Lee Shearer, Athens Banner Herald
Dawn Bennett-Alexander, who teaches employment law in UGA’s Terry College of Business, argued in favor of tolerance, not just for those who are different, but those who may seem bigoted to us.
“We all walk around with those things (unconscious prejudices) in our head,” she said.
It’s important to find those prejudices within ourselves, she said.
“How can you deal with them if you don’t know they are there?”
Rachel Eubanks, Broad Collective
We must take our mission statements off the paper and into reality if we expect to embrace diversity in corporate culture.
As legal studies professor Dawn Bennett-Alexander teaches, issues with diversity in the workplace are completely avoidable. Through mutual respect, and ultimately love, we can create communities that embrace personal differences as tools for our unique life purposes.
These are both quotes about my TEDxUGA Talk I gave on Friday 3/27/15 at the university of Georgia’s 4th annual TEDx UGA program. Rachel’s is the closer one in describing my talk.
The main newspaper used words I never use to describe what I did, or to quote me. I am VERY intentional about my language. I NEVER use terms like “biased,” “prejudiced,” or “bigoted,” and I didn’t “argue” anything. As the TED Talk tag line says, I simply presented to the sold-out audience “an idea worth sharing.”
I was pretty upset about it. When I complained to a friend who is often in the press about the difference between the characterizations of my Talk, his comment was “Welcome to dealing with the press.”
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t much care, but a big part of what I consider my life’s work to be is contributing tools to enable us to have the difficult conversations that need to be held around issues of workplace discrimination. Thirty years of doing this work, training and consulting in workplaces, speaking with thousands and thousands of people and analyzing zillions of cases, convinces me that there are some ways that are more effective at doing that than others.
Experience has shown me that using terms like “tolerance,” “bias,” and “prejudice” are words that carry lots of negative baggage. Negative baggage has a way of shutting down communication rather than facilitating it. No one wants to be lectured to about these issues (whether they need to be or not).
I want real change. I believe that a good deal of why people make the choices they make in the workplace is because they don’t always realize what they are actually doing. Of course there are certainly those who do, and are hell-bent on discriminating. But my work with thousands of people over three decades convinces me that this is not the majority.
The things managers and supervisors have said to me completely openly in training sessions without realizing it, would make your hair stand on end. As hard as it can be to believe, they are often completely clueless. They would never have told me if they weren’t. We are social creatures and we do what we believe to be acceptable. Dealing with someone who is clueless is different than dealing with someone who knows and is simply bound and determined to do what they want to anyway, whether it is illegal or not as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related legislation that outlaws workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, genetics, and to some extent, sexual orientation and gender identity. They should not all be treated the same.
My graduate student who interned at an accounting firm for a year was called in and praised to high heaven and given an offer of permanent employment with a good salary quote. In fact, they told her, she was so good that if she had been a man, they would have offered her 50% more. Her boss had no clue how illegal this was.
Last semester one of my students told me his employer told him to throw away all applications with ethnic names. It wasn’t the first time a student had told me that. It bears out research that shows that the same resume with non-ethnic names like Emily and Brad receive 50% more call backs than those with “ethnic” names like Jamal or Lakeisha.
I was conducting a gender session for a group of bank managers when one of the males said he wouldn’t promote a female because it would mean more travel and if it was his wife, he wouldn’t want her shlepping around in strange airports at all times of the night. All of a sudden, marshmallows began flying across the room from all directions toward him. I had no idea what was going on. They finally told me that they had earlier established a working rule that if someone said something with which they disagreed, rather than say anything, they would throw marshmallows. This is how the manager found out his genuine concern for his female employees was inappropriate as a basis for decision-making about females in the workplace. He wasn’t trying to be mean. In fact, the exact opposite. He simply hadn’t realized the real impact of his decision.
The same thing happened to me with a supervisor who gave me an unsatisfactory rating during an evaluation. I had no idea why. When I asked, he told me that he had assigned me less to do because I was pregnant and if I was his wife, he wouldn’t want me to be doing a lot of work while I was pregnant. I had never once asked for a lighter load. I was an attorney looking at documents, not a package handler at UPS. I had no idea he had done this. I told him I appreciated his concern, but I wasn’t his wife and I did not ask for a lighter load and should not be penalized on a permanent federal job evaluation because of his personal ideas about pregnancy. He changed the evaluation.
Teaching people how to view the workplace decisions they make, then making it clear that if that is not what they intended, and giving them options for how to do what they may more likely reflect their intent, allows them the space to come to it on their own. Experience has taught me that this is more likely to create lasting change rather than them feeling like I’m foisting my views off on them externally and they don’t get to create the change on their own. If I’m shaming them into it or accusing them of it with those words, they are more likely to feel resentful and reject the change—even when it may be needed.
While some may say I am soft-pedaling the idea of discrimination, I assure you I am not. I am, however, keeping my eyes on the prize. What I want is change that comes from within because people have their eyes opened and see for themselves the impact of what they may have been doing and realize they need to change their ways. And yes, it really can—and does—happen. If using more positive and realistic language accomplishes that, then I am willing to use it.
The reason the mischaracterization upset me is because someone reading the newspaper who did not see my TED Talk, who may benefit by it, may be less likely to view it after seeing that language. My own would be more likely to drive them to view the Talk video online and benefit by it, if for no other reason than I am dealing with the concept of using love in the context of avoiding workplace discrimination claims. That’s a big difference.
I wrote the author of the mischaracterized piece, and without accusing him of mischaracterizing it (because to do so would likely be useless since, of course, he’d likely say he didn’t) I simply told him how different his word usage made my message and how disappointing it was to have those whose job it is to bring us the news, and in that capacity, knowing how important words are, would do what was done with my piece. I did not hear back from him.
Like my friend said, “Welcome to dealing with the press…”
Update: Within an hour after posting this, I was at a program and Shearer walks up to me and apologizes for his mischaracterization and says he’d never gotten anything so wrong in his life and wanted to do a story on my work to correct it. When I thanked him, he couldn’t understand why I would do that when he was the one who screwed up. I told him I was thanking him because what he did was gracious and I appreciated it. He didn’t have to do it despite what happened. He seemed confused. But, the tagline for my life is “It’s All about Love…” and my reaction was love in action. You never know what life has in store for you. I was floored by what he said and did. Neat.