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There’s a difference between history and ethics. Historically, racism and sexism have been the darkest scourges in the realm of discrimination. In straight ethical terms, however, discrimination is discrimination, and any isolatable social group is equally vulnerable to negative prejudice in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends protection to those stigmatized for their religion or national origin. In subsequent years, amendments and supplements have added more categories, ones for age and disability. Currently, there are no federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, though measures have been enacted in states and localities. Other measures identifying and protecting further distinct groups exist on local levels.
What holds all these groups together is that they fit into the most general form of the definition of discrimination in the economic realm:
Even though discrimination in the realm of business ethics can be wrapped up by one definition, it remains true that distinct groups victimized by discrimination have unique and diverse characteristics affecting the way the issue gets managed. Two types of characteristics will be considered here: discrimination based on traits that are concealable and discrimination based on traits that are (eventually) universal.
One of the enabling aspects of race and gender discrimination is that it’s normally easy to peg someone. If you don’t think Asians do good work, you’re probably going to see who not to hire. The same goes for gender, age, and many disabilities.
Other traditionally discriminated-against groups aren’t so readily identifiable, though: the characteristics marking them as targets are concealableA physical or cultural characteristic that may make one a target of discrimination and that may be concealed if the individual chooses—for example, religious faith.. For example, it’s not so easy to detect (and not so difficult to hide) religious beliefs or sexual orientation. John F. Kennedy, many young people are surprised to learn today, faced considerable resistance to his presidential ambitions because of his religion. In fact, he considered the fact that he was the first Roman Catholic president of the United States as one of the higher virtues of his story. While the Protestant-Catholic divide has faded from discriminatory action in America, other splits have taken its place—Christian and Muslim, for example. No matter the particular religion, however, most individuals going into the work world do have the opportunity to simply reduce that part of their identity to a nonissue by not commenting on or displaying their religious beliefs.
A similar point can be added to considerations of national identity. Only a generation ago Italians were disdained as “wops.” Legendary football coach Joe Paterno (no stranger to insults himself: “If I ever need a brain transplant, I want it from a sports reporter because I know it’s never been used.”) remembers being derided as a wop in his career’s early days. If you wander down the street calling people a “wop” today, however, hardly anyone will know what you’re talking about, which indicates how quickly discrimination against a group can fade when the source (in this case nationality) isn’t readily visible.
Ethical questions raised by the possibility of invisibility include “In the business world, do those who feel they may be discriminated against for a personal characteristic that they can conceal have any responsibility to conceal it?” and “If they choose not to conceal, and they’re discriminated against, do they bear any of the blame for the mistreatment?”
One obvious reason it’s easy for white men to discriminate against racial minorities and women is that they don’t have to worry about riding in that boat themselves. Age is different, however. All of us have gray years waiting at the end of the line. That hasn’t stopped people from denying jobs to older workers, however. Take this report from California:
When a then-emerging Google recruited engineer Brian Reid in the summer of 2002, it appeared to have landed a Silicon Valley superstar. Reid had managed the team that built one of the first Internet search engines at AltaVista. He’d helped co-found the precursor company to Adobe Systems. He’d even worked on Apollo 17.
But within two years, Google decided that the 54-year-old Reid was not a “cultural fit” for the company and fired him, allegedly after co-workers described him as “an old man,” “slow,” “sluggish” and “an old fuddy-duddy.” Reid responded with an age discrimination lawsuit blasting Google’s twentysomething culture for shunning his generation in the workplace.“Ex-Google Worker’s Case Goes to High Court,” San Jose Mercury News (CA), May 24, 2010.
Reid can take satisfaction in knowing that, eventually, these twentysomethings are going to get what’s coming to them. Is it more than that, though? Is the fact that they too share that fate a license for their discrimination? Assuming those who fired Reid aren’t hypocrites, assuming they accept that one day they too will be subject to the same rules, can Reid really claim any kind of injustice here? In terms of fairness at least, it seems as though the Google whippersnappers should be able to treat others in terms they would accept for themselves.
On the other side, if his work performance matches his younger peers, if the only difference between Reid and the others is that his hair is gray and he doesn’t know who Lady Gaga is, then his case does fit—at least technically—the definition of invidious discrimination. Google might be wrong on this one.
Regardless of which side you take, there’s a fundamental ethical question here about whether discrimination can count when it’s based on a characteristic that’s universalA physical or cultural characteristic that may make one a target of discrimination and that everyone has., that everyone shares.
The boundaries marking who can rightfully claim to belong to a group falling victim to systematic discrimination in the workplace are shifting and uncertain—in different times and places the victims share different characteristics. For that reason, it makes sense to try to form a definition of personal vulnerability that doesn’t rely only on describing specific personal traits like skin color or gender but that can stretch and contract as society evolves. The term minorityThe status of being vulnerable to discrimination., as understood within the context of workplace discrimination, is sometimes summoned to perform this role.
To be part of a minority means to belong to a group of individuals that are the minority within a specific organizational context. Whites, for example, are not a minority population in the United States, but white students are a minority at the University of Texas–San Antonio. Similarly, women make up more than 50 percent of the population but count as a minority in corporate boardrooms where they represent only a small percentage of decision makers.
Being part of a minority doesn’t just mean suffering a numerical disadvantage; it also means having so few peers in a situation that you’re forced to adapt the language, the styles of dress, the sense of humor, the nonwork interests, and so on of people very different from yourself. In the case of the minority white population at University of Texas–San Antonio, it’s difficult to claim that their numerical minority status also forces them to adapt in any significant way to the Hispanic majority—whites can get by just fine, for example, without speaking any Spanish. By contrast, the case of Carly Fiorina wadding up socks in her crotch and screaming out that she has big balls, this is minority behavior. For minorities in a man’s world, if you want to get ahead you have to adapt. To a certain extent, you need to speak and act like a man.
The term minority can be defined by three characteristics:
The advantage of using the term minority to name a group vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace is connected to the rapidly changing world, one where those subjected to discriminatory treatment come and go. For example, a tremendous influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico have recently made that group a target of sharper discrimination, while the marginalization that the Irish once experienced in the United States no longer seems very threatening. There’s no reason to believe that this discriminatory evolution will stop, and in the midst of that shifting, the term minority allows the rules of vulnerability to discrimination in the workplace to remain somewhat steady.
As the number of characteristics classified as vulnerable to discriminatory mistreatment has expanded, so too has a suspicion. It’s that some of those claiming to suffer from discrimination are actually using the complaints to abuse others, or to make excuses for their own failures. This is called victimization.
To accuse someone of being a victim is to charge that they are exploiting society’s rejection of discrimination to create an unfair advantage for themselves. There are a range of victimization strategies running from strong to weak. Strong victimizationClaiming to suffer discrimination where it doesn’t exist and using the claim to abuse others. is individuals in protected groups who aren’t suffering any discrimination at all claiming that they are and making the claim for their own immediate benefit. This is what’s being alleged in an Internet post where a supervisor writes the following about an employee:
This person came out & stated in this meeting that I use a racial slur on a very regular basis in my vocabulary. With my profession, this is something that is EXTREMELY HARMFUL to my status in my job, my respect in my job & community, my reputation, etc. But that word has NEVER been in my vocabulary. I am SO UPSET I do not know what to do!UT alum, August 24, 2005 (9:09 a.m.), “Falsely Accused of Racist Slur,” ExpertLaw Forum, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.expertlaw.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2887.
Assuming this supervisor’s allegations are true, then the employee was never subjected to racist language or offended by slurs. There was no workplace discrimination. Instead, it sounds like the employee may actually be disgruntled and is aiming for revenge by getting the supervisor in trouble. If that’s what’s going on, then the accusation of racial discrimination has become a workplace weapon: the charge can be invented and hurled at another with potent effect.
Weak victimizationUsing discrimination as an excuse for one’s own failures. occurs when someone works in a context where discrimination is a constant subject of attention, one permeating daily life in the office. In that situation, it can happen that a worker suffering an adverse work evaluation (or worse) comes to the conclusion that it wasn’t poor job performance but minority status that actually caused the negative review. (Possibly, one of the few universal human truths is that we all find it easier and more comforting to blame others for our problems than ourselves.) In the interview with Carly Fiorina—which was done not long after she’d been fired from Hewlett-Packard—the interviewer broaches this possibility very gingerly. Here’s how she puts the question:
I’m predisposed to be sympathetic to the notion that you were treated differently because of your gender. But I’ve also read a lot about actual business mistakes you made.
Fiorina comes back with an ambiguous answer and the interviewer lets it go. For a while. Suddenly, however, after a few softball questions she tries again, more forcefully:
|Interviewer:||I want to press you on the fact that you missed a quarter’s projections big-time…|
|Fiorina:||Wouldn’t be the first top company that missed a quarter either. Or the last.|
|Interviewer:||Right. But that miss was huge. And you wrote in the book that “building a culture of accountability and execution of discipline requires real and clear consequences for failure to perform.” If you had been told that you were fired because you missed the quarter, would you have understood?Rebecca Traister, “The Truth about Carly,” Salon, October 19, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2006/10/19/carly_fiorina.|
What’s being intimated here is that Fiorina got so caught up in being a woman in a man’s world that when she got fired, she was so invested in that battle-of-the-sexes way of seeing things that she ended up suspecting sexist discrimination where maybe there wasn’t any.
Weak victimization means that someone is twisting discrimination claims into an excuse for their own imperfections, shortcomings, and failures. Everyone faces adversity in their lives. When that happens, the choices are deal with it or collapse. Accusing someone of being a victim in the weak sense is saying they’re collapsing; they’re using racism or sexism or whatever as an excuse to not confront what most people face every day: an imperfect and sometimes difficult world. So weak victimization is an accusation tinged with exasperation. Here’s what the accusation sounds like in longer form, as posted on an Internet forum:
I genuinely don’t believe that in this country that persecution of minorities exists anymore. This is not to say that these things don’t exist, of course they do in isolation, but being black or gay or a woman is not in any way a barrier to achieving anything that you want to achieve.
I told her that she was playing the victim against an oppression that doesn’t exist, is looking for excuses about things she can’t do rather than looking at what she can do (which is anything she wants) and that she’s being patronizing towards all those from ‘minority’ groups who had gone on to be successful. Thatcher didn’t whine about latent sexism, Obama didn’t complain that being black meant he wasn’t able to do the most powerful job in the world.Gerogerigegege, February 26, 2010 (10:27), “Does Racism/Sexism/Homophobia Exist in Any Meaningful Way in Modern Britain?,” DrownedinSound.com, accessed May 31, 2011, http://drownedinsound.com/community/boards/social/4248929.
In the ensuing discussion, quite a few posters pick up on the claim that “being black or gay or a woman is not in any way a barrier to achieving anything that you want to achieve.” Some agree, some not so much. What’s certain is that somewhere between Carly Fiorina stuffing socks down her pants and Carly Fiorina leading one of the world’s most powerful companies, and somewhere between black slavery and a black president, there’s a line. No one knows exactly where, but it’s there and it divides a reality where sexism and racism are vile scourges from another reality where they’re things people whine about.
An ethical argument against victimization—against someone playing the role of a victim of discrimination—can be outlined quickly. It begins with the duty to respect your own dignity, talents, and abilities. Those blaming their failures on others are essentially giving up on their own skills; they are concluding that their abilities are worthless when they may not be. If Carly Fiorina believes that her gender makes success in Silicon Valley impossible, and it really doesn’t, then by denying her own talent she’s subtracting from her own dignity.