Discrimination: A Workplace Disorder

I came across an article recently that caught my attention. The story centered on the topic of discrimination as commented by and seen through the eyes of a few recruiters in the staffing industry. At first I assumed this was an outlier situation, but upon finishing the article I was met with a startling realization. This story, in fact, was not an isolated instance, but something much worse. The comments in this article illustrated the very nature of systemic discrimination across America and how well engrained it is in this country.

The Civil Rights Act Of 1964

No, workplace discrimination is not a new topic. Discrimination has probably been around since the beginning of humankind, but started to get some notable attention in the 1960’s.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a law, called the Civil Rights Act, which stated no employer will discriminate on the basis of sex or race in hiring, promoting, and firing. In the final legislation, the wording was expanded to include it’s unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, privileges or employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” I support this law and would like to believe so does every other employer, but the reality is, it’s been over 50 years since this law passed and we are still battling discrimination in this country.

Its 2016

Fast forward to 2016. The article I mentioned previously was published in January of this year. The story is about the conversations and actions taken by temporary placement agencies across the country. The people who spoke out were recruiters who recanted stories of incessant, and often times, blatant discrimination stemming from clients who would instruct them to not send particular people for interviews, as well as comments and actions from their own managers in the staffing office. These recruiters were used as messengers to carry out the discriminatory acts, however, it does not absolve them from their actions, as they chose the path of less resistance. Over time the offenders become desensitized to this way of thinking and acting. As in the case of the placement agencies there is, all too often, a monetary value placed on discrimination, as in the case of job placements, that creates a justification for its existence. In essence, it becomes a systemic process and accepted way of doing business.

When staffing agencies do business with companies that stipulate biased hiring requests, staffing firms, in effect, propagate the act of discrimination for the benefit of client relations and a healthy bottom line. In reality, these actions compromise staffing’s integrity and create a false sense of economic well-being within their firm. Attempting to justify these actions because “that’s our policy” or “our client wants it that way” or “my boss gave me an order,” takes on a permanency and acceptance that once started is very difficult to stop. Further, companies that use staffing agencies, as an extension of their hiring process, need to observe and adhere to the labor laws and not use third-party staffing as a way to circumvent their moral responsibility to hire responsibly and non-discriminatorily. According to economist Marc Bendick, “The fact of the matter is that a lot of the regular employers basically want to contract out their discrimination. They know the workforce they want, but they don’t themselves want to violate workplace discrimination laws. They want clean hands.”

Further, companies that refuse to observe fair and sound labor practices may use this to their advantage to exclude benefits, proper compensation, rewards and recognition, and to deny contractors and part-time workers from seeking recourse in the instance of an unwarranted termination.

Conscious Versus Unconscious Versus The Social Conscious

Discrimination is something many, if not most, people from all walks of life have experienced. Unlike what the staffing professionals described in the article, discrimination is often times a sense or feeling someone has about how s/he’s been treated. This is why covert discrimination is tough to prove and more difficult to identify.

To add more complexity to the topic, the act of discrimination can be categorized as either conscious or unconscious. Conscious meaning that someone is knowingly and with intentional malice discriminating against people. Of the two, unconscious is the most dangerous. It’s bigotry that sits inconspicuously within the hearts and minds of people who display it in ways that come naturally to them and without forethought of consequences. Like conscious bigotry, unconscious is intentional and delivered with malice, though not always realized by the offender. The discernible difference between the two is, unconscious is so finely ingrained into the deliverer’s character that s/he may not view the bigoted comment or action as being offensive. Neither conscious nor unconscious is more or less odious than the other. Both lack social consciousness and subsequently, greed, want and fear are at the heart of these biases.

Add Social Media To The Mix

Social media has opened very wide doors into knowing a lot about people and in the case of employers, a lot about job candidates. Profile information that may house photos alluding to or disclosing age (think ClassMates updates on Facebook), religious affiliation (pictures of a brother wearing his yarmulke), and even something as innocuous as pictures of your child, dog and life partner. These images reveal information that can potentially be used against a person and further given social media is a digital venue, all information is saved for posterity. My comments are not an attempt to discourage anyone from using social media, whether it’s the company or job seeker. The point I’m making is that social has added another dimension to the ways discrimination may rear its ugly head and something everyone should approach with sensitivity.

Where To Begin

Without acknowledging the egregious nature of discrimination and implementing structured processes to eliminate it, bias and subsequent discriminatory acts in the workplace will not change. The only way to combat discrimination is to take it on with full intention. It should start with non-discriminatory practices for hiring and carry through the entirety of each person’s employment.

To start, whether required by law or not employers need to incorporate a structured process into their hiring practices where unbiased policies are adhered to by all parties involved in the vetting and acquisition of new talent. There are many technological tools available for companies and staffing firms which help remove the element of doubt when identifying candidates and aid in EEOC reporting, contrary to what was stated by someone in the aforementioned article. Once people are onboarded, these individuals should be provided access to the employee handbook that outlines what will not be tolerated in the workplace. (Employers must be familiar with their legal obligations as prescribed by national and state laws.) All employees, regardless of tenure and position, need to access the handbook and should be required to review and be given opportunity to ask questions if something is not easily understood. Many legal professionals recommend handbooks that outline general workplace policies and employees’ responsibilities, with emphasis on consistency and accountability. Further all employees, especially managers, need to be trained to identify what’s discriminatory and what’s not and to be provided resources to either wage complaints or manage complaints without suffering retribution. Above all, a governing power needs to be in place to ensure that consistency and adherence are being practiced by everyone within the organization.

What I mention here is important, albeit, just the tip of the iceberg. Much more is needed to eradicate discrimination in the workplace, but the most important steps are recognizing the signs (intentional or unintentional) and taking action to eliminate it from your business. Leadership needs to live up to their mission statements and create workplaces that value and recognize diverse contributions and further how this can tie into customer service delivery and positively affect the company’s bottom line. In recognizing that people are not commodities, but are contributors to the advancement of a company’s mission, the culture of the organization takes a different view of the human relationship with each person.

Lastly, until people reevaluate the attitude of “greed is good” and balance that with the greater good of humankind, discrimination will continue as part of the business machinery in this country. Will you be that person who steps up to make a difference?

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