Research into encountering difference in the workplace

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While much attention has been paid to negative experiences of minorities in the workplace, it also has the potential to be an important site of prejudice reduction. Research into this by City REDI’s Catherine Harris and Gill Valentine demonstrates that workplaces can promote meaningful encounters.

The growth (and competitiveness) of the global labour market has meant that employers have increasingly begun to recognise diversity as a Human Resource and management/business priority. As the make-up of the European labour force has changed, so too overt prejudice and discrimination has been challenged by equality legislation. Most notably, Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam – signed by European Union members in 1997, but which did not take effect until 1999 – established a requirement for states to protect their citizens from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. In a UK context, for example, the EU directive contributed to a rethinking of equalities legislation which led to the introduction of a new Equality Act (2010) which brought together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single legal framework. This legislation requires people to be treated equally in most aspects of public life – not just employment – regardless of the protected characteristics of: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. This has arguably facilitated the more open expression of differences, such as sexual orientation, disability and religious belief at work which individuals were previously reluctant to disclose for fear of encountering discrimination. As such, the workplace is increasingly becoming a potentially important site through which people encounter difference.

While much attention has been paid to negative experiences of minorities in the workplace, it also has the potential to be an important site of prejudice reduction. Research into this by Catherine Harris and Gill Valentine, from the ERC LIVEDIFFERENCE project, demonstrates that workplaces can promote meaningful encounters. The research asked about the respondents’ encounters with people who are different from themselves in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexuality and disability in many kinds of sites, including the workplace. It involved a survey of social attitudes and qualitative research.

Respondents who were in employment at the time of the survey (45.5% of the sample) were asked to assess diversity in their workplaces. It is not surprising that most people work with some co-workers from different age groups (92%) and of different genders (82%). However, the results demonstrate that only 17 per cent of respondents had co-workers with a disability. In terms of sexuality, more than half (53%) did not identify any work colleagues as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The respondents’ workplaces were more diverse in terms of ethnicity and religious affiliations. In the sample, two thirds of people worked with colleagues of a different ethnicity or religion from their own.

To test whether people encountering difference in the workplace are less prejudiced towards minority groups, attitudes were compared (measured on a scale 0–100) of respondents working in not diverse, semi diverse and very diverse settings. There are statistically significant differences between attitudes in relation to ethnicity; however, the effect of workplace diversity is not linear. The most positive attitudes are expressed by people working in workplaces where less than a half of employees are of a different ethnic background from a respondent. Those working in homogenous or very diverse places expressed most negative attitudes towards people of minority ethnic backgrounds. A similar pattern is observed in the case of sexual prejudice and disablism. People working with some co-workers from a sexual minority have significantly more favourable attitudes towards them than people without such colleagues. Likewise, respondents with disabled people in the workplace expressed more positive feelings towards disabled people in workplaces where they were present than respondents working in places where they were absent. The survey also asked about recent experiences of discrimination in various sites. A quarter (24.6%) of all respondents to the survey stated that they have personally been discriminated against in the last five years. While workplace encounters with difference appear to improve social relations, the workplace was sometimes the most common site where respondents identified they themselves encountered discrimination (indicated by 31% of those discriminated), followed by public places (18%), places of leisure (17%) and educational places (10%). These results suggest that interactions in the workplace are often a source of tensions and exclusions.

Further research through interviews with respondents showed that cases of positive encounter with difference are often discussed at the level of the individual, with reference to specific people and friendships, rather than towards the minority group to which the individual belonged. As such, these positive encounters were often superficial with underlying tensions still existing between different groups in the workplace

Whilst this research was conducted prior to the EU referendum, going forward, the impact of Brexit on attitudes towards migrant workers will be one of the most significant issues involved in encounters with difference in the workplace, not excluding public places, places of leisure and educational places.

The research featured here forms the basis of the publication: Harris, C. and Valentine, G. (2016, in press). Encountering difference in the workplace: Superficial contact, underlying tensions and group rightsTijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie.

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