The old adage that Blacks have to be twice as good to get ahead in society isn’t just a saying: a new study found it’s factually true. And why is that? Because Black workers are always under extra scrutiny from bosses.
That’s the conclusion drawn in the report “Discrimination and Worker Evaluation” from the National Bureau of Economic Research which noted additional office surveillance can result in poor performance reviews, lower wages, and ultimately job loss. Study co-authors Costas Cavounidis and Kevin Lang of Boston University looked at several factors related to race and work such as job duration, unemployment duration, and lifetime earnings, but they actually didn’t initially set out to confirm what we’ve always known about working while Black.
“First, it is important to remember that we are engaged in economic theory. We stumbled on the result while thinking about models of worker monitoring and turnover. When we realized that our models might have something to say about how discrimination can persist, we were excited,” Lang, a Professor of Economics, told us in a phone interview.
The report found that employers are most likely to view Black workers as less skilled, which makes companies less apt to hire them. When businesses do hire Blacks they still remained concerned about that employee’s ability to do the work competently, hence the intense monitoring. “What the paper with Costas contributes is to show that a past history of discrimination can lead to a situation where, even when the Black and white labor forces are equally qualified and even if employers are no longer prejudiced, Blacks are scrutinized more carefully with adverse consequences for Blacks in terms of employment, unemployment and earnings. We have shown that human capital policies alone may not be sufficient,”Lang explained.
Imagine the pressure this puts us under. “The consequences of unequal treatment impacts workers of color in several ways,” International diversity expert Lenora Billings-Harris told us, noting that one of the first areas is self-esteem. “When a person is not given appropriate feedback or development and learning opportunities, performing the job adequately, let alone performing it well, becomes nearly impossible. The more often this occurs the more the worker may begin to believe that she is not good enough or smart enough to do the job.”
It’s not just overt discrimination that affects workers. The impact of unconscious bias is just as harmful, Billings-Harris added. “Because there is such a strong bias in general regarding the abilities of workers of color–particularly African Americans–these workers are given fewer opportunities to stretch and grow by their employers.
“Note that I said unconscious bias. Although most managers may think they are treating everyone fairly and equally, research does not bear out this belief. When a worker of color is competent some of their managers tend to be surprised. This reaction shows up in academia among professors, in law firms and in corporations, not only at the entry-level positions. Thus it is not surprising that people of color still not only believe but experience that they must be twice as good as others to get ahead. I am, unfortunately, not surprised by the results of the study because as a Black woman I have experienced some of their findings directly, and for the last 25 years, I have been working with organizations to help them mitigate the results of bias and create a more authentically inclusive and productive work environment.”
Discrimination in the workplace doesn’t make sense economically, yet it continues to persist, most likely because some experts don’t believe it exists at all. “To economists, the persistence of discrimination in the labor market is a mystery,” Lang explained. “We believe that if some firms discriminate, it should create profitable opportunities for other firms and that this process ultimately eliminates the discrimination. Economists respond to the apparent discrepancy between our models and what we observe in three ways. Some conclude that there is no discrimination in the labor market. To these economists, all of the difference in labor market outcomes between, for example, Blacks and whites can be explained by discrimination outside of the labor market (e.g. in education, the judicial system). Others conclude that the expectation of discrimination in the labor market leads Blacks to devote less time and energy to developing marketable skills so that Black workers are, on average, less attractive to all employers, even those that are not prejudiced. These economists tend to stress the need for policies that encourage human capital investments. Although I support policies that reduce discrimination in other spheres and that promote human capital investments, in other work I have argued that there is evidence of discrimination in the labor market and of strong human capital investments by Blacks in response to that discrimination.”
Ongoing discrimination is not only bad for people of color, but the companies as well. “Eventually many underrepresented groups within the unemployed ranks give up and stop looking for a job. Thus the real unemployment numbers are much higher than we think,” Billings-Harris pointed out. “This impacts the broader economy in many ways, so it is in the best interest of all businesses to help reduce the unemployment rate, thus producing workers who contribute to the tax base. The more educated workers are in a locale the more businesses want to locate in that area. This is a cycle that can only be broken if individuals and systems (corporate and municipal) work together.”