HR and the Line Between Tolerance and Acceptance

A few weeks ago I was volunteering an afternoon with the Humane Society Naples, helping set up a garage sale/flea market fundraiser they were holding the next day. One of the jobs that the group of volunteers had was to determine the asking price for the item being sold.

As the group was discussing whether to price low for swift sale or higher to try to maximize the amount raised for this non-profit, one of the other volunteers said, “You know someone is always going to try to Jew you down.”

No one in the room said a word. Including me.

I’m still beating myself up for not saying anything to this woman, and I can’t stop thinking about the incident. I keep wondering why no one else said anything, either. Would it have been different  if this was a group of paid workers?  What if she had said,  “There’s always going to be a wetback around trying to steal something”? Would that have changed the group reaction?

Sadly, I think that the answer is no on all counts. Even in a work situation with a group of paid employees in the discussion, bigoted remarks like this are often going to remain unchallenged.

HR pros often ask their employees to be tolerant of each other’s differences, to minimize tension and to avoid conflict between employees.  Tolerance is defined as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude towards opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

But in the name of workplace harmony, we often accept behaviors and attitudes which are clearly racist or bigoted, and should not require us to be “tolerant.”  Have you ever heard someone in your workplace joke about gays, blacks, or Muslims? Yeah, me too.

In our heads we say we don’t accept these attitudes, because by definition acceptance means we approve. But if we don’t actually say anything to the offender –  it doesn’t matter if we disagree silently. We have approved of the racist or bigot by failing to show others our dislike. And HR, by encouraging employees to refrain from behaviors which cause tension, aggravates this problem. By encouraging tolerance, we are often encouraging people to accept.

Some things should never be acceptable. Like bigotry, racism, and discrimination.  And HR should be leading the charge to ensure that people don’t confuse tolerance with acceptance.


Why Mad Men Should Bring Back Sal Romano

Bryan Batt as Sal Romano

Wait . . . what?

You’re probably thinking that whatever link or feed you used to get here is totally screwed up, because I write about HR and workplace issues, not television shows. I don’t even watch television. Except Mad Men. And that just started, because I watched the first 4 seasons on DVD, not on television.

So what’s this all about, Joanie?

Hopefully you know a little bit about Mad Men, that highly stylistic and realistically detailed look at the business and personal life of an ensemble of characters who work together at a New York ad agency in the 1960’s. There was no separation of work and personal back then, either. But because the show takes place in the 60’s, we tend to be forgiving of all of the negative workplace behavior that does take place at the ad agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  After all, it’s the 60’s, and everything has changed for the better, right?

Well, maybe not everything.

One of the earlier characters on the show was Salvatore Romano, a deeply closeted homosexual man. When Mad Men started he was the agency art director, who later showed talent directing television commercials. He married, as closeted gays of the 60’s did, and laughed with his co-workers as they disparaged another openly gay male who briefly worked at the agency. He joined in demeaning sexual conversations about women with his co-workers. He did what the culture of the times demanded he do to keep his true self a secret.

But in the 3rd season, Sal is forced to rebuff the drunken sexual advances of the firm’s largest client. Sal is then fired by Don, the main character in the show, who has recently witnessed an encounter between Sal and a male bell boy during a business trip. At the end of the episode where Sal is fired, we see him calling his wife from a Central Park pay phone, gay men cruising in the background. He tells her he will be home late.

Sal hasn’t appeared on Mad Men since.

So why do I want Sal Romano to come back?

Because sexual orientation remains a common source of workplace discrimination, and it still is not a federally protected class that enjoys the same anti-discrimination rights as gender, national origin, race or color, and religion. I would like to see Matthew Weiner, series creator, use his considerable influence to take a stand against sexual discrimination in the workplace.

That same influence would also send a message of hope to the current working  population that bad things happen at work, but sometimes those bad things can be overcome through perseverance, hard work, a positive attitude, and not being afraid to fail. Career and workplace writers trumpet those messages all of the time, particularly in the last few years when so many workers lost their jobs. It would be nice to see some examples in popular culture of how things can get better. In fact, Sal could return as a successful television director, while we view his setbacks and struggles through flashbacks or dreams. Matthew Weiner likes to use dreams and flashbacks, and this could be done without any compromise to the authenticity and artistic quality of the show.

After all, sometimes there really is a happy ending.

We Get The Laws We Deserve

When an employer calls the employment lawyer, it’s usually to say, “I want to [insert questionable hr behavior]. Can I?”

Of course, what they really mean is “may I do it?”, and what they are really asking is, “Is what I want to do legal?”

The employment lawyer usually answers, “it depends,” and then proceeds to ask the client a number of questions about the factual situation, and gives the client a brief discourse on the relevant law.

Given that attorneys and accountants are the most valuable business partners that many businesses (particularly small businesses)  have, I think that “it depends” is the wrong answer in a vast majority of cases. The better answer is asking the client “why do you want to do that?”

Let’s face it – we get the laws  we deserve. We have anti-discrimination employment laws against certain protected classes because of a history of employment discrimination against those classes. More classes will be added, and more laws created, because discrimination continues. We have laws against retaliatory discharge because too many employers fired people who squealed, instead of fixing the problem being squealed about. We have wage and hour laws because too many employers will undervalue and overwork people who are desperate to feed themselves and their families.

So the next time a client calls and asks, “I hate gay people, and I don’t want to ever hire one. Is that legal?”, I am begging employment lawyers to be good business partners and community citizens, and not give  a discourse about the state of anti-gay discrimination legislation in your jurisdiction. Instead, explain to the client why taking a stance against hiring an entire class of population is a poor business practice in general, and how that business practice is not in the best financial interest of the client.

Do this for every questionable employment practice you are asked about. It will save you, and the client, from having to deal with the law that will inevitably follow.

[Author’s note 07/21/11 – Congress introduced a bill on July 18, 2011 that would make the unemployed a protected class by preventing hiring discrimination against them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;-)]

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