Definition of Prejudice in the Workplace

Workplace prejudice can be difficult to identify because it is based on attitudes, not actions.
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Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination are three words often used in the discussion of unfair treatment, but each has its own distinct definition. According to a University of Utah article, “Perceiving Groups,” stereotyping involves making generalizations about people based on their gender or other characteristics. Prejudice involves attitudes, positive or negative, that people hold based on their affiliation with certain groups. Discrimination transforms those attitudes into actions towards objects of prejudice. Prejudice in the workplace is dangerous, causing unfair treatment of individuals and resentment.


    Prejudice can be insidious in the workplace, because individuals might hold these prejudices without acting on them overtly. Simple states that four main reasons explain the occurrence of prejudice. Individuals in the workplace might have authoritarian personalities that inherently believe in hierarchy, identifying and rejecting individuals they perceive to be inferior to those in positions of power and authority. Others might hold prejudices because they believe that conflict is inherent and natural; that is, that colleagues are competing for limited resources. As part of the competition for resources, such as salaries or workplace privileges, prejudiced employees might find ways to increase their viability while decreasing opportunities for others. Individuals might also rely on stereotypes to justify their prejudices. Finally, individuals might feel safer when socially identifying with a group with perceived shared characteristics.


    Prejudice in the workplace can be difficult to identify, because attitudes might be concealed. Identifying acts of discrimination can help determine whether prejudice is present. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace, according to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work to avoid discrimination. Individuals over age 40 are protected from discrimination in the workplace by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Examples of workplace discrimination that could reflect underlying prejudice include hiring and firing practices, inappropriate wording in job descriptions, or use of workplace facilities.

Evolving Prejudice

    Part of the reason why discrimination still exists in the workplace is that prejudice does not always take the expected form, according to the 2009 "Forbes" article, “The New Face Of Workplace Discrimination.” People are often informally evaluated based on two factors: their warmth and their competence. This creates a quadrant of four prejudice possibilities. Middle class workers are often admired for their high levels of warmth and competence. Undocumented workers, in contrast, evoke low warmth and low perceived competence. Elderly or disabled workers might evoke warmth but be perceived as having low perceived competence. The complexity of these prejudices makes them challenging to address and eradicate.


    "Forbes" states that although firms often make efforts to hire a diverse workforce, promotions are often assigned to individuals from similar backgrounds. Prejudice and discrimination are inappropriate in the workplace, and individuals who feel they have been subjected to inappropriate circumstances have legal recourse, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Workers are protected from employer retaliation for reporting.

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