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Pandemic May Have Intensified US Workplace Prejudice

Experimental survey study used hypothetical scenarios to examine attitudes towards ethno-racial minorities

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A new, US-based survey study suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may have amplified prejudicial attitudes against East Asian and Hispanic colleagues in the workplace. Neeraj Kaushal, Yao Lu, and Xiaoning Huang of Columbia University, New York, and Northwestern University, Chicago, USA, present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, instances of discrimination and hate crimes towards minorities have increased, particularly against Chinese Americans. Most reported instances have occurred in public and involved strangers. However, because workplace discrimination is less likely to be reported, the potential impacts of the pandemic on workplace attitudes towards ethno-racial minorities have been unclear.

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Kaushal and colleagues analyzed survey data collected early in the pandemic, in August 2020, from 3,837 working-age American adults. Each participant received one of two versions of the survey; one opened with a brief description of the state of the pandemic, followed by questions about how COVID-19 had impacted respondents personally and, given a hypothetical workplace scenario, their preference for working with a hypothetical colleague from a certain ethno-racial group. The second version asked about the hypothetical colleague first, before asking about the personal impact of COVID-19.

Statistical analysis of the survey responses suggests that priming participants with a description and questions about the pandemic reduced their acceptance of East Asians as hypothetical colleagues and supervisors, and also reduced acceptance of hypothetical Hispanic colleagues, supervisors, and staff.

Participants who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19, as well as those from counties with higher COVID-19 rates and lower concentrations of East Asians, showed greater prejudice towards East Asians in their responses. No evidence was found for prejudice against hypothetical White, Black, or South Asian coworkers.

These findings suggest the possibility that the pandemic amplified health and economic insecurities among Americans, thereby exacerbating prejudice against minority groups in the workplace. Prior research suggests that such prejudices increase the likelihood of discriminatory actions, which can have both short- and long-term cross-generation impacts on minorities—including reduced economic opportunities and productivity, harms to mental and physical health, and reduced integration with society.

The authors add: “Our findings highlight a dimension of prejudice, intensified during the pandemic, which has been largely underreported and missing from the current discourse. Workplace discrimination can alienate minorities and sow seeds of distrust that can have long-term impacts spilling across generations.”

- This press release provided by PLOS