Discrimination through Ambiguity: Reducing Workplace Bias Against Minority Immigrants


Soft Skills
So-called “soft skills” may not translate as easily as hoped when skilled workers immigrant to a new country, suggests a paper in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Skilled ethnic and religious minority immigrants are under-employed in Western nations, not only costing these economies billions of dollars but potentially complicating inter-group relations, according to a new study published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In the United States, 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed. In Canada, the under-employment of immigrants is perceived to be a public policy failing.

PIBBS cover
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, or FABBS, with SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, publishes the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This annual journal features research findings in the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior that are applicable to nearly every area of public policy. The first issue comprises 33 articles in social and personality psychology focused on topics including health, education, justice, the environment, and inequality.
Study authors Victoria M. Esses, Caroline Bennett-AbuAyyash, and Natalia Lapshina suspect discrimination may be at work.

This particular discrimination is rationalized—that is, justified in ways that protect the perpetrators from negative social or psychological consequences, the researchers explain in “How Discrimination against Ethnic and Religious Minorities Contributes to the Underutilization of Immigrants’ Skills.”

Prejudice is defined as a negative attitude toward a social group. In employment discrimination, this attitude can be rationalized through ambiguity. Foreign credentials may be ambiguous, they explain, as may the applicant’s personal characteristics such as problem-solving, communication and teamwork.

According to the Esses, a psychologist and director of the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at the University of Western Ontario, and her colleagues, “Ambiguity removes the need to suppress prejudice because ambiguity essentially makes a wide range of responses seem acceptable.”

In one of several studies cited in the paper, participants were given a job applicant’s resume and a 10-minute video of the applicant’s job interview. Applicants were either native Canadians or immigrants with foreign credentials, and either Christian, having no religious preference, or Muslim, one of the fastest growing religious minority groups in North America.

Religious affiliation had no effect when the applicant was a Canadian. But when the applicant was an immigrant, being Muslim led to poorer perception of both the technical and other teachable skills as well as the personal characteristics—so-called soft skills.

In the workforce, complaints about discrimination by minorities often are met with skepticism, particularly concerning immigrant minorities whose foreign credentials and personal characteristics may be ambiguous.

In another study, participants were given one of three newspaper articles describing a claim of employment-related discrimination.

The articles were identical except for the first sentence, which identified the claimant as either a recent immigrant from Iran or England, or an individual born in Canada to parents who emigrated from Iran many years ago. The article went on to explain that the program director’s initial satisfaction with the claimant’s work turned negative, leading to job loss.

Results showed that the recent immigrant from Iran was less likely to be perceived as having experienced discrimination.

The authors remind us that most Western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. Still, subtle bias, particularly against “soft skills,” continues to result in discrimination.

Considering the current research, the under-utilization of immigrants may particular concern policy makers because of the economic and social costs, including future intergroup relations.

Recommended policy interventions include government-sponsored workshops aimed at increasing awareness of subtle bias and concerns about appearing prejudiced.

Employers would be more concerned about appearing prejudiced if monetary penalties for discrimination were levied or increased, and if governments publicly disclosed those employers who discriminate.

The authors also advise reducing the perceived ambiguity of skilled immigrants’ credentials, perhaps through training in how those ‘soft skills’ are applied in the host country.


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