University of Calgary

Having it Easy: Consumer Discrimination and Specialization in the Workplace


Most studies analyzing the adjustments of workers to discrimination focus on sorting decisions, such as occupations workers pursue. We instead analyze on-the-job adjustments, focusing on the e ffects of discrimination by consumers. Speci fically, using extraordinary data from a large-scale restaurant, we investigate the eff ects of an out-ward yet immutable physical trait - symmetry of the facial attributes of workers - on trade off s workers make, and the extent to which the trade off s are shaped by consumer preference for the trait. A large scale restaurant is well-suited for studying these issues because, as with many jobs in the services sector, workers must trade o ff quality of service for the quantity of consumers they serve. Using a combination of observational data and data generated by a field experiment, we fi nd consumers have a preference for the trait and that preferred workers deliver lower service quality. Instead they specialize in serving more consumers. The fi ndings imply that when outward physical traits substitute for service quality in consumer preferences, preferred workers specialize in tasks having no services component because consumers punish them less for poor performance. We conclude that consumer discrimination shapes comparative advantage and, in doing so, generates earnings inequality in the workplace.
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