Bauer Research Explores Link Between Broken Work-Related Promises & Ethnic Minority Employees’ Silence

Published on September 17, 2018

Photo: Bauer Research Explores Link Between Broken Work-Related Promises & Ethnic Minority Employees’ Silence

When U.S. corporations violate psychological contracts (work-related promises and expected reciprocal obligations with their employees), ethnic minority employees tend to believe it is ethnic discrimination directed at them and keep silent out of fear of retaliation, negative labeling, and other adverse consequences, a new multi-study research paper reports.

Employee silence can "kill" an organization's learning and innovation (which ideally requires that all employees speak up), and the findings of research by Bauer College Associate Professor Dejun “Tony” Kong convey an important message to ethnically diverse organizations that strive for excellence and/or care about minority employees' welfare.

Psychological contract violations are unfortunately common in the workplace, Kong says — a boss promises a promotion that never comes through, or a salary increase that never materializes — and these violations can create major trust issues for employees, regardless of their position, ethnicity or time spent on the job.

However, the phenomenon has profound and unique implications for ethnic minority employees, according to Kong, of Bauer’s Department of Management & Leadership. In a forthcoming academic paper, Kong and his colleague find that besides perceiving their employer as untrustworthy when psychological contracts are broken, ethnic minority employees tend to interpret such intentional reneging as personal discrimination. Moreover, they tend to respond in a way that discourages organizational learning and innovation: fear-driven silence.

“Silence is a silent killer to organizations,” Kong says. “People need new thoughts and contributions from everyone on the team, particularly in knowledge-based organizations.”

Notably, two of the three empirical studies reported in the paper controlled for neurotic personality traits and the tendency to respond in a way that would be viewed favorably by others, Kong says, so it would be incorrect to assume that the findings were driven by neuroticism or social desirability bias.

Further, whether companies are most concerned about legal implications, the need to retain highly effective minority employees, the potential for damage to company culture if minority employees shut down, or all three things, companies need to remedy psychological contract violations.

“Once a psychological contract is violated, how do they repair it? One thing can be an apology, coupled with a justification of why it happened,” Kong says. “Provide some kind of explanation to help employees make sense of what’s going on. To ethnic minority employees, such verbal accounts are very important, as these accounts may prevent ethnic minority employees from attributing the violation to ethnic discrimination (particularly when it is not the case actually) and subsequently having negative experiences.”

Depending on the circumstances, re-negotiating the broken promise or providing some kinds of compensation might help soften the blow, but, obviously, such remedies may not be possible under all circumstances.  For example, the employer may say, as Kong suggests, “I cannot give you a raise, I can’t fulfill my promise now, but I’ll try to do it for you next year.”

Kong’s co-author of the paper is Phillip Jolly, who earned his Ph.D. at Bauer and is now an assistant professor of hospitality management at the Pennsylvania State University. The paper will be published in an American Psychological Association journal, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.