The Relationship Between Sociology and Workplace Discrimination

The Relationship Between Sociology and Workplace Discrimination
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Discrimination is unequal, unfavorable or unfair treatment against a person or a group of persons. It involves differentiating people based on age, gender, creed, marital status, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, veteran status, and other characteristics, to provide favorable treatment for certain individuals or groups, and / or victimizing other individuals or groups. Such forms of discrimination are rife in the society, and when it manifests in the workplace, it becomes workplace discrimination.

Contemporary workplace discrimination takes place in subtle ways rather than open or blatant cases as in the past. Common forms include:

  • disparate treatment, or treating individuals equally according to a given set of rules and procedures but constructing such rules and regulations in ways that favor one group or some individuals over another
  • decisions and processes that by themselves are not discriminatory but nevertheless produce or reinforce a disadvantage to one group or set of individuals
  • failure to accommodate the employee’s individual needs in a multicultural workforce, leading to diversity issues


Workplace discrimination is a fact. Although affirmative action, equal opportunity and other interventions have resulted in remarkable gains in the labor force status of racial minorities and other disadvantaged classes compared to the past, significant disparities remain. Even today, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, and the wages of both blacks and Hispanics continue to lag well behind those of whites.

Several studies such as the ones conducted by Cross et al. (1989), Turner et al. (1991), Fix & Struyk (1993), Bendick et al. (1994) and others confirm that racial minorities and other disadvantaged people remain concentrated in jobs with lower levels of stability and authority, and enjoy fewer advancement opportunities. Bertrand & Mullainathan confirms the existence of employment discrimination in a 2004 study by mailing identical resumes to employers in Boston and Chicago with only the names changed, and including racially identifiable names. White names triggered a callback rate 50 percent higher than applicants with common Native American names. A second survey by retaining the racially identifiable names but improving the qualifications of applicants reveal that improved qualifications benefited white applicants but not blacks. Another 2005 study by Tomaskovic-Devey et al. confirms that Native American men spend more time searching for work, acquire less work experience, and experience less stable employment than whites with similar characteristics.

Research throws up consistent evidence of discrimination in access to employment, but less consistent evidence of discrimination in wages and other working conditions. While some research, such as a 1994 study by Bendick et al. and a 1996 study by Cancio et. al. confirms the trend of discrimination extending to wages, such wage discrimination also relate to factors that precede labor market entry such as skill acquisition, confirming a sociological undertone to the discrimination. People entrenched in power develop an affinity to others with their same characteristics, and as such may unconsciously prefer them for hiring and other matters where subjective judgments play a decisive factor rather than objective and quantifiable “merit” factors.


Many laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Equal Pay Act of 1963, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and more prevent discrimination and mandate employers to ensure equitable treatment to all employees regardless of race, color, religion, sex, and other characteristics, unless the nature of the work requires such discrimination.

Laws however have limited appeal to stop discrimination at the workplace, and usually serve to punish the offenders rather than act as a deterrent. The workplace is a subset of a wider society, and the forms of discrimination rife in the society naturally find their way to the workplace. For instance, a person who distinguishes people based on their race, or was brought up understanding that a particular race is superior to all other races would naturally continue to hold to the same beliefs and apply them when they get a job. It would require a much more than printed laws and policies to change such habits.

Organizations may attempt to bring about a change of mindset by making sustained awareness related interventions, but very few have either the resources or the inclination to do so, and those at the helm may themselves be under the same prejudices or biases. It takes changes in the society for the effects to permeate to the workplace. For example, corporate America hiring a African American woman was unheard of over 50 years ago, but now thanks to the sustained awareness campaign that focused on the society in general and the spate of laws and affirmative action policies resultant from wider social pressure the number of African Americans in employment have gone up.

The Wal-Mart Case

The Wal-Mart case underlines the influence of sociology and workplace discrimination. In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the Ninth Circuit upheld certification of the largest class-action employment discrimination in history, with more than 1.5 million women employees seeking over $1.5 billion in damages. Although the Supreme Court has thrown out this case as it could not find evidence of a discriminatory policy that affected all women employees as a single class, the evidence presented by the class of women employees working at Wal-Mart sheds insight on how sociology may influence workplace discrimination. Professor Bielby of the University of Illinois at Chicago performed a “social framework analysis” to evaluate Wal-Mart “against what he believed social science research shows as factors that create and sustain bias, and found Wal-Mart guilty of gender bias, stereotypes, and gender inequality. The Ninth Circuit relied on other literature introducing the concept of social framework and referred to other general social science research to provide a context for the determination of specific factual issues in litigation, and ruled in favor of the women employees. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit 5-4, suggesting that the theory itself may have some basis, though not applicable in Wal-Mart’s case.

Workplace discrimination can cripple the organization, and organizations looking to maintain a positive human resource atmosphere need to adopt a proactive posturing against all forms of discrimination.


  1. Hirsh, C. Elizabeth & Cha, Youngjoo. (October 2008) “Understanding Employment Discrimination: A Multilevel Approach.” Cornell University. Retrieved from on July 06, 2011.
  2. NY Times. “Supreme Court to Weigh Sociology Issue in Wal-Mart Discrimination Case.” Retrieved from on July 06, 2011.
  3. Monahan, John; Walker, Laurens; & Mitchell, Gregory. “Contextual Evidence of Gender Discrimination: The Ascendance of Social Frameworks”. Retrieved from on July 06, 2011.
  4. “Supreme Court Limits Wal-Mart Discrimination Case.”

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