Filling the gaps in workplace discrimination research

Empty chairs at a boardroom table

Tina Adamopoulos

While studying the causes and effects of workplace discrimination, U of T Scarborough’s Phani Radhakrishnan noticed a gap in the current research. 

“It examines pay equity and advancement, but that is the end state. Discrimination can start with workplace harassment,” says Radhakrishnan, a professor in the Department of Management and an expert on racial discrimination in the workplace. 

She integrates sociology and psychology in her research, using a socialization-stressor model. It outlines how societies socialize their members to internalize negative stereotypes and attitudes, which they then carry into organizations. 

When those members are decision-makers, the stereotypes and negative attitudes are reflected in employee treatment. This is how employees get harassed and excluded, which can lead to poor performance, slower career progression and lower pay.

“One of the things we wanted to emphasize in the model is that companies are not unbiased systems,” Radhakrishnan says. “They carry the biases of their leaders.” 

Racial harassment includes teasing and making comments. But employees who were interviewed also reported not being notified about career-advancement opportunities and being excluded from important work-related conversations. 

These subtle actions aren’t always noticed right away, but they add up over time and decrease the person's ability to do their job effectively and to advance. This leads to increased stress, lowered job satisfaction and withdrawal — and, for the company, to loss of talent.  

“When you work in a company, you’re often in a team environment. That’s a fundamental feature,” says Radhakrishnan. “If you’re excluded and information isn’t shared with you, then that is the start of discriminatory behaviours.” She says that’s also where prevention can take place.

She says that keeping track of who’s receiving information and who’s being included in career progression plans is a vital — and responsible — step in committing to inclusion at all levels of an organization. 

In her courses at U of T Scarborough, Radhakrishnan equips students with the knowledge to identify workplace discrimination. She also encourages them to speak up when they see others being denied opportunities, and to “feel empowered to do so.”

Introductory courses like Managing People and Groups in Organizations discuss the nature of harassment and discriminatory behaviours in work groups, while advanced courses like Compensation teach students how to assess pay inequity in a company. 

“I try to help students become more aware of what discrimination is and how to detect it, but also how to speak up when they see it happening.”