Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You Blind to Subtle Forms of Workplace Discrimination?

Perhaps it’s time to take off your rose-colored glasses.

Key points

  • Highly identified employees often produce better outcomes for their organizations.
  • New research shows that highly identified employees are also less likely to recognize subtle discrimination.
  • To avoid bias, leaders need to be clear about what their organization stands for and what it stands against.

Consider the following scenario:

“The other day I was speaking to one of our clients, but I was struggling to find a solution that he was happy with. One of my male co-workers overheard our conversation and interrupted: “Guess you’re wondering if you’ll ever get to talk to someone who can actually help you.” He rolled his eyes and then proceeded to take over the conversation. This particular co-worker often makes joking comments like this, and he did end up helping the client… but I still went home feeling pretty bad about myself…”
—Anonymous female employee

Is this inappropriate workplace behavior? Is it gender discrimination? Or maybe just rude? If you overheard this interaction in your workplace, would you confront your male co-worker?

Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Selective incivility? Or just rude?
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Blatant acts of sexism are no longer tolerated in most workplaces, but that doesn’t mean that sexism has disappeared. Although most employees have experienced or witnessed workplace incivility, those experiences are more frequent among women and racial minorities. 'Selective incivility' (i.e., microaggressions directed toward marginalized groups) is the new, more subtle form of prejudice that is difficult to formally censor because the behavior is often ambiguous, and it is nearly impossible to prove discriminatory intent.

Are You Blind to the Bias?

New research with Professor Jamie Gloor and our collaborators shows that our identity (who we are) shapes our reactions to these ambiguous situations in our workplace (how we see things). In fact, it even affects our perceptions of discrimination. Specifically, when we highly identify with our workplace—a sense of attachment that ordinarily offers benefits for employee motivation and engagement—it can also hinder our ability to recognize mistreatment when it occurs.

The research investigated how employee identities can influence their reactions to witnessing other colleagues' mistreatment at work, including disrespect and incivility (aka "microaggressions") targeting women. Specifically, we examined the impact of: (1) identifying as a woman, (2) identifying as a feminist, or (3) identifying as a member of the organization.

The research analyzed longitudinal field data over the span of a year, and supplemented these findings with experimental studies, together capturing the reactions of 1,250 employees from Switzerland and the United States. Analyses revealed that a strong sense of belonging within an organization can paradoxically lead to a lower likelihood of recognizing and addressing discrimination against female colleagues.

Source: Vinícius Vieira ft/Pexels
Bias-free or rose-colored glasses?
Source: Vinícius Vieira ft/Pexels

Put simply, good employees may be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to seeing discrimination within their own workplace.

Fortunately, those same employees (men in particular) were also more likely to intervene once they recognized mistreatment. In other words, despite being generally blind to the bias, once highly identified male employees became aware of discrimination, they were more likely to censor it. However, highly identified female employees were no more likely to act once they saw discrimination (likely due to the social costs women face for complaining).

Interestingly, there was no evidence to support the problematic myth that women are "hypersensitive." Recent correlational research has argued that gender identity might lead women to over-interpret male-instigated incivility as gender discrimination. Our research tests this prediction more directly, but failed to find a relationship between women's gender identity and their likelihood of seeing discrimination. These findings challenge the widespread belief that women whose gender is important to who they are have a hightened sensitivity to women’s mistreatment. However, our findings do underscore the significant role of feminist self-identification in both women and men—employees who consider feminism a central part of who they are were more attuned to discrimination and more likely to intervene.

Engaging Bystanders to Reduce Bias

Bystanders—those people not directly involved in the act but who witness it or learn about it—are important because they can contribute to reducing bias in the workplace when and where it occurs. Speaking up is relatively more difficult for the victims themselves, who are often deemed "too sensitive" or are simply afraid to take action to protect themselves. Organizations also cannot rely on complaint processes since selective incivility may seem innocent on paper; besides, managers can also fall prey to this type of "not here" bias.

The role of bystanders is critical to maintaining a respectful and inclusive work culture, so it is important to empower bystander objectivity and voice when it comes to subtle cases of discrimination. As Professor Gloor puts it, "we can transform by-standing colleagues into up-standing colleagues with potentially broad benefits for employees and organizations.”

These findings underscore the need for leaders to foster employees' identification with organizations, while simultaneously ensuring that intolerance of disrespect and discrimination are embedded as a core aspect of the organizational culture. By aligning anti-discriminatory values with 'who we are', organizational leaders can encourage highly identified employees to work against the bias rather than overlook it.

*This post has been developed in collaboration with the research team.


Gloor, J. L., Okimoto, T. G., Li, X., Gazdag, B. A., & Ryan, M. K. (2024). How identity impacts bystander responses to workplace mistreatment. Journal of Management.

More from Tyler G Okimoto Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today