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Discrimination In the Workplace - Does it Get Much Worse?

Recently, controversy erupted in the National Basketball Association when Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling discovered his girlfriend/companion/assistant (a woman who is, ironically, mixed black and Hispanic herself) released an audio recording of Sterling pleading that she stop taking photos with and hanging around black men. The man who appeared on Sterling’s girlfriend’s Instagram photo was none other than Magic Johnson; not only one of the best 10 players to ever pick up a basketball but a man who, following an HIV diagnosis in 1991, has gone on to donate and raise millions upon millions for community-based organizations dealing with HIV / AIDS education and prevention. 

If anyone were paying attention to Donald Sterling and the checkered history he’s had with minorities (something nobody in the NBA’s front office thought worth investigating until he was finally caught publicly saying everything he’d been saying behind closed doors for decades) they shouldn’t have been surprised that this scandal has come to pass. For two reasons. 

Firstly, Sterling came under fire several years ago after evidence surfaced that he not only refused to rent units in his many apartment buildings to blacks and latinos, he actively pressured the landlords to evict existing tenants who were non Caucasians. 

Secondly, he faced a lawsuit from a former general manager of his team, Elgin Baylor, on grounds of racism. The NBA itself and the owner’s board chose to ignore this lawsuit - and the suit brought about by evicted tenants. 

This humiliation brings to the forefront a very serious issue in a multicultural workplace. As Canada becomes more diversified (as of the 2011 census, visible minorities made up 19.1% of Canada’s population) the muted tensions associated with this influx have risen as well. 

Despite the time and effort companies exert to carefully (and some say cynically) include people of every ethnicity in their marketing material, racism and discrimination still lie beneath the surface - particularly as the job market shrinks and competition to acquire and keep employment becomes more bitter. 

Unlike Sterling, most workplace racists will not be caught unawares by a recorded conversation. And without surefire evidence allegations of discrimination become very hard to prove - especially when one considers the sensitivity and variance of such claim. Gone are the days when racism was savage, direct and unashamedly public. In today’s world, discrimination can run the range from innocuous, racially insensitive comments from a co-worker to systemic, invisible roadblocks to career advancement. 

While it is uncommon for an employee to lose control and unleash a barrage of bigoted insults to an ethnic co-worker, the minority may find themselves repeatedly passed over for promotions or given a job for which they are overqualified to do. 

Companies who educate their employees on how discrimination will be dealt with and have policies in place to back up those beliefs, will have a better chance of managing situations before they explode. On the other hand, if, like the NBA, companies leave discrimination complaints unaddressed in the hope they resolve themselves on their own, a company’s brand and reputation will likely be harmed - sometimes irreparably. 

Employees who feel they are victims of racism won’t necessarily force a confrontation at the exact moment they were slighted. In fact, most will brush off offensive comments and internalize their anger. In the restaurant business there is a saying that a dissatisfied customer doesn’t complain, he or she simply never comes back. Well, in the workplace, if there is no system in place to report and investigate discrimination claims, the employee likely won’t complain to an uninterested manager, he or she will simply look for somewhere else to work. And you can be sure the employee will not be shy about telling his or her new coworkers exactly why they left their previous company. 

Word travels fast within industries and a negative image sticks to a company much easier than it shakes off. A company with a history of discrimination will, for years, be known as “the racist company” even after a new management team comes in. 

The Clippers are in the currently in the first round of NBA Playoffs and reports circulated that the players were close to boycotting the game in response to Sterling’s audio tape. They opted against it, but the message was ominous. Once employees lose trust and respect for their boss, their performance will suffer. 

The Clippers morale is ruined. Their brand is in tatters. And although this is a unique case due to the media exposure, you’d be surprised how fast word spreads around town. No matter the size of the company or the public profile it occupies, an effective discrimination policy can potentially not only save a company’s reputation but the employees’ trust as well. 

Employers need to be aware of human rights legislation as it applies to all practices of employment including: 

  • Recruitment ads
  • Application forms 
  • Interviews 
  • Hiring 
  • Dismissal/termination 
  • Promotion 
  • Demotion 
  • Benefits 
  • Wages 
  • Workplace harassment  

As organizations strive to create a better world through their missions, it is important that they also work at creating inclusive workplaces that are respectful and welcoming of diversity. 

If you have concerns or issues with employees working through these issues, contact Pauline Murdock at myHRpro (403-618-3217) for a free 1 Hour Consultation. 

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