top of page

Discrimination in the workplace lowers employees' motivation, an analysis reveals, but why?

Employee motivation is hugely dropped by inequality in the workplace, a study of 810 participants revealed. Even among those who stand to benefit from the unfair advantages given to them, UK researchers found out that disparities in the rewards given to different people for completing the same task reduce people's happiness.

Consequently, this reduces people’s desire to work, the team said, demonstrating that workers do care about unjust systems even when they are not among the disadvantaged ones, as the greater this disparity, the more unhappy and unmotivated the people were.

Image credit Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP

“We have shown the psychological impacts of inequality of opportunity and how it can hurt the productivity and well-being of everyone involved,” explained psychologist Filip Gesiarz of the University College London (UCL).

“Our findings may shed light on how psychological mechanisms, apart from structural barriers, can contribute to higher unemployment and lower university application rates of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

'It's more difficult to motivate yourself to work hard if you know that other people will be more generously rewarded for the same effort,” he added.

In their study, the team found out that people were more likely to refuse the work in an unfair situation through the completion of a simple task in exchange for money — with the subjects being told that other people were being paid more or less for the same job, to varying degrees of inequality.

Hence, each participant was given the option to turn down working on a given task and — in some of the experiments.

The researchers, who also asked the participants about their feelings about the given options to choose from, discovered that when people were told that there were wide differences in pay between them and their peers, they were less willing to work with unhappiness levels increasing with greater disparities.

In a working environment with hundreds of different relationships, positions, and treatment, it is often too easy to treat people differently. Image credit Perkbox

The findings reveal that inequalities in the workplace may impact the motivation of not only the disadvantaged, but anyone who perceives the system to be unjust, with people found more likely to refuse to work in an unfair scenario.

“People who are economically disadvantaged might face a two-fold reduction in motivation and well-being first due to their lower relative position, and second due to their reaction to the unfair distribution of opportunities,” Dr Gesiarz explained.

“This study documents yet another example of a ‘poverty trap’,” said economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford.

This, he added, is “a situation in which being put at a disadvantage [...] decreases a person's motivation to work, further worsening their situation.”

Unfortunately, though, we don’t know if inequality harms those at the top outside the lab.

Definitely, one thing that needs to be pondered is that in the experiment people knew that their position was randomly assigned.

“In the ‘real world’ people many times assume that their good fortune is justified by their talent and effort and therefore inequality might not have a negative influence on the motivation and well-being of privileged individuals in those situations.

“This is an important question that we hope to answer in the future,” researchers concluded.


bottom of page