Confronting the Uncomfortable Reality of Workplace Discrimination

The U.S. is finally addressing racism in law enforcement. While we’re at it, let’s tackle workplace discrimination as well.

Reading Time: 6 min 


Permissions and PDF

Widespread protests have filled the streets in every U.S. state and around the world almost daily since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police late in May. As the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us — and as the murders of Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and too many others have made painfully obvious — Black people often experience a harsher standard of treatment at the hands of the police than White people do. The sheer number and variety of people now speaking out on social media against discrimination and police brutality, and organizing and attending diverse protests worldwide, suggest that the push toward greater accountability and racial equality in law enforcement is gaining momentum. We could not be happier about this development — but we can’t stop there.

Our research involves a different form of racial discrimination, one that directly affects almost every facet of Black American lives. Workplace discrimination — employers’ tendency to value White employees over Black employees — has had devastating consequences for generations of Black Americans. We know some of the solutions, but we need the social will to implement them.

The list of discriminatory workplace practices is long and backed by research. Applicants with White-sounding names are more likely to receive calls back from potential employers than those with Black-sounding names.1 Studies have shown that darker-skinned applicants face distinctive disadvantages when applying for jobs compared with lighter-skinned applicants.2 One study even found that a White applicant with a criminal record received more interest from employers than a Black applicant with no record — an injustice compounded by the racial discrimination of law enforcement, which has increased the likelihood that Black Americans will have a criminal record.3

Systemic discrimination doesn’t stop once someone has landed a job. Racial bias affects negotiations over starting pay, future wages, and upward mobility. In short, Black employees start off making less money than their White colleagues, a disparity that compounds over time. Black employees also receive promotions less often.4

A third significant blow comes when economic times are tough, as they are now. Many Black Americans believe they are the “last hired and first fired,” and it appears that there is some truth to that.



1. M. Bertrand and S. Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” The American Economic Review 94, no. 4 (September 2004): 991-1013.

2. M.S. Harrison and K.M. Thomas, “The Hidden Prejudice in Selection: A Research Investigation on Skin Color Bias,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 39, no. 1 (January 2009): 134-168.

3. D. Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5 (March 2003): 937-975.

4. D.R. Avery, S.D. Volpone, and O. Holmes IV, “Racial Discrimination in Organizations,” ch. 7 in “The Oxford Handbook of Workplace Discrimination,” eds. A.J. Colella and E.B. King (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

5. K.A. Couch and R. Fairlie, “Last Hired, First Fired? Black-White Unemployment and the Business Cycle,” Demography 47, no. 1 (February 2010): 227-247; and K.A. Couch, R. Fairlie, and H. Xu, “Racial Differences in Labor Market Transitions and the Great Recession,” in “Transitions Through the Labor Market,” eds. S.W. Polachek and K. Tatsiramos (Somerville, Massachusetts: Emerald Publishing, 2018), 1-54.

6. D.A. Thomas, “Diversity as Strategy,” Harvard Business Review 82, no. 9 (September 2004): 98-108.

7. A. Luksyte, E. Waite, D.R. Avery, et al., “Held to a Different Standard: Racial Differences in the Impact of Lateness on Advancement Opportunity,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 86, no. 2 (April 2013): 142-165.

8. A.N. Smith, M.B. Watkins, J.J. Ladge, et al., “Making the Invisible Visible: Paradoxical Effects of Intersectional Invisibility on the Career Experiences of Executive Black Women,” Academy of Management Journal 62, no. 6 (December 2019): 1705-1734.

9. K.P. Jones, C.I. Peddie, V.L. Gilrane, et al., “Not So Subtle: A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Correlates of Subtle and Overt Discrimination,” Journal of Management 42, no. 6 (September 2016): 1588-1613.

10. A.M. Czopp, M.J. Monteith, and A.Y. Mark, “Standing Up for a Change: Reducing Bias Through Interpersonal Confrontation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 5 (May 2006): 784-803.

11. D. Chrobot-Mason, B.R. Ragins, and F. Linnehan, “Second Hand Smoke: Ambient Racial Harassment at Work,” Journal of Managerial Psychology 28, no. 5 (2013): 470-491.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comments (3)
Brittany Granberry
I think this a great article ! I think that  discrimination is something that most companies don't want to address. Discrimination not only happens at work ,but all around . Me being an African American female I see it all to well especially at work . We are all equal no matter what the color of our skin may be . If someone deserves something and has worked hard towards it give it to them .
Shirley Engelmeier
Thank you. I hope to see a lot more of this work from MITSloan.
Besides being illegal, discrimination consistently hurts business performance.  Focus on results and a meritocracy, and there will be no basis in your company for discrimination.