Workplace Inequality: Can We Talk About How We Treat Each Other?

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The other day a friend asked me what I thought about the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, and I told her.

She said she thought he was probably guilty, too, and it bothered her how some people were complaining about his “tarnished legacy” and whatnot, considering the circumstances.

I told her I understood, and that sometimes we simply must accept that people are both this and that. In this case, Cosby could be a pervert and a gifted actor. It’s not an either/or.

Ignoring the “dark truth”

Attorney Susan G. Bluer makes a similar point in Ellen Pao and the Enduring Illusion of Equality, when she says that Pao could have had trouble performing at times and been treated worse than her male colleagues “for what appeared to be sexist and retaliatory reasons.” However the jury, Bluer argues, may only have been able to grasp one set of facts.

Bluer says a few other interesting things as well, such as: “many of us do not want to see the dark truth that discrimination — not just sexism, of course, but all the “isms” — still persist in many workplaces.”

Amen to that.

“Could I have an iced Grande whole milk chai latte, please?”

Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign may have been a bust (and kind of weird), but I’ll give them credit for originality and a willingness to take a risk. Apparently I’m in the minority (no pun intended) on this, however.

When CNBC asked readers in an online poll, “Will Starbucks’ race relations initiative impact your future visits? 35 percent said they’ll now visit Starbucks less often.

Seriously? I’m thinking someone who’s willing to spend close to five bucks on a cup of tea is up for just about anything, but obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about. Some objectors even commented that Starbucks must be racist to want to talk about race, which is just dumb (and, not coincidentally, the same accusation leveled at people of color who want to talk about race).

I don’t necessarily want to discuss race (or anything, to be honest) with a barista at Starbucks while hustling for my morning cup of Joe, but the problem is that hardly anyone wants to talk about race issues (or other kinds of discrimination) no matter the time or place.

And when it comes to our workplaces, this lack of interest is especially unbeneficial. We can’t keep ignoring the obvious while claiming to care about healthy workplaces. In other words, if you’re unwilling to even acknowledge the possibility of bias in the workplace and how it unfavorably affects certain segments of your workforce, how can you speak with authority about employee engagement, employee loyalty, or the importance of employee happiness to your company success?

This one really IS either/or.

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Unconscious bias, or something more sinister?

Along with an aversion to concede certain “isms” in the workplace comes a distaste for the idea that anyone but the most backward and hateful person could deliberately discriminate against another human being.

But in Are We All Really Just Unconscious?, Stephen Paskoff, a former EEOC trial attorney (and TLNT contributor), writes:

We’re deluding ourselves if we believe that the world of the conscious has been cured of bias and that the majority of employment harms are arising from reflexive non-thinking actions, real though they are. But today, this is often how organizations perceive their workplaces.”

I could tell you all sooooo many personal stories of prejudice in the workplace, but I suspect you wouldn’t be impressed. Moreover, I’m middle aged and have had a lot of years to develop a certain pragmatism toward the situation, however wrong it is.

But please don’t email me outraged about how the whole world is in pain, and there’s nothing special about mine. Again, this isn’t an either/or situation. This isn’t a game to determine whose injustice is greater.

I have my story. You have yours. There’s room for both without disparaging either.

It’s about how we treat each other

Many of us spend significant amounts of time each day gathering and hopefully internalizing information meant to improve our workplaces and ourselves, which is what we say we want. I’d submit that how we view and treat each other is fundamental to that cause.

So I like what Paskoff says:

As we try to improve the quality of our decisions and actions in our workplaces … let’s continue to emphasize standards of conduct that prevent problems across a wide range of situations – from hiring and promotion decisions to social interactions.”

Yes, let’s.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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