Workplace discrimination: if they don’t fit, they call in sick

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Workplace discrimination: if they don’t fit, they call in sick

“Diversity” is a central buzzword in our business and labor-related vocabulary, functioning as either a mark of distinction or open flank of today’s employers. Many people believe it is enough to hire a small number of currently under-represented groups such as women in classic “male” professions, older employees in young teams (or the reverse, of course). The initially uncomfortable situation makes everybody reflect on and abandon their prejudice, leading to a burst of creativity and productivity in the now “diverse” team. But is this way of bringing diversity to the workplace a recipe for success?

This is the question that a team of researchers set out to answer. They wanted to understand how teamwork is implemented in today’s work environments, and can it be improved given a better understanding of the dynamics in diversely-composed teams. This is not a topic heretofore ignored by academia, obviously, there are in fact dozens of pertinent studies. Many have been in TR.

What the researchers say: “Unfortunately, much of the work done up to now has resulted in unclear or even conflicting statements,” the lead author explains. “For instance, some studies have found that male-dominated teams function more effectively once one or two women join them, but others have found the opposite, while others could not find a significant effect either way. And yet there is a sure conviction that diversity is automatically of benefit to companies.”

The researchers are skeptical about this popular conclusion based on little evidence. They believe that the existing studies’ inconsistency might have its roots in the fact that most only pick one point in time, instead of observing the workplace behavior of employees who do not fit in with their teams demographically over time.

Looking to change this, the researchers set out to observe more than 800 teams in a big Swiss-based service company over the course of seven years—the largest such study so far. They focused on two attributes of new team members, gender and age, two characteristics prone to prejudice. The researcher’s hypothesis: the more unequal a new team member, the earlier and the more easily they will find themselves subject to discrimination. These so-called anchoring events then go on to shape the subjects’ perceptions of teamwork for years to come.

To measure dissatisfaction and lack of integration, the researchers counted absences from work (except regular holidays, training, mother’s leave etc.). They expected more dissimilar team members to have more “sickies.”

“We evaluated 2,711 employees in total: date of team entry, team composition, team swaps, absenteeism—all completely anonymously,” the lead researcher reported. “The trend is pretty obvious: during their first year on a new team, new members remain inconspicuous regardless of their fit. But after that, the curve rises, and quite steeply in many cases. After a few years, women in traditionally male teams, and older employees in younger teams, are absent almost twice as much as their colleagues in teams where they have a good fit. It comes down to about eight annual days of absence compared to four, which is pretty significant.”

“Of course, non-average team members don’t automatically and constantly skip work!”said the co-author. "We have not been looking into individual workloads and performance, or into individual work biographies, that remains for a follow-up study to tackle. Moreover, our study is limited to a blue-collar environment, where prejudices towards women and older co-workers are more pronounced. But all in all, I think we can safely draw the conclusion that women in male-dominated, as well as older employees in younger environments experience more discrimination. And this experience of discrimination increases over time.”

So, what? The researchers hope that their results will give companies and organizations looking to increase diversity some pointers on how to do so successfully. Employees that do not fit in with most of their teams demographically, require increased attention and support, especially when starting out—and team leaders ought to be aware of and prepared for these needs. This way instances of discrimination can be mitigated.

Companies might want to keep that in mind if only for selfish reasons: after all, a badly-integrated employee can easily cause them significant losses.

Overall, diversity can be turned into collaboration by encouraging a focus on what employees have in common and not how they are different.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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