Race/ethnicity and slacking at work


From John Henry: An American Legend, by Ezra Jack Keats

I gave some comments to an Economist writer for a story they just published, “New research suggests that effort at work is correlated with race.” They used a snippet of what I said, so I figured I’d dump the rest here (because the piece is not bylined, I’m not using the reporter’s name).

The article is about an NBER working paper (not yet peer reviewed) by, Daniel Hamermesh, Katie Genadek, and Michael Burda. It’s officially here, but I put a copy up in case you don’t have am NBER subscription.) The analysis uses the American Time Use Survey to see whether time at work spent not working varies by race/ethnicity, and they find that it does. The abstract:

Evidence from the American Time Use Survey 2003-12 suggests the existence of small but statistically significant racial/ethnic differences in time spent not working at the workplace. Minorities, especially men, spend a greater fraction of their workdays not working than do white non-Hispanics. These differences are robust to the inclusion of large numbers of demographic, industry, occupation, time and geographic controls. They do not vary by union status, public-private sector attachment, pay method or age; nor do they arise from the effects of equal-employment enforcement or geographic differences in racial/ethnic representation. The findings imply that measures of the adjusted wage disadvantages of minority employees are overstated by about 10 percent.

When the Economist contacted me, I consulted several colleagues for their response. Reeve Vanneman pointed out that minority workers might slack off at work because they are discriminated against, and Liana Sayer pointed out that the activity measures in the ATUS may not be not precise enough to say what if any “non-work” activity is actually contributing to the bottom line – the paper doesn’t detail what these “non-work” activities are. My own critique was that, before we start attributing work behavior to “culture,” we might consider whether work reporting behavior varies by “culture” as well (the ATUS uses self-reported time diaries). The authors did a little monkeying around with the General Social Survey to address that, but I found it unpersuasive.

Anyway, you can read the Economist article yourself. I would have preferred they killed the article, because I don’t think the paper sustains its conclusions, but they did a reasonable job of reporting it. And here are the full comments I sent them:

The analysis in the paper does not support the conclusion that wage disparities between blacks and whites are overstated. There just isn’t enough there to make that claim. As the authors note, the problem of differential reporting is an obvious concern. Their analysis of the “importance of work” questions in the GSS seems immaterial – it’s just not the same question.

This is exacerbated by the problem that they don’t describe the difference between work-related non-work activities and non-work-related non-work activities. We just don’t know enough about what they’re doing to draw the conclusion that the work-related activities are really productivity enhancing while the non-related activities are really not. (Consider trying to parse the effect of eating alone at your desk versus eating with a team-member in the cafeteria. Which is productivity enhancing?) It is always the case that jobs differ between blacks and whites in ways surveys do not capture – that’s the whole question of the wage gap. Controlling for things like industry and occupation helps but it’s the tip of the iceberg. For example, the difference between small and large employers, and between those with formal management procedures and those without, is not captured here.

Finally, consider the possibility of reverse-causality. What if blacks are discriminated against and paid less than whites for the same level of productivity – or treated poorly in other ways – a very reasonable hypothesis? Might that not lead those black workers to be less devoted to their employers, and spend more time on other things when no one is looking? I wouldn’t blame them.

In short, the paper uses a lot of ambiguous information, which is interesting and suggestive, to draw a conclusion that is not warranted. It’s part of a tradition in economics of assuming there must be some rational basis for pay disparities, and looking really hard to find it, rather than treating employer motivations more skeptically and trusting the voluminous evidence of racist bias in the labor market.

In the email exchange, they asked for followup on the evidence of racial bias, so I added this:

The best evidence of discrimination is from audit studies. This is one of the best. That author, Michael  Gaddis at Penn State, can talk much more about it, but the point is that even when you can’t identify an individual act of racism, in the aggregate employer behavior shows a preference for whites — as we can tell by imposing experimental conditions in which the only thing different between resumes is the names. Other approaches include studying disparities in performance evaluation (e.g., this [by Marta Elvira and Robert Town]), or analyzing discrimination case files directly (e.g., this [by Ryan Light, Vincent Roscigno, and Alexandra Kalev]).

That all got reduced to this, in the article: “Worse treatment by managers of minority workers may itself encourage slacking, says Philip Cohen.” (Though they went on to cite evidence that workers work less when their managers are biased against them.)

On the other hand

As I think about it more, there is another important angle on this, which goes back to Reeve’s comment, and also something in the conclusion to the Economist article:

Within hours of publication, Mr Hamermesh received vitriolic messages and was labelled a racist in an online forum popular among economists. Mr Hamermesh, an avowed progressive, who refers to Donald Trump only by amusing nicknames and resigned from a post at the University of Texas over a state law permitting the open carrying of firearms, finds this unfair. He notes that Americans work too much. His preferred solution would not be for some groups to work more, but for others to work less.

There is an understandable anti-racist tendency to want to avoid a story of minority workers as lazy and shiftless – which is a character flaw. But there is a resistance story to tell as well, and the liberal anti-racist approach papers it over. For this, we need historian Robin D. G. Kelley, who wrote a brilliant paper called, “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South” (free copy here). Here’s a relevant excerpt, in which he cites W. E. B. Du Bois:

Part of the reason [labor historians have not written more about workplace theft and sabotage by Southern Blacks], I think, lies in southern labor historians’ noble quest to redeem the black working class from racist stereotypes. In addition, company personnel records, police reports, mainstream white newspaper accounts, and correspondence have left us with a somewhat serene portrait of black folks who only occasionally deviate from what I like to call the “cult of true Sambohood.” The safety and ideological security of the South required that pilfering, slowdowns, absenteeism, tool breaking, and other acts of black working-class resistance be turned into ineptitude, laziness, shiftlessness, and immorality. But rather than reinterpret these descriptions of black working-class behavior, sympathetic labor historians are often too quick to invert the images, remaking the black proletariat into the hardest working, thriftiest, most efficient labor force around. Historians too readily naturalize the Protestant work ethic and project onto black working people as a whole the ideologies of middle-class and prominent working-class blacks. But if we regard most work as alienating, especially work done amid racist and sexist oppression, then a crucial aspect of black working-class struggle is to minimize labor with as little economic loss as possible. Let us recall one of Du Bois’s many beautiful passages from Black Reconstruction: “All observers spoke of the fact that the slaves were slow and churlish; that they wasted material and malingered at their work. Of course they did. This was not racial but economic. It was the answer of any group of laborers forced down to the last ditch. They might be made to work continuously but no power could make them work well.”

Working hard for the man’s benefit is not the only way to build character.


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5 responses to “Race/ethnicity and slacking at work

  1. I’d also like to put forth the hypothesis (and yes, opinion) that whites are more likely to categorize practically everything they do *at* work *as* work. The study used time diaries, and I know my dad, for one (a Mexican immigrant), would not categorize certain things as “working” – like waiting for a crew to unload the truck of product he delivered, or filling up a gas tank, or standing in line to turn in paperwork, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is really good. Thanks.


  3. Matthew M

    Yeah, there’s just a pretty robust literature about “passive” workplace resistance that explains this (if it is a real finding) really well. If I had to work shitty jobs because I was discriminated against, I’d feel better about myself if I did a shitty job at them…


  4. Could there be health deficits that might also play a part in the productivity level differences at work? I’m thinking about stress, recent upward mobility (e.g. adapting to new norms and expectations), debt levels, depression. Racial disparities outside the workplace might affect productivity differences by race in the workplace.


  5. An excellent piece of work on your part in responding to a lazy (and thus stereotype-reliant) reporter’s question. I also add the oft repeated Eastern European joke about worker-management relations under state socialism: “very harmonious. They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Gal and Kligman’s research on post-Soviet societies in Eastern Europe also found the common strategy there for dealing with management corruption was worker theft (of time and materials) — as the ratio of worker to management income gets worse, we might expect more such resistence especially among those who are not hoodwinked into believing that they will ever see the trickle down reach them.


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