New Study Explores Workplace Racial Slurs

March 7, 2013
Diversity, Management

Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette suggests a new reason slurs remain in the workplace

Watch Rosette talk about the findings in this video.

Racial slurs remain a problem in the workplace, and efforts to eliminate them should focus not only on those making the slurs but on those who observe them and remain silent -- especially white men, a researcher at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business says in a new paper. 

Working with colleagues at universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, Ashleigh Shelby Rosette reports in the paper that white men are more likely than others to overhear racial slurs in work settings but may be less likely to speak up about them. Their paper, "Why Do Racial Slurs Remain Prevalent in the Workplace: Integrating Theory on Intergroup Behavior," has been published online in the journal Organization Science. 

In a series of studies with data collected from 2003 to 2012, Rosette along with researchers from London Business SchoolWestern New England University, and McGill University assessed which racial groups -- whites or blacks, males or females -- were likely to be users, targets or observers of racial slurs, and which racial groups would be likely to speak out against slurs. 

The first study was a survey of 471 full-time working adults recruited by a research firm. All were U.S. residents and either black or white. They worked in a variety of industries, including health care, education and manufacturing, and ranged in age from 21-65. The participants were asked questions about whether they were the target of racial slurs at work. Those survey results were then analyzed to determine which group was most likely to be targeted by slurs.

"Whites were less likely to report being targeted by blacks than blacks were to report that they were targeted by whites," the paper said. The authors also found a higher probability that white men would target black men than white women would target black women.

The second study analyzed data collected by a research consulting firm for five years. The average age of the more than 2,400 participants was almost 44 years old and each was working full-time.  All participants were either black or white U.S. residents, and they were asked how often they heard racial slurs at work. The data analysis did not show that whites and blacks differed in general, but did reveal that white men were more likely to report overhearing racial slurs than black men. 

In the paper, the authors integrate theories of social dominance and gendered prejudice to explain which group is most likely to observe racial slurs in work settings. "Our results highlight that the greatest tensions may exist within the socially dominant gender group, men, because the largest distinction in observations of racially antagonistic behaviors were between white men and black men," Rosette said.  

The third study was a behavioral experiment involving more than 130 white and black U.S. college students (juniors and seniors) enrolled in a business management course. The students first completed a pre-task questionnaire that measured social dominance orientation - the extent to which an individual values inequality. They then took part in what they thought was the assembling of a task force to review a company's costs and expenses. The average age of the participants was 24 and at the time of the experiment 68 percent were employed (almost all of the rest had previous work experience).  During an online interaction, the participants were purposefully exposed to racial slurs when considering task force candidates and had the opportunity to write comments to speak up against them. The analysis found that participants with high social dominance scores were less likely to speak out when racial slurs were overheard. White men were shown to have the highest social dominance scores. 

The authors reason that white men may be least likely to speak out against those who use slurs, "in part because they have greater belief in inequality," the paper said.

Rosette said the implications are important because most previous research has looked at what people could lose by not speaking out. "Traditionally, research has presumed that people choose not to speak out against deviant behaviors because of what they stand to lose, such as their friendships or career opportunities. Our research offers an additional perspective by suggesting that dominant group members may not speak out against blatant racism because of what they may stand to gain," Rosette said. 

Andrew Carton, a professor at London Business School and co-author, noted, "Since our results indicate that the employees who are most likely to overhear slurs are also the least likely to speak out against them, we strongly suggest that efforts to curb the usage of slurs have to be focused not only on those who use slurs, but also those who observe the people who use them."

Rosette and Carton hope their research will help managers better understand racism in the workplace. "By understanding the social environment in which racial slurs are allowed to flourish, managers can better understand how to thwart this divisive behavior and facilitate the development of more inclusive work environments," Rosette said. 

Read the full paper here

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