Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: February/March 2009
Is It Racism or Just Insensitivity?
By: Michael Bennett

Dateline Dallas: A jury ruled AT&T Corp., racially discriminated against an African-American worker and ordered the telecommunications giant to pay over $410,000 in damages - the irony of it all is that AT&T has ranked near the top in its diversity training and most desirable places to work for African-Americans.

The plaintiff, Lakecious Edwards was passed over multiple times for promotion in favor of lesser-qualified individuals. Edwards followed the company protocol for discrimination complaints, which included calling a third-party vendor 800-number that essentially ignored her pleas for assistance. Edwards' earlier complaints died a slow death languishing for 180 days - the limit established by Texas law to file suit in state court or 300 days - the limit for federal lawsuits. Dateline Chicago: A Federal District Judge entered a $2 million consent decree resolving a workplace discrimination lawsuit against Cracker Barrel restaurant. Part of the plaintiff's case stipulated that Black employees were subjected to racially charged language in the workplace that included the "n-word," "you people" and a series of racially insensitive comments I won't repeat out of respect for our readers.

Dateline Northern California: A judge grants final approval to settle a class action lawsuit against Abercrombie and Fitch that required the clothing retailer to pay $40 million dollars in damages to Latino, African American, Asian American and female applicants and employees who charged the company with discrimination. The settlement also required the company to institute programs to promote diversity.

The carnage of discrimination lawsuits or allegations of race-based impropriety by some of America's largest companies reads like a Who's Who list and the monetary losses are staggering. There's Fedex, at $55 million, Sodexho, $80 million, Walgreens $24 million and Coca Cola $192 million. These aren't isolated cases. Costco, Morgan Stanley, Eastman Kodak, BellSouth Corp and Wal-Mart have also been punished for race, sex or gender discrimination. The common denominator in these class action lawsuits - all have occurred within the past decade, and most within the last five years. These lawsuits beg a whole series of questions that must be explored. Did these corporations have diversity training in place? If so, why did they fail and if not, why not? And does diversity training really work?

In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, it appears their entire executive team philosophy dated back to the turn of the century - the 19th Century. And how could a company with the success of Cracker Barrel fail so miserably at policing their own, given the tremendous numbers of African-Americans frequenting their establishments? The shear size of many of these companies presents a tremendous challenge to insure diversity and behavior modification reaches all employees.

Our industry is not immune to discrimination complaints, but we are fortunate that so many have adopted measures to confront these issues without suffering the indignity of a class action lawsuit. Several hoteliers consistently rank at or near the top of diversity regardless of industry such as Marriott International, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, The Walt Disney Company, MGM Mirage, Carlson Hotels Worldwide and Hilton.

A white paper entitled A Retrospective View of Corporate Diversity Training from 1964 to the Present written by Rohini Anand of Sodexo and Mary-Frances Winters of the Winters Group states that, "by the end of the 1990s practitioners (of corporate diversity) were more likely to understand that diversity could not be relegated to a program, but rather that it had to be viewed as an ongoing business process, like quality and become integrated into the core strategy of the organization, and thus, positioning diversity education as a business driver gained solid footing by 1999."

These hoteliers understand the business dynamics and have moved methodically to create the environment necessary to build solid training programs.

Correcting years of discriminatory practice is no easy task. How do you influence behavioral change? If it's inflammatory comments, do you confront the issue head on in a calm demeanor and discuss it between the parties immediately? Do you take it to your human resources professional? Do you take it to your boss? What if it's your boss? What if you, as the supervisor recognize the error of your ways immediately and realize this issue needs to be resolved.

Each organization differs in their approach to these problems, but one thing is certain, the quicker each party moves to resolve the issue the better it is for all concerned.

The Corporate Leavers Survey, conducted by the Level Playing Field Institute in January 2007, shows that each year in this country, "more than 2 million professionals and managers in today's increasingly diverse workforce leave their jobs, pushed out by cumulative small comments, whispered jokes and not-so-funny emails. The cost to U.S. employers is $64 billion on an annual basis - a price tag nearly equivalent to the 2006 combined revenues of Google, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks and Amazon.com.

Social and behavioral scientists have identified several causes for systemic barriers to inclusion in the workplace. Here are just a couple starting with stereotyping. People make order out of their daily lives by generalizations that put things in categories. Then they subconsciously seek out confirmation of these stereotypes regardless of whether the stereotype is true or not. Stereotyping is probably the single biggest obstacle affecting workplace inclusion and diversity.

Another cause is "ingroup" bias. Think of it as "us" against "them." This "ingroup" bias doesn't necessarily have to fall along racial lines, but it often does to the detriment of a minority. An extension of stereotyping is the threat of stereotyping, where just the threat of being stereotyped creates poor job performance - the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. While these are psychological barriers they are all very real.

So is it racism or just insensitivity? An argument can be made to substantiate both sides of this discussion depending on how one shapes the argument. In the case of Cracker Barrel it appears to be racism more than insensitivity but it could be argued it's both.

For any diversity training program to have teeth and affect change, it must have the support of top leadership. CEOs and senior management must be out front and visible and articulate a clear message. As mentioned above most change for inclusion doesn't occur unless there's a business case to me made. Making money is a great motivator.

Changing employee behavior is extremely difficult and requires more than one approach to solve, but first and foremost, there must be a "zero-tolerance" policy for harassing or discriminatory behavior. One more way to combat discriminatory behavior is by establishing a transparent monitoring program. This can be accomplished through anonymous workplace surveys or statistical analysis where companies measure racial disparities on a variety of issues from management to salary numbers. This analysis must be conducted at regular intervals - at least once a year.

From a historical perspective the early days of diversity training largely involved one-day courses on compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These were usually one-time events that did absolutely nothing to change behavior and alienated some. But diversity training has evolved.


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