Subtle but substantial

A new Korn Ferry report offers a neuro-social framework for addressing subtle discrimination in the workplace.

A disturbing “joke” here, an uncomfortable remark there, and the overwhelming feeling of exclusion. Though subtle, these forms of discrimination are all too common in the workplace for underrepresented and marginalized workers, who are two to three times as likely to report experiences with discrimination because of their identity, according to a recent survey. And research shows that they are just as harmful—if not more so—than blatant acts of discrimination.

Subtle discrimination exposes itself through covert behaviors like microaggressions, insensitive comments, derogatory or dismissive language, tokenism, and social exclusion. Yet, studies have found that, while harder to identify, these behaviors can have as much of a negative impact on an employee's physical, mental, and emotional health, causing them to be less motivated and engaged at work. This happens because our brains respond to discrimination and social rejection like they would to physical pain, says Rengin Firat, Senior Neuroscientist at the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm. “When people feel they are excluded, the brain regions that respond to this social rejection are the same as those associated with physical pain,” Firat says.

But subtle discrimination goes beyond individual actions. In Korn Ferry Institute’s new paper, Subtle but substantial, Firat explains that bias can influence workplace culture and normalize discriminatory behaviors like screening out a person's resume based on their name or excluding employees from opportunities because of their identity. This, in turn, creates a toxic work environment that impedes the growth and development of marginalized and underrepresented talent. “Just because an employee may not react to microaggressions, for example, does not mean they don't feel hurt. They may not feel safe to say something," Firat says. "A healthy workplace culture recognizes these dynamics and enables talent to grow and success free of the burdens associated with regular encounters with discrimination."

What science shows, though, is that people are not born with bias and that bias, instead, is learned. Studies have found that humans use social categorization to mentally place people into “us” versus “them” categories. This starts as early as infancy: one study found that babies use social categorization to classify human faces, but they do not initially prefer one social category over another. And as outside factors like racialized perceptions and stereotypes influence people’s experiences, Firat says, this automatic social categorization becomes tainted with underlying bias. “Our experiences inform stereotypes and in turn, these stereotypes inform how we treat others,” she adds.

3 ways to combat subtle discrimination in the workplace

With implicit bias woven deeply into society, it is up to companies to take action to against discrimination and ensure the wellbeing of the people they employ. Leaders can follow these three research-based, neuro-social strategies to address subtle discrimination in the workplace and in turn, create more successful, diverse organizations.

1. Hire and retain diverse talent

Hiring and retaining diverse talent first and foremost is key to reducing bias in the workplace. When companies build diverse, inclusive workforces, they create opportunities for natural and positive interactions between employees from different backgrounds. This starts with recruiting: externally, talent leaders can implement inclusive hiring practices like scrapping names from resumes, while internally, HR departments can focus on increasing diversity in their own recruitment teams. What’s more, companies can address inequities by gathering regular data on pay equity and leadership diversity, then use targeted solutions like adjusting salaries to close pay gaps and reorganizing teams to increase diversity.

2. Empower yourself and your employees coming from diverse backgrounds

Highlight and celebrate the achievements of diverse and historically marginalized employees to serve as powerful counter-stereotypical examples for their peers. Research shows that amplifying empowering images and stories of people from diverse populations helps increase representation and reduce bias in the workplace. Furthermore, this empowerment extends to not only employees but also to leaders to recognize and act against prejudice. Creating a safe and uplifting environment for diverse talent leaves room for them to blossom.  

3. Apply a conscious and inclusive leadership style

Be mindful of intercultural differences and recognize inequalities—both historically and at play in the workplace. Take microaggressions seriously and address them accordingly, showing empathy in all circumstances. By having a conscious and inclusive leadership approach, leaders can work towards fostering a safer, more inclusive workplace that reduces not only bias, but also the stress and emotional burden felt by employees who experience discrimination.

Diversity is the backbone of successful organizations

Discrimination in the workplace can often be subtle or covert, and therefore difficult to recognize. Yet, subtle discrimination is not only hurtful for employees but also for the entire organization, as it creates an unsafe and unproductive environment for everyone.

Any interaction that leaves a person feeling pain is one that needs to be addressed, and leaders should re-evaluate the conditions that allow discrimination in the workplace to happen at all. That “joke” is not funny, that remark is inappropriate, and exclusion should not be accepted. “Organizations have the power and capabilities to make work a safe place for everyone to thrive, and today’s work force won’t settle for anything less,” Firat says.

To learn more about how companies can combat subtle discrimination, click the image to download the PDF.


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