FAIRFAX, Va., March 3, 2009—When the economy worsens, what happens to diversity programs and affirmative action policies in the workplace?
New research by Eden King, assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, suggests that workplace discrimination can actually increase when people feel threatened by outside factors such as finances. A recent study by King and co-researchers showed that people who support diversity programs have changing attitudes in times of economic strife. In addition, those in hiring positions may be less likely to hire a minority job applicant in an economic downturn.
Many workers are experiencing negative financial repercussions, including reduction in bonuses, fewer promotions, furloughs and layoffs. Competition for fewer jobs and resources often increases stigmatization and tension among workers, and can leave minority groups as real outsiders, King says.
"The reality is, diversity programs and disadvantaged groups may be the first to go in times of economic uncertainty," says King. "This causes real problems for people of socially disadvantaged groups."
King and her co-authors found that when white men and women were told that the economy might take a downturn, and were then asked to evaluate four equally qualified candidates for a job, they favored the white male candidate. On the other hand, when another group of white men and women believed that the economy might improve, they tended to favor the female Hispanic candidate.
"In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points," says King. "But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that's when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head."
King says that managers and human resources employees should be cautious about prejudice in today's unstable workplace. "They need to understand that the short-term solution of cutting diversity programs might ultimately end up costing them even more in the long-run."
About George Mason University
Named the #1 national university to watch by U.S. News & World Report, George Mason University is an innovative, entrepreneurial institution with global distinction in a range of academic fields. Located in the heart of Northern Virginia's technology corridor near Washington, D.C., Mason prepares its students to succeed in the work force and meet the needs of the region and the world. With strong undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering and information technology, dance, organizational psychology and health care, Mason students are routinely recognized with national and international scholarships. Mason professors conduct groundbreaking research in areas such as cancer, climate change, information technology and the biosciences, and Mason's Center for the Arts brings world-renowned artists, musicians and actors to its stage.
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