Research Brief

Positive Workplace Experiences White Employees Take for Granted Are Often Lacking for Other Groups

Workplace equality requires more than an end to discrimination

Every job has its negatives, and most have some positives. When a worker mulls quitting a job, the process usually involves weighing not just the opportunity of a new position, but the pros and cons of an existing role.

For people of color, the scale is skewed, according to research exploring why minority employees leave their jobs in higher numbers than others. The findings, confirmed in two separate studies, suggest non-white workers not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, but they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers.

This means disadvantaged employees not only have “more reasons to look into leaving” but also “fewer reasons to stay” than their more advantaged colleagues, explains the working paper by Loyola University Chicago’s Peter Norlander and UCLA Anderson’s Serena Does and Margaret Shih.

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It isn’t just the abundance of bad stuff — derogatory comments or negative annual reviews — that leads to higher turnover rates for minorities, the authors argue. Equally or even more important is the absence of positive experiences such as invitations to lunch, mentoring opportunities or having input into decision making.

The research suggests this gap in positive experiences could account for as much as 10% to 15% of the difference in quit rates between white and non-white group members.

This could have significant implications for fast-growing industries like technology that are under fierce pressure to diversify their largely male workforces.

The tech industry has a high turnover rate, according to the online job site LinkedIn. And people of color, particularly African American and Hispanic men, are far likelier than their white colleagues to quit because they feel they are being treated unfairly, according to a 2017 study that estimates the high turnover rates cost tech firms $16 billion per year.

While managers face legal and moral pressure to prevent overt racism and harassment, positive behavior toward employees is often viewed as a “voluntary” action that reflects more on the individual than the corporation, explain Norlander, Does and Shih.

What’s more, negative experiences are easier to track than positive behavior, another reason most corporate diversity programs focus on eliminating the nastiness.

But these efforts may have “largely failed at increasing representation and reducing disparities in turnover rates because reducing negative experiences — such as harassment and discrimination — is not enough to constitute an equitable workplace,” the researchers write. “Workers from disadvantaged groups also need exposure to the positive experiences that advantaged group members regularly experience in the workplace.”

They point out these findings complement similar shifts in psychology and medicine, moving from the traditional emphasis on reducing pathology and toward a broader focus that includes promoting health and positive thinking. For example, the “two continua” model of health and illness theorizes the “absence of mental illness does not equal a healthy person without the presence of positive feelings and positive functioning.”

Positive or peak experiences in a workplace can have a substantial impact, particularly for younger employees, according to a recent report by O.C. Tanner, a human resources consulting firm. “Because peak experiences tend to be accompanied by deep, positive emotions, they tend to be memorable,” the report explains. “They serve as signposts and reference points to a broader story of the employee’s overall experience.”

Measuring the impact of something as subjective as a positive workplace experience isn’t easy. In the first of their two studies, Norlander, Does and Shih compiled data from 6,823 individuals who participated in the National Opinion Research Center’s Quality of Worklife survey. Seventy-six percent of the participants identified as white.

A second study was based on information gathered from 21,156 primary and secondary teachers who took part in a large national quality of working life survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015. Of those, 78.4% identified as white.

In both studies, the researchers narrowed down the survey questions to those that most clearly represented negative and positive experiences.

In the first study, the scale for positive experiences consisted of the following nine items: Having a lot of say in the job; being treated with respect at work; taking part in decisions; having freedom to decide how to do the job; having a supervisor concerned about welfare; having coworkers who take personal interest in the respondent; having a supervisor who is helpful to the respondent in getting the job done; having coworkers who can be relied upon when the respondent needs help; and being likely to be praised by a supervisor.

The first eight items were each phrased as statements and respondents were asked to answer on a four-point scale, ranging from very true to not at all true, whether the statement was accurate with respect to their job. For the last item regarding likeliness to get praise from a supervisor, options were yes, no or maybe.

On the negative side, respondents were asked to answer yes or no to whether they felt discriminated against because of their age, race or gender and whether they had been sexually harassed or threatened on the job in the past 12 months.

Respondents were also asked how likely they were to seek a new job in the next year. An analysis of the data used in the first study showed women and non-white men were 1.6 times likelier to report that they were “somewhat or very likely” to find a new job in the next year.

By studying the negative and positive items separately, the researchers were able to determine how closely they correlated to quit intentions.

In the first study, the data suggests approximately 12% of the racial gap in quit intentions could be explained by the racial gap in quality of work life experiences and roughly three quarters of that gap was tied to the difference in positive experiences.

In the teachers’ survey, the respondents were also asked to rate nine positive responses. They included “My job allows me to make a lot of decisions on my own” and “my school has a good mentoring program, especially for new teachers.”

On the negative side, they were asked five yes or no questions that included whether they had felt discriminated against or whether they had been sexually harassed or threatened on the job within the last 12 months. The researchers found that half of the sample had no negative experiences, while half had at least one.

Respondents were also asked how likely they were to seek employment outside the field of education within the next year. Twenty percent of the non-white respondents stated they were very likely to seek outside employment, compared to 13% of the white respondents.

Overall, the responses in the second survey showed a similar trend. The disparity in positive experiences correlated with 12.9% of the racial gap in quit intentions between minority and white teachers.

However, the researchers also sorted through the data in different ways, controlling for such things as level of education, grade levels taught and urban versus rural or suburban locations.

This led to one interesting finding. The vast majority of non-white teachers (72%) worked in urban settings, compared with less than half (42%) of the white teachers. And when the researchers controlled for location, the racial gap in positive experiences shrunk to an insignificant number.

One explanation might be that the racial disparity in positive experiences in teaching is largely due to the selection or sorting of minority teachers into urban schools with fewer resources or greater challenges, according to the researchers. If this is true, their study suggests that better distribution of funds and support for teachers throughout the education system could reduce the gap in positive experiences substantially.

Research has shown that creating a workplace where everyone feels equally included pays off. A 2010 Cornell study of the retail industry, another high-turnover job sector, found the turnover rate in groups with whom a leader developed consistently high-quality relationships with all employees was 2.4% lower than among groups in which leaders played favorites. That same study estimated the per-employee turnover rate cost companies 200 to 250% of annual pay.

Tech executives are taking notice. Tim Johnson, the chief executive of Mondo, a digital marketing firm, advises creating an “employee-first culture” built on input gathered from all employees, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

“Introduce the new culture expectations” to all employees “with clear guidelines on how future issues will be handled,” he writes in a Forbes column. “You may be surprised by just how effective this can be in reducing turnover rates.”

Featured Faculty

  • Margaret Shih

    Department Chair and Deputy Dean of Academic Affairs, Neil Jacoby Chair in Management; Professor of Management and Organizations

About the Research

Norlander, P., Does, S., & Shih, M. (2020). Deprivation at work: Positive workplace experiences and the racial gap in quit intentions.

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