By Laurie Ruettimann
I want to believe that my family is just like yours. We are a working-class group of men and women from the northwest side of Chicago. Some of us are civil servants, a few of us are teachers, and many of us are retail workers and waitresses. No one is fancy or pretentious. We come together to celebrate milestones—anniversaries, weddings, and holidays—because we love one another. Life is good. Except that someone always drinks too much and says something incredibly stupid.
One year, we gathered around the table for a family meal, and my uncle decided to enlighten us on the less charming qualities of the Irish, in a loudmouthed monologue that visibly upset one of my younger cousins. America is changing, and there is a whole generation of teenagers unaware of the complex history of working-class-on-working-class bigotry. I offered comfort—her best friend, she confessed, is Irish—but steered clear of the dinner-table argument. I have learned enough in my HR career to know that you can’t fight stupidity with facts.
That said, if people insist on voicing unenlightened, inflammatory opinions, the dining room is the safest place.
YouTube, cable news, and Internet message boards are making it easy for proudly ignorant people to go public with conspiracy theories and racist rants—and they are making life difficult for corporate HR reps who just want everyone to get along.
In a recent case of an employee behaving badly, Tony Tucker, a white forklift operator for food-services provider Sysco allegedly joked about the KKK—because nothing is funnier than white supremacy—and asked his two black supervisors why they were sitting at “the white table” in the cafeteria. The following day, the company fired Tucker. I think Sysco made the right call, but even here, things aren’t entirely straightforward, given that Tucker claims his supervisors and others at the table were also making racially charged jokes but weren’t disciplined.
The issues get murkier when the misbehavior falls in the gray area between public and private. A few months ago, I stumbled upon a viral video of one Patricia McAllister, a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District who attended an Occupy LA rally. When asked by a Reason.tv reporter why she was at the protest, McAllister responded, “I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government—they need to be run out of this country.” Later, she told a Fox reporter, “Jews have been run out of 109 countries throughout history, and we need to run them out of this one.”
I watched these video clips and reacted like my younger cousin at dinner. OH. MY. GOD. Did she just go full-Sanchez on the Jews?
Because I work in human resources, I know the implications of McAllister’s words. Within days, the school district fired her—and with good reason, too. What she said was awful and offensive. Nobody wants a bigot on the payroll, especially one entrusted with the education of children.
Eric Meyer, a partner with the labor and employment group Dilworth Paxson, agrees. “Bigotry—in any form—has no place at work,” he says. “I would recommend firing any employee who makes bigoted comments at the workplace.”
Except that McAllister didn’t hate on the Jews at work. She made her comments outside of the office. That makes things a little trickier. Meyer adds: “In some states, employers are forbidden from taking action against employees based on their off-duty lawful conduct; however, in states where no off-duty-conduct laws apply, I would recommend terminating McAllister for both her comments and the complete lack of discretion she displayed by voicing her hate speech publicly.”
Although corporate boards and PR firms like to tell us otherwise, it’s pretty easy to fire someone in most of America, thanks to at-will-employment laws. Still, I wonder what role employers should actually have in policing speech and creating an inclusive environment that extends beyond the walls of the office. Most of us believe in a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, hate speech, and cat posters in cubicles. But when an otherwise-effective employee violates those rules away from the workplace, our HR policies feel harder to enforce.
Joe Gerstandt, a diversity-and-inclusion speaker and facilitator, believes that the school district had a right to dismiss McAllister but wonders whether the incident will teach anyone worthwhile lessons. “What we really need is a follow-up conversation,” he suggests. “We think that diversity and inclusion is simply a matter of whether you are a good person or a bad person, but it is far more complex than that. All we seem to be able to do consistently do is fire people who demonstrate that they are bad. This does not really get at the underlying stuff, which is not about good people or bad people but about understanding human nature and social dynamics.”
I think about social dynamics consistently when race and ethnicity overlap with work. For every McAllister, there are four bazillion people who have the same opinion but keep quiet. Those are the people who would like to work in an environment with no drunken Irish people, no dirty Zionists, no flamers, and, of course, no urban folk. The difference is that they would never express their opinions openly. It’s almost as if the new employment test is whether or not you can keep your mouth shut about hot-button issues and refrain from calling someone the N-word or a chola. And while we are quick to fire someone who is openly bigoted, we often tolerate those whom we suspect—but cannot prove—quietly believe in labels, stereotypes, and implicit associations. We all know those people. And sure, every once in a while, a company sends workers through a diversity-and-inclusion training course, but is the organization really making an effort—or simply checking off a box that says it is?
“The real work most organizations have to do is tough. It’s not obvious,” Gerstandt points out. “We still have disparity in retention rates, disparity in promotion rates, and disparity in pay. If development programs, especially diversity-and-inclusion workshops, were places where people could be honest and candid and vulnerable and courageous with each other, we might be able to make some real progress.”
So the answer to managing a situation such as McAllister’s—or an incident in which an employee acts on her blind spots—isn’t so easy. Regardless of what the law says, or how clearly it says it, we know that other influences weigh in on our decisions to respond and correct behavior. When a substitute teacher says something bigoted that’s posted on YouTube, the direction of an organization is pretty clear. You fire that person for being insensitive, moronic, and stupid enough to get caught on tape. When the behavior is subtler, HR struggles to offer an effective and nuanced solution because they are busy running payroll, managing the employee-review process, and calculating merit increases. There doesn’t seem to be enough time, nor enough budgeted resources, to deal with the entangled world of race relations and biases that are part of the human condition and passed down from generation to generation.
Yes, firing someone like McAllister is simplistic and doesn’t solve the larger problem of bigotry intersecting with the workplace, but it’s an important step nonetheless that sends a clear message: We expect a baseline level of compliance and intelligence from people who are on our payroll. If only we could fire our family members and friends who say stupid things about women, minorities, and the disabled. Then we’d make real progress in this world.
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