Enjoying Your Work

Richard Brislin

Monday, May 17, 2004

Power to reduce prejudice
lies with company executives

When people meet others for the first time, they often search for reasons that might lead to discovering they are members of the same groups -- questions such as, "What high school did you attend?" or "What country did your grandparents come from?"

People become more comfortable with others once they identify a shared background or common interests. This natural tendency to form group ties leads to dangers if others are placed into outgroups and become the target of prejudicial behavior. In the workplace, prejudice takes the form of excluding others from informal conversations at the water cooler, lack of opportunities for promotion, and unequal distribution of company benefits such as parking, office space and secretarial support.

Prejudices can be changed and companies can become more egalitarian. Organizations can develop a reputation as being good places to work regardless of people's ethnicity, religion, gender or other reason that might lead to the formation of ingroups and outgroups. But achieving this goal takes a great deal of time, effort and investment of resources. Over the next few weeks, I'll present recommendations based on research studies that have dealt with the goal of prejudice reduction.

The first requirement is that a company's executives must vigorously support programs aimed at prejudice reduction and improved intergroup relations. Administrators must make it clear that an organization's employees cannot engage in discriminatory behavior and cannot show evidence of negative attitudes toward any group of people. Executives must demonstrate this type of tolerance in their own behavior. In other words, executives must become models of the behaviors that they want employees to emulate.

Over a period of years, employees become very skillful at making distinctions between what executives say and what the executives actually want. If executives pay only "lip service" to improved intergroup relations, then employees will not change their behaviors. Executives must make their goals clear, and they must communicate to employees that there will be consequences if the goals are not met.

Another requirement is that all employees have equal status within the organization regardless of their group memberships (ethnicity, gender, perceived handicap and so forth). This requirement follows from the analysis of administrative support since a company's executives have to oversee and enforce efforts to achieve equal status. The goal of equal status means that everyone in the organization has equal access to rewards and benefits. These include outcomes such as jobs with the highest salaries, paid attendance at training programs to improve job skills, and invitations to meetings where company policy is set.

Many times, administrators will have to have goals for positive intergroup relations that do not exist in the larger society. They will have to say, "There may be prejudice and discrimination in different parts of this city. People from minority groups may not have access to the best schools, membership in prestigious social clubs and other opportunities to improve themselves. However, in this organization this type of prejudice and discrimination will not be tolerated. Everyone will have equal access to all benefits that employment in this company can offer." In addition to their verbal communications, executives will advance their goals if they identify and reward employees whose behavior clearly indicates that they accept these policies.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office:


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