Survey Finds Glaring Divide in Workplace Discrimination

By Sharon Linstedt
Buffalo News 2-18-02

It’s been nearly 40 years since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went on the books, a measure that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

And over that time period, the American workplace has seen scores of initiatives to inform, educate, monitor and reform employer and employee behavior that violates the federal mandate.

Diversity has emerged as a red hot topic for human relations professionals, and you would be hard-pressed to find a worker who has not been through some level of diversity training, or at minimum, viewed a pamphlet or poster outlining their company’s anti-discrimination efforts. So, on-the-job discrimination must be going the way of the dinosaur, right? According to a new national study, the answer to that question depends on whom you ask.

“A Workplace Divided: How Americans View Discrimination and Race on the Job”, a study conducted by the John J. Heldrich Center for Work Development at Rutgers University, portrays sharply differing views regarding how minorities are treated on the job. According to the research, 46 percent of African-American workers believe they will be treated unfairly by their employers, compared with 10 percent of whites, and 13 percent of persons of other races.

The study also found that 28 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of Hispanic-Americans have personally experienced work-place discrimination, compared with 6 percent of whites.

An overwhelming 94 percent of white workers said employment practices at their place of work, including hiring, promotion and pay, were fair to all, while nearly half of African-American respondents felt opportunities were not metted out equally.

“We found a glaring divide,” said Carl E. Horn, co-director of the survey. “Where you fall on this divide is not about whether you work for the private or public sector, where you live, what you do or how much you make. The most powerful indicators of how discrimination is perceived on the job are whether you are black, Hispanic or white.”

Another telling response involved perceptions of employer response to discrimination charges. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of minority workers who believe they have been the victims of workplace discrimination said their employer either ignored the complaint or took no action.

Lindy Korn, president of Diversity Training, a local firm specializing in workplace-based, anti-discrimination education and dispute resolution, said while the findings of the Rutgers study are discouraging, they are not surprising.

“It’s a slow process. Diversity training is still very new in this country”, Korn said. “Think about how difficult it is to change a long-standing habit. You recognize it’s a lifetime’s work. We expect results will be more generational than annual.”

Korn, who is also a lawyer specializing in workplace issues, said her client list mirrors the survey responses with more than half of discrimination clients being African-American. “Some of the cases are somewhat clear cut, involving hiring or promotions, but many more are subtle, involving harassment and ethnic slurs,” she said.

She noted the continuing prevalence of ethnic jokes with African-Americans as part of the punch line. “I’m still hearing jokes I heard as a child. That tells me that as a society we need more work on respect and sensitivity, and that takes time.”

The Rutgers report also found that a large number of workers have no experience with diversity issues because they work for what are essentially one-color operations. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of American workers report that they have no African-American colleagues and 34 percent say they have no Hispanic co-workers.

Two-thirds who work for employers with fewer than 25 staffers report no African-Americans are part of the mix, while workers at 8 percent of the companies surveyed with 250 or more employees reported having no African-Americans in the workplace. Workers at 15 percent of those larger companies reported having no Hispanic workers.

Local lawyer’s client list mirrors the survey responses with more than half of discrimination clients being African-American