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Understanding and Underreacting? Identifying and Addressing Empathy Gaps in Perceptions of Racial Microaggressions

A diverse group of adults sit in a circle

This is the fifth in a series of five articles funded by the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology Foundation (SIOP Foundation) to study anti-racism efforts in workplaces.

The goal of our project was to examine the extent to which there exists an empathy gap between white and Black employees for racial microaggressions that occur at work. Drawing on the literature on affective forecasting, we defined the empathy gap as the potential failure of white employees to recognize the emotional harm associated with experiencing racial microaggressions at work. Stated differently, we posited that white employees may experience less empathy for targets of racial microaggressions and forecast less harm done to the target as compared with Black employees. We further contended that this underestimation of the emotional harm of racial microaggressions might also lead white employees to be less likely to react in positive and supportive ways following the occurrence of a microaggression.

We conducted three studies in which we first collected critical incidents data from Black employees about their experiences of racial microaggressions to generate realistic scenarios for our subsequent studies. Second, we conducted a study in which we presented participants with vignettes that depicted either a neutral interaction between a white employee and a Black employee or depicted the occurrence of a racial microaggression. Participants were then asked to report how much empathy they felt toward the Black employee who was targeted by the racial microaggression (or neutral behavior), how much anger they felt toward the white employee who engaged in the behavior, the degree to which they believe the targeted employee experienced emotional distress, and their willingness to engage in a variety of intervention behaviors on behalf of the targeted employee. The final study we conducted examined racial microaggressions experienced by Black employees, their co-workers’ reactions to such experiences, and the consequences of being targeted by microaggressions at work. The goal of this study was to examine the extent to which the intervention gap existed in real-world contexts and to examine whether Black employees feel supported by their white co-workers on the job.

Findings. Our vignette study did not uphold our original hypothesis that there would be an empathy gap between white and Black employees exposed to incidents of racial microaggressions at work. However, we did find that white participants were less willing to intervene following a racial microaggression as compared with Black participants. Results from our employee sample indicated that experiences of racial microaggressions were relatively common among Black employees and that few participants had co-workers who had intervened on their behalf. Receiving bystander intervention also predicted a host of employee well-being outcomes, suggesting that receiving such intervention is beneficial for targeted employees.

Practical implications. Our findings are mixed, but the results of our survey study indicate that Black employees perceive that they experience little support when they experience racial microaggressions at work and that not receiving that support can harm employee well-being. Organizations should thus seek to improve bystander intervention. Our vignette study showed that white employees are less likely to intervene following a racial microaggression than Black employees, so interventions may need to specifically focus on the barriers white employees may experience when choosing whether or not to intervene.

Key considerations. We also considered this question: If the findings of this research were implemented in another company or for a different job, what things would need to be considered for a successful outcome? Our findings are not specific to a company or position, but organizations with poor diversity climates and/or an absence of diversity training may experience heightened racial microaggressions as well as unique barriers to intervention.

Future research. We plan to follow up on this study to examine what may alternatively explain the gap in willingness to intervene. We are interested in whether there are racial differences in how participants label the behaviors depicted in the vignettes. More specifically, it is possible that white participants empathize with Black employees targeted by racial microaggressions but do not view the behavior as a microaggression. They may alternatively view the behavior as generally rude or uncivil and thus as not having racialized implications. We also plan to explore whether there are moderators such that the empathy gap exists for certain people, such as political conservatives or people who have high just-world beliefs. Completing this step will be integral to moving forward with our proposed final study, which centers on building an intervention to improve bystander intervention among white employees.

Lindsay Y. Dhanani, Ph.D., is assistant professor of HR management at Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J. Matthew L. LaPalme, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral candidate at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


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