Cover Story

Though the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race or ethnicity, harassment hasn't disappeared from American workplaces.

A lot of bullying and incivility is a veiled form of racism and sexism, says psychologist Lilia Cortina, PhD, a psychology and women's studies professor at the University of Michigan. In her research, she's found that general bullying is often accompanied by sexual and gender harassment. In an article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 3, pages 483-496), Cortina studied two different groups of 833 and 1,435 female employees in the same large public-sector employer.

She found that 16 to 22 percent of these women experienced co-occurring gender incivility and gender harassment-behavior that is gender-targeted but does not solicit sexual contact. For 7 to 21 percent of the population, these behaviors were accompanied by sexualized forms of harassment-for example, unwelcome sexual advances, unwanted touching or sexually inappropriate remarks. Cortina explains that companies that tolerate sexual harassment are much more likely to permit nonsexual forms of abuse, such as bullying.

In some cases, she adds, racial harassment enters the mix. In previous research involving Latina women, Cortina has found that many are subjected to the "hot-blooded, highly sexualized" Latina female stereotype.

Similarly, psychologist Suzy Fox, PhD, of the Loyola University of Chicago School of Business has found that workplace bullying of African Americans is often accompanied by racial and ethnic slurs.

She has also found that many minorities feel as if they have to give up their ethnic identity to get along at work. While racial and ethnic groups certainly have better working conditions than before the Civil Rights Act was passed, harassment is still fairly common, though more subtle and harder to tie to employment conditions, Fox says.

The burden of proof is on the employee when it comes to discrimination, adds David Yamada, JD, an employment law specialist. More generic protections against mistreatment at work, such as the model legislation Yamada has written (see "Still wearing the 'kick me' sign"), would be more effective for all employees, he concludes.

--L. Meyers