well. This is an important realization, because many readers likely endorse the “model minority” stereotype (i.e., that Asian Americans exhibit positive characteristics that make them distinct from other minorities) and therefore may doubt the occurrence of discrimination against this group.
Although the moniker “reverse discrimination” is a misnomer, because discrimination does not inherently require that its victims be of a particular race, it is important to acknowledge that minorities are not alone in reporting experiences of racial discrimination. In fact, survey data suggest that a considerable proportion of majority group members believe that they have been discriminated against because of their racial group membership. Experimental research investigating this topic, however, is relatively limited. Consequently, it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of confidence the extent to which White employees are subjected to racial discrimination in American workplaces.
The fact that the level of discrimination faced by racial and ethnic minorities is less than it once was is encouraging. Nevertheless, it remains a pervasive deterrent to career success. Its impact in many cases can be traced from inequalities and discriminatory treatment during childhood and adolescence, to biased human resource management criteria and systems. Its presence is felt as well in many everyday interactions between minority and majority group members. Many scholars argue that legislative changes have contributed to a marked decline in the significance of race in the workplace. Nevertheless, the findings of several recent studies clearly demonstrate that employment discrimination remains prevalent. Moreover, until systematic inequalities impacting early career development are addressed, efforts to achieve post-entry equality (e.g., affirmative action plans, diversity management programs) will have only marginal utility in leveling the playing field. In sum, it is impossible to comprehend the impact of racial discrimination on minorities’ careers without considering the entire career.
- Affirmative action
- Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Civil Rights Act of 1991
- Glass ceiling
- Pygmalion effect
- Reverse discrimination
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