Ethical Realism

May 13, 2011

Job Discrimination

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 4:30 am
Tags: , , ,

Prejudice and discrimination still has a powerful impact on the workplace and is a serious moral issue facing our society. I will discuss (1) the meaning of job discrimination, (2) evidence of job discrimination, (3) affirmative action, (4) the doctrine of comparable worth, and (5) sexual harassment. This discussion is based on chapter nine of Business Ethics (Third Edition, 1999)by William Shaw. This is the most outdated chapter in his book because it relies heavily on older statistics and studies, but the problems we face today might not be quite the same as the problems we faced ten years ago. However, I will use more current statistics and studies than is available in his book when possible. However, Shaw’s newest business ethics book came out in 2009 and has updated statistics. (A used copy costs next to nothing on Amazon right now.)

The meaning of job discrimination

We all discriminate for and against people. It’s perfectly rational to discriminate between applicants for a job and to only hire those who are the most qualified based on merit. However, there are irrational and illegitimate forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism. There is rarely (or never) reason to discriminate against people purely on the basis of religious or political views, sexual orientation, age, or ethnicity. I will use the word “discrimination” as equivalent to the illegitimate sort of discrimination and prejudice. Job discrimination is when business decisions, policies, or procedures are at least partially based on illegitimate forms of discrimination that benefit or harm certain groups of people. Refusing to hire black people, paying women less than men for comparable work, and refusing to give homosexuals promotions are all egregious forms of job discrimination. Shaw only discusses discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, and women because “most discrimination in the American workplace has traditionally been aimed” at these groups (317). Discrimination is usually based on prejudice. (e.g. The belief that men don’t respect women bosses, that whites are harder working than other groups, or that customers won’t like to have Asian waiters.)

Not all discrimination is intentional or conscious. Sometimes people favor some groups of people over others as a matter of personal preference, or unconsciously accept stereotypes (317). Sometimes no one in particular is prejudiced, but the policies or procedures of an organization are prejudiced. A blatant example would be a policy that states that women can’t get “supervisory positions because ‘the boys in the company don’t like to take orders from females’” (ibid.). Not all examples are this obvious. For example, some states required a literacy test for voters and many blacks were given a poor education and couldn’t pass the literacy tests. Literacy tests (and similar academic tests) used for job applications could be discriminatory for similar reasons when it doesn’t directly measure the relevant qualifications concerning the job.

Why is job discrimination immoral? I’ve already made it clear that we are only dealing with irrational “non-merit-based” forms of discrimination here. That in itself doesn’t sound productive. Additionally, there’s a good reason that such discrimination is wrong. First, it unfairly harms people of a group (ibid.). Second, it’s disrespectful and doesn’t treat people as “ends in themselves” (317-318). Third, we wouldn’t be willing to accept such irrational discrimination practices that target groups we would personally suffer from (318) Fourth, discrimination violates the ideals of equal moral equality, violates people’s moral rights, and violates the ideal of equal opportunity (ibid.). Shaw doesn’t mention a fith reason, but discrimination often harms companies because companies do best with the most qualified employees and discrimination often prevents qualified people from attaining the jobs they would best serve. As a result it also harms customers and investors who depend on the company to hire and reward the most qualified employees who can provide us with the best products and services in the most efficient way available.

Evidence of discrimination

Although it is clear that job discrimination exists, it’s not clear how widespread it is. “However, when (1) statistics indicate that women and minorities play an unequal role in the work world and (2) endemic attitudes, practices, and policies are biased in ways that seem to account for the skewed statistics, then there is good reason to believe that job discrimination is a pervasive problem” (ibid.).

Statistical evidence

First, many statistics show advantages given to whites and disadvantages facing blacks and Hispanics. This can be seen in household net worth, poverty rates, and unemployment rates.

Household net worth – Studies have consistently found that white households tend to have about ten times the net worth of black households. The Panel Study of Income Dynamics found that in 2007 the median white household’s net income was worth $116,500 but the median black household’s net income was worth $9,500. More information can be found in the PDF here.

Median Household Net Worth









Poverty rates – According to, 13% of white Americans, 35% of black Americans, and 34% of Hispanic Americans lived in poverty from 2008-2009.

Unemployment rates – According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in April 2011, 8% of whites, 16.1% of blacks, and 11.8% of Hispanics were unemployed

Second, many statistics show advantages given to men and disadvantages given to women. This is illustrated by the income gap between men and women, and the low number of women in high paid positions.

The income gap – According to Robert Drago, the ratio of women’s and men’s median annual earnings, was 77.0 for full-time, year-round workers in 2009, essentially unchanged from 77.1 in 2008

High paid positions – Relatively few women are in management positions. According to the Government Accountability Office, women accounted for 40% of the management positions in 2007 despite being 49% of the non-management work force. Additionally, very few women are corporate executives. According to CNN, in may 2010 only 15 of the 500 “Fortune 500” companies were run by women.

Attitudinal evidence

Statistics don’t conclusively prove that discrimination exists because there could be causes of various advantages and disadvantages accorded to various groups based on legitimate factors other than prejudice or discrimination. To assume that “correlation always indicates causation” is to commit an error in reasoning. Shaw helps establish that discrimination exists by appealing to concrete examples of job discrimination and surveys.

For example, in 1990 Price Waterhouse, an accounting firm, was sued by Ann Hopkins and found guilty of sex discrimination for refusing to treat women as equals when deciding when to promote women into partners (320).

Price Waterhouse denied her the position because she was allegedly an abrasive and overbearing manager. Coworkers referred to her as ‘macho,’ advised her to go to charm school, and intimated that she was overcompensating for being a woman. One partner in the firm even told her that she should ‘walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.’ Hopkins argued, and the Court agreed, that the comments like these revealed an underlying sexism at the firm and that her strident manner and occasional cursing would have been overlooked if she had been a man. (321)

Shaw adds that several surveys confirm the prevalence of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping against women and other minorities (321-322). I will discuss the findings of new surveys and studies instead of the older ones that Shaw discussed.

One study from 2007 found that (a) customers who viewed videos featuring various employees were significantly more satisfied with the employees who were white men than from a minority even when the performance of the employees were indistinguishable, and (b) that white male doctors are often believed to be more competent and approachable than doctors of a minority even when their performance is indistinguishable. Such a study suggests not only that prejudice is widespread, but that “customer satisfaction surveys” are biased and should not be taken seriously when making administrative decisions that can help or harm employees. You can download a PDF of the study here.

Additionally, in 2005 Catalyst published findings concerning American stereotypes about women that can often be harmful to their careers. In particular, stereotypes tend to bias people against women taking leadership positions. Woman are often seen as affectionate, appreciative, emotional, friendly, sympathetic, sensitive, and sentimental; but men are seen as dominant, achievement-oriented, active, ambitious, self-confident and rational.1 It seems likely that many people think our leaders should be dominant, achievement-oriented, ambitious, self-confident, and rational; rather than affectionate, emotional, or sensitive. You can download a PDF of the findings here.

Finally, we can also consider other evidence that people are prejudiced in various ways. For example:

  1. There is evidence that many people are prejudiced against atheists. A 2006 study by the University of Minnesota found that 47.6% of Americans disapprove of a marriage between their child and an atheist, and a 2007 poll revealed that 57% of Americans don’t think atheists can be moral. The word “godless” has been used as an insult for quite some time, and it still is. I argue that atheism is not immoral here.
  2. There is evidence that many people are prejudiced against Muslims. A 2010 poll showed that 43% of Americans admit being at least a little prejudiced against Muslims, which is more than twice the number of people who admit that concerning other religions (18% admit it concerning Christians, 15% admit it concerning Jews, and 14% admit it concerning Buddhists.) I argue that Muslims are not immoral here.
  3. There is evidence that many people are prejudiced against homosexuals. A 2007 poll found that 43% of Americans wouldn’t vote for a qualified homosexual to be president, and a 2006 poll found that 22.6% of Americans don’t think that homosexuals “share their vision of of American society.” I argue that homosexuality isn’t immoral here.

Additionally, there’s evidence of prejudice and discrimination against…

  1. People with disabilities, which lead to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and successful lawsuits.
  2. Unattractive people based on a 1994 study and a 2010 study.
  3. People who are overweight based on a 2001 study (PDF).
  4. Older people, which lead to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and successful lawsuits.

Affirmative action: a legal context

Affirmative action originated in the form of somewhat recent civil rights legislation. It started in 1961 “President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which decreed that federal contractors should ‘take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin,’” the 1963 Equal Pay Act that “guaranteed the right to equal pay for equal work,” and the 1964 Civil Rights Act that “prohibits all forms of discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin” (323). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the work place regarding hiring employees, dismissing employees, wages, benefits, and discipline. The Civil Rights Act applies to all organizations with fifteen or more employees.

Civil rights legislation continued with the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Civil rights law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC). Starting in the 1960s “companies contracting with the federal government were required to develop affirmative action programs, designed to correct imbalances in employment that exist directly as a result of past discrimination” (324). The EEOC gives the following guidelines to affirmative action: (1) Organizations must have a written equal employment policy, (2) they must appoint someone in charge of the equal employment policy, and they must report information regarding employees of various minorities (ibid.).

The Supreme Court’s position

Shaw lists many Supreme Court cases relevant to affirmative action to give us an idea about the legality involving it.

The first case concerning affirmative action was Bakke v. Regents of the University of California from 1978 and ruled that strict quotas meant to help minorities were a form of reverse discrimination against non-minorities (325). A white student sued because he would have been admitted to UC Davis if it weren’t for the quotas, and he won the case.

Perhaps the latest affirmative action case in the Supreme Court was the 2009 case, Ricci v. DeStefano, which ruled that an organization can’t dismiss test results that seem discriminatory unless they can be sufficiently proven to be discriminatory. A test was given to firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut to determine which workers would get promotions and none of the black workers passed. Nineteen workers believed they were passed up on the promotions because the test result was thrown out, and they won the case. The Supreme Court decided that throwing the test results out was a form of discrimination and violated our civil rights.

Recent supreme court cases involving affirmative action have confirmed that minorities can be given extra points when making administrative decisions, but unqualified people should not be given special treatment on the basis of affirmative action (328).

Affirmative action: the moral issues

Legislators and the Supreme Court can decide when affirmative action is legal, but they can’t determine when (or if) it’s moral. Shaw discusses arguments for and against affirmative action that include “programs taking race or sex of employees or job candidates into account as part of an effort to correct imbalances in employment that exist as a result of past discrimination, either in the company itself or in the larger society… Excluded are programs that establish rigid, permanent quotas or that hire and promote unqualified persons” (ibid.).

I don’t know why Shaw states that affirmative action is meant to only counter “past discrimination.” Discrimination still exists. People and institutions often give preference to non-minorities over minorities, as was already made clear above. Affirmative action could be used to counter discrimination that still exists to make sure prejudice has a smaller impact on administrative decisions that can benefit and harm workers.

Arguments for affirmative action

  1. Compensatory justice demands affirmative action programs” (329) – Past discrimination has harmed minorities and we should try to compensate for that damage. (However, (a) it’s not clear that employers have a duty to compensate for the wrongs done by others and (b) affirmative action doesn’t compensate to the actual people who were harmed by past discrimination.)
  2. Affirmative action is necessary to permit fairer competition” (329-330) – Blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups are still disadvantaged because of past discrimination, and affirmative action can help them rise above disadvantages that they still suffer from. (However, its prejudiced to assume that only minorities suffer from unfair hardships when many whites have also had to do so.)
  3. Affirmative action is necessary to break the cycle that keeps minorities and women locked into low-paying, low-prestige jobs” (330) – It’s unfair that certain minorities are trapped into worse jobs than white men and it would take hundreds of years to change that situation without affirmative action. (However, affirmative action can make people racially conscious and white men can resent minorities who get good jobs by assuming that it was because of a form of reverse-racism.)

Arguments against affirmative action

  1. Affirmative action injures white men and violates their rights” (ibid.) – The group you belong to is irrelevant to your qualifications and people should be treated as individuals with unique qualifications instead. Affirmative action doesn’t treat people as individuals and can harm white men who might not enjoy advantages that are enjoyed by minorities just because they are minorities. (However, white men have more advantages than other groups and affirmative action can help provide a better balance of advantages by taking minority groups into consideration.)
  2. Affirmative action itself violates the principle of equality” (330-331) – If it’s wrong to treat people unequally, then it’s also wrong to treat them unequally to give minorities an advantage over whites. (However, being in a minority group already prevents people from being equals and affirmative action helps counterbalance the advantages enjoyed by white men.)
  3. Nondiscrimination will achieve our social goals; stronger affirmative action is unnecessary” (331) – Civil rights legislation already requires nondiscrimination and strict enforcement of the law is all that we need to stop discrimination. (However, lawsuits are not always successful, not everyone wants to sue their (potential) employer, and it’s extremely difficult to prove non-egregious and non-blatant forms of discrimination.)

I believe that the opposition to affirmative action tends to rely on the assumption that affirmative action doesn’t help prevent actual discrimination that exists right now despite evidence that discrimination is widespread. So far affirmative action seems to be the only solution to that issue, but certainly more research could help us decide on whether or not it is effective. This argument is utilitarian. It is possible that there are deontological reasons to oppose affirmative action. Perhaps it illegitimately restricts freedom, disrespects people by assuming there are prejudiced, and so on.

Comparable worth

We think equal work and merit deserves equal pay, but many women don’t always get equal pay as men—even for the same job (ibid.). For example, Louise Peterson, a female nurse, sued Western State Hospital because she was paid $192 a month less than male nurses who had similar work and pay. A federal judge found the hospital guilty of sex discrimination (331-332).

Additionally, many women get paid less than men because they work in a job that was traditionally given to men. Such women dominated professions (called “pink collar” occupations) often pay significantly less than jobs traditionally dominated by men despite requiring comparable work and qualifications. “For example, studies have shown that legal secretaries and instrument-repair technicians hold jobs with the same relative value for a company in terms of accountability, know-how, and problem-solving skill. Yet legal secretaries, who are almost all women, earn an average of $9,432 less than instrument-repair technicians, who are generally men” (332).

Advocates of the “comparable worth principle” argue that people should be paid the same amount for the same sort of work and qualifications—“even if discriminatory job markets would otherwise put them on different pay scales” (ibid.). Moreover, I would like to point out that some jobs with such “discriminatory pay” could be for the government rather than in the free market. It seems like a blatant example of discrimination when the government pays women less than men despite doing comparable work and having comparable qualifications.

Opponents of the comparable worth principle often favor the free market and don’t think the government should regulate the amount companies pay for a job. After all, it might be that women freely chose to work in professions that pay less knowing full well that better paying jobs are available. One opponent points out that “[f]or two decades at least women have been free to go into any occupation… But most women continue to choose traditional, rather than non-traditional jobs. This is their own free choice. Nobody makes them do it” (332).

It seems reasonable to demand that the comparable worth principle should be used by organizations to make sure that white men and minorities are paid equally for the same jobs, equal work, and equal qualifications. It seems like blatant discrimination not to do so. Minorities might “freely choose” to work for a discriminatory company only because almost every company is discriminatory and few to no better opportunities exist. This certainly seems disrespectful to minorities.

It also seems reasonable to demand that government jobs pay women equally to men for comparable work and qualifications across professions because there is no reason for the government to favor white male dominated professions over professions dominated by minorities other than blatant and disrespectful discrimination. Government jobs don’t revolve around the “free market,” so it can’t account for governmental discrimination.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment—unwelcome sexual behavior in the workplace—is merely one illegal form of harassment, and workers should not be harassed on the job. Sexual harassment, however, is often discriminatory in that it mainly targets women because they are women (334). Perhaps the most obvious example of sexual harassment is when a manager tells an employee to “sleep with me or else you’re fired.” Other examples of sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual requests, unwelcome touching, and unwelcome sexual comments. For example, “[s]exual innuedos; leering or ogling at a woman; sexist remarks about women’s bodies, clothing, or sexual activities; the posting of pictures of nude women; and unnecessary touching, patting, or other physical conduct can all constitute harassment” (335). Sexual harassment can involve potential punishments and rewards for the victim. However, “[e]ven sexual offers without hint of retaliation [can] change the employee’s work environment in an undesirable way” (ibid.).

The difference between harmless sexual behavior (flirting, sexual advances, and sex-related humor) and sexual harassment is not always clear, and it might be impossible or even undesirable to ban all sexuality found in the workplace (336).

It is advisable for people to try to make it clear that unwanted sexual behavior is unwanted, and if the unwanted sexual behavior becomes distressing, to even take steps to stop the sexual harassment. The following steps can be taken (ibid.):

  1. It can be made explicitly clear that the sexual behavior is unwanted.
  2. The behavior can be documented with every case of it being specifically noted.
  3. If the behavior continues or is serious, then a supervisor should be notified and any other official policy of the company can be followed.
  4. If the company refuses to stop the sexual harassment, then it can be sued.

A 2007 study said that there’s strong evidence that women who defy gender stereotypes and have “masculine” qualities are more likely to face sexual harassment. Men are not necessarily sexual attracted to women they sexually harass and often feel that their masculinity is threatened.

Sexual harassment is wrong for the same reason as discrimination and because it’s a harmful form of harassment. Sexual harassment is often harmful to both the (a) victim and (b) organization:

  1. Sexual harassment is not only disrespectful and not only coercive, but it has measurable effects. The psychological distress caused by sexual harassment is very real. Two 1998 studies conducted by the European Union (PDF) found that sexual harassment could lead to “severe distress” and cause negative effects on the victim’s health. For example, victims reported feeling fear, insecurity, and mistrust; as well as physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, and sleep deprivation.
  2. A 2005 study by the Queen’s School of Business found that unwanted sexual attention makes entire work teams less efficient and can lead to team conflict.

Sexual harassment is widespread. A 2011 study by Michigan State University found that over 50% of women and almost 20% of men had at least one incident of sexual harassment within a year. The study found that many people experience sexual harassment as bothersome or frighting. Women were found to find sexual harassment distressing when it was frighting rather than bothersome; but men found it distressing either way.


Job discrimination is illegal, it’s often against the company’s best interest, and it’s immoral. Not all forms of irrational discrimination are illegal and companies should do whatever is necessary to be impartial when making decisions that can harm or benefit employees and applicants. Moreover, discrimination is widespread. Legal action is often but not always available against companies that discriminate. Affirmative action can help minorities by preventing discrimination against them or to attempt to help them overcome obstacles that they face due to past discrimination, but it’s not clear that affirmative action is a morally preferable option.

One form of discrimination seems to be unfair wage differences and the “principle of comparable worth” might be necessary to combat such discriminatory practices.

Finally, sexual harassment in particular violates the right to noninjury accepted by all theories of justice and causes measurable harm.


1 These specific findings are attributed to David Schneider’s The Psychology of Stereotyping (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).



  1. Recently, I applied for a role for which I was not selected to even interview.
    My submitted resume and cover letter were an identical match for the posted job description, and I had two separate, high-level, recommendations sent to the hiring official.

    A criteria for the posting was ‘prior military’ experience, with an honorable discharge (which I possess).
    However, when I inquired (through networking channels w/i the company) about my not being selected for an interview, I was informed it was because my time in the military was as an enlisted and not an officer.

    Since being an ‘officer was not clearly outlined in the posted job description, and I clearly meet/exceed all posted criteria for the role, I believe I have been discriminated against. However, I am uncertain if that discrimination is covered under the legal description of discrimination or if I have some form of rights otherwise.

    Q: Are you able to shed some light on this topic and/or provide direction where I can further research.

    Comment by JDS — November 2, 2011 @ 12:26 am | Reply

  2. My employer recently segregated the employees into two groups direct and in-direct. The direct employees are the ones who work in production departments, fill receivers, shipping, order fillers. The in-direct are the employees that work non-productive jobs maintenance, clerks,inventory control. The in-direct employees aren’t allowed to receive the same bonus as the direct employees because of the non-productive nature of their jobs. But, they’re making the in-direct employees perform direct job functions every day. But these same in-directs aren’t allowed to receive the same bonus, even though their performing the same job and held to the same (if not higher) requirements as the direct employees. For example we are required to fill orders at a 95% rate based on the weeks performance. If say on Monday an in-direct doesn’t hit the 95% mark and then isn’t put back in the production the rest of the week. Their written up. On the other hand, say a direct employee has a bad day on Monday they have the entire rest of the week to bring up their %. No one is allowed to check their own numbers, so we have to “trust” the management team to be fair and honest. Which they don’t have a good track record for doing. Would this be considered a type of discrimination ?

    Comment by Joe Cole — January 21, 2012 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

    • Joe, why do you think discrimination could be involved? Who exactly would be discriminated against? Right now discrimination relies on specific groups of people (of a certain religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)

      Comment by JW Gray — January 21, 2012 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

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