Discomfort at Work: Workplace Assimilation Demands, Social Equality, and the Contact Hypothesis

62 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2007 Last revised: 25 Feb 2008

Tristin Green

University of San Francisco - School of Law


Recent research on the contact hypothesis - the idea that intergroup contact can reduce prejudice - reveals that permitting identification with socially salient categories like race and gender is more likely to translate into reduced prejudice than attempting to eliminate or eclipse entirely those categories. This research has important implications for a number of issues of pressing social and legal concern, from broad views about integration and the cultural consequences of immigration to more narrow questions about diversity in education and the role and shape of affirmative action. This Article considers the implications of the contact hypothesis research for one of these issues: the debate about employer demands that people of color and women "cover" their race and gender by conforming their behavior and appearance to a white, male norm (known as the "workplace assimilation" debate). The degree of diversity represented in the workplace relative to other social institutions and the sustained nature of interaction at work makes the workplace a uniquely promising venue for attaining the relational benefits of intergroup contact. The workplace assimilation demand debate therefore serves as a useful lens for understanding the implications of the contact hypothesis research more broadly.

To date, scholars and courts have framed the workplace assimilation debate largely in terms of individual interests: on one side sits the employer's interest in easing customer or co-worker discomfort with difference, and on the other side sits the employee's interest in being saved the identity, time, and economic costs involved in complying with behavior requirements that are drawn along a white, male norm. This Article reframes the debate by considering how workplace assimilation demands impact the end-goal of antidiscrimination law - social equality. Drawing on the vast social science research and theory on the contact hypothesis, it argues that regulating workplace assimilation demands to permit signals of group identification is likely to result in greater prejudice reduction than the prevailing policy of permitting those demands. More specifically, it proposes that employees should be provided space to signal membership in groups protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through employer accommodation to appearance. This proposal aims to attain the societal benefit possible from contact at work without risking essentialization of group traits. In doing so, the proposal embraces an understanding of workplace diversity that includes behavioral signals of group-based identities as much as biologically prescribed ones. Perhaps even more important, the proposal represents a new vision of integration, one in which discomfort with difference is overcome instead of avoided.

Keywords: discrimination, employment, assimilation, integration, social equality, race discrimination, sex discrimination, contact hypothesis

Suggested Citation

Green, Tristin, Discomfort at Work: Workplace Assimilation Demands, Social Equality, and the Contact Hypothesis. North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 86, p. 379, 2008; Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper No. 1018311. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1018311

Tristin Green (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco - School of Law ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

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