Toxic workplaces and the 'second-hand smoke' effect of racial harassment | WISE Workplace

US researchers have recently considered whether certain aspects of culturally toxic workplaces have adverse ambient effects on employees (borrowing from the proven notion that breathing second-hand cigarette smoke has damaging ambient effects on persons who associate with smokers).

Professor Belle Rose Ragins, a leading internationally recognised academic in human resource management and organisational  behaviour, was the key note speaker at a Diversity Consortium in 2012, hosted by the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney. Professor Ragins presented these and other research findings on workplace diversity issues.

This project examined the impact of racial harassment on employees who are aware of the conduct but are not the subject of it.

This research reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that ambient racial harassment may have just as toxic effect as direct racial harassment. This means that employees in workplaces where racial harassment is rife can be adversely affected by the conduct even if it is not targeted at them.

The project looked at the racial harassment in workplaces employing African-Americans. The examined conduct included:

  1. Exclusionary and discriminatory behaviour such as ignoring co-workers because of their race;
  2. offensive racial comments; and
  3. overt threats and physical assault including the hanging of nooses. Sadly, she noted that this practice has been increasing in the US since the 1990s.

Key research findings were:

  1. many white employees did not "see" this type of behaviour in that they did not notice it occurring. The underlying implication being that cultural change would be very difficult in these workplaces, as it is impossible to change what is not seen.
  2. There were adverse effects on job satisfaction, turnover intention, work related depression, physical well being and identity freedom for those employees who were aware of the discriminatory behaviour (but were not the target of it).