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Amber Stark

Anti-Racism Grant Research Explores Interpersonal Mistreatment at Work

By Julie Carle

Do employees of color experience more incivility, ostracism, and abusive supervision than White employees?

A SIOP Anti-Racism Grant helped a team of Rutgers University researchers answer that question and offer some workplace recommendations.

They did not find significant differences in the amount of interpersonal mistreatment, but what they did find was that employees of color who were also highly socially integrated in their work units experienced less interpersonal mistreatment than employees of color who were not socially integrated, and all White employees.

The SIOP grant supported the study titled “Interpersonal Mistreatment, Perceived Discrimination, and Minority Identity Management: An Attribution Theory Perspective.” Dr. Maria Kraimer, Distinguished Research Professor of Human Resource Management at Rutgers and SIOP Member, led the team with HRM colleagues: Dr. Lawrence Houston III, assistant professor and SIOP Member; Dr. Scott Seibert, professor; and Jerry Liu, PhD student.

Among the key findings, Kraimer said, “Being socially integrated in the work unit helps employees of color, but not White employees, experience fewer incidences of interpersonal mistreatment.”

They also found that experiencing incivility, ostracism, and abusive supervision was “strongly, positively related to perceptions of racial discrimination only among employees of color.”

The correlation between experiencing incivility and perceived racial discrimination was nearly zero among White employees.

“This finding was consistent with our hypothesis that due to systemic racism in the United States, employees of color would be more likely to attribute ambiguous behaviors, such as incivility or abusive supervision, to racial discrimination,” Kraimer said.

For the research, they surveyed 150 administrative staff at a Mid-Atlantic university over a 7-week time period. Participants were invited to complete 15 weekly electronic surveys. The first survey asked demographic information, questions to measure their social integration in their work unit, and many other control variable measures. For each of the next 6 weeks, they received a Friday and Monday survey: on Friday, they reported whether they experienced incivility, ostracism, or abusive supervision during the past week, and on Monday they responded to several items that measured whether they experienced racial discrimination the previous week.

“This allowed us to capture the experience of interpersonal mistreatment close to the time it occurred and, thus, reduce any retrospective sensemaking or recall bias,” Kraimer said. 

Research points to practical recommendations

“Although our results do not provide support for the notion that marginalized racial groups experience higher rates of interpersonal mistreatment, they do show that incivility has a disproportionately negative psychological impact on employees of color due to their heightened perceptions of racial discrimination,” she said.

The perceptions of discrimination have many negative implications for targeted employees and bystanders, such as increased stress and turnover intentions, and lower job satisfaction and performance.

Because interventions designed to decrease uncivil behavior in the workplace are likely to have a disproportionately positive impact on employees of color, the team suggested making an effort to reduce incivility at work is “all the more important and impactful.”

Additionally, companies should consider strategies to improve feelings of social integration and inclusion.

“Team building activities are likely to improve cohesion and trust among unit members. Our results provide support for the idea that these integration efforts will have the desired positive effects for employees of color in terms of reduced feelings of racial discrimination by lowering experiences of incivility,” Kraimer said.

The study was presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meetings in August and will possibly be published in an academic journal in the future.

In 2020, SIOP initiated the Anti-Racism Grant opportunity, which was aimed at enlarging the understanding of racism in the workplace, its causes, and its reduction. Of the 35 proposals submitted in the first year, 5 were funded. A second round of grants was offered and awarded in 2021. This update is the second in a series highlighting winners of the SIOP Anti-Racism Grants. You can read the first here.

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