On racism and bias: Research confirms that Rodgers & Hammerstein got it right

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally, the Washington Post‘s William Wan and Sarah Kaplan set out to learn about the science behind racism and bias. Here’s an answer from one social psychologist they interviewed:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

And here’s more from another psychology prof:

“An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in group.’”

But how we define those groups, and the tendency to draw divisions along racial lines, is social, not biological, he added. “We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” he said.

…“The most likely predictor of that is exposure to a kind of ideology,” Knowles said. Most if not all people carry implicit biases and unexamined prejudices, he said, and some may harbor feelings of fear or resentment that they don’t express in public.

These insights are important, and kudos to these reporters for presenting a scientific perspective on the racism that motivated this horrible event. As helpful as this research is, however, it only reaffirms what some folks have known for years: That bigotry and bias are taught and reinforced by society.

In fact, if you want a more pop culture approach to this basic postulate, go back to the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was later made into a movie in 1958. Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the show deals with serious issues of race and color and was considered quite controversial for its time. One of the numbers, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” is about how people learn racist beliefs and intolerance. Go here or click above for a snippet of the song from the movie version.

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Related note: The Bloomberg/BNA Daily Labor Report interviewed me about the employment law implications of the Charlottesville rally in this piece, “Can You Fire Someone for Attending a Rally of Racists?”

Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist?

Screenshot of rally photo from Huffington Post

While following developments concerning the horrific white supremacist/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I asked myself, how would I like to be working with one of these lovely individuals? I then thought, if I was a manager, could I simply fire a white supremacist for participating in the rally?

The answer to the first question is easy and purely personal: No way would I want to share office space, a cubicle area, an office suite, a store floor, or a factory floor with one of these folks. And as an Asian American, I assume they’d feel the same way towards me.

The answer to the second question is more objective, complicated, and nuanced: Yes, in many instances the law would allow a manager to terminate a white supremacist for participating in the rally, but there are potential exceptions and twists, especially for unionized and/or public employees. Without pretending to be exhaustive on the topic, here’s a brief lowdown of relevant legal rules:

  • In the U.S., the rule of at-will employment is the presumptive legal hiring relationship. Among other things, it means that an employer can hire or fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate existing legal protections or obligations.
  • Fair or not, the rule of at-will employment allows employers to make hiring and termination decisions based even on many types of off-site, non-work-related activities.
  • Employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against or harassing of other employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This would be especially relevant if someone took their white supremacist messages into the workplace.
  • For private-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to their jobs.
  • For public-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections may apply if they are speaking out on matters of public concern in ways that aren’t related to or internally disruptive of their work. (Yes, as noxious as it may be to some of us, it is arguable that a public-sector worker participating in this rally would be protected from termination under this set of legal rules.)
  • For unionized workers, collective bargaining agreements may provide additional substantive and procedural safeguards for wrongful termination, which may cover off-site conduct.
  • A minority of employees have individual employment contracts with so-called morals clauses that may be relevant in these situations. 
  • State law can matter in these situations. Connecticut, for example, has a broad employee free speech law that covers both private and public sector workers. California has a law that protects employees’ right to political expression.
  • If an employee engaged in violent behavior, especially that leading to a criminal conviction, their potential legal protections against wrongful termination would severely diminish.

Taking all these points into consideration, what does this mean for whether employers could fire workers for participating in one of these rallies on their own time? Bottom line is that many private-sector employees could probably be terminated without much risk of liability, but that public-sector workers may be able to raise constitutional free-speech protections. However — and here’s my lawyer’s analytical caution entering the picture — each situation would have to be evaluated individually. There’s no sweeping, catch-all rule that answers this question as yes or no for every situation.

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August 14 update: This topic has gained relevance due to efforts by certain civil rights/social media activists to “out” white supremacist protesters who are appearing in published photographs of the Charlottesville rally. Apparently the first protester to lose his job is a young man who worked at a fast food eatery, Top Dog, in Berkeley, California, per this piece in the UC-Berkeley student newspaper. 

If readers detect some ambivalence on my part on the use of such tactics, then their perceptions are accurate. I abhor and detest these white supremacists and their worldview. But I also have concerns over how social media can be used to go after anyone in ways that have significant consequences. I think we need to be very careful about determining one’s suitability for employment based on off-site conduct that, while deeply objectionable, may be legal. 

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Though slightly dated, the legal discussion in my 1998 law review article on the free speech rights of private-sector employees, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace” (Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law), remains largely intact today. You may access it without charge here.

Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered

If you were born between 1954 and 1965, then you may identify as a member of “Generation Jones,” that large cohort sandwiched between classic Baby Boomers and classic Generation Xers. The thesis is that Gen Jonesers, on average, have had very different life experiences than those of folks in the two iconic groupings. Indeed, with a 1959 birthdate, I am a card-carrying member of Generation Jones, and I have long believed that, on balance, our group is different than the mainstream Boomers with which we are often categorized.

Gen Jonesers now range from their early 50s and early 60s. And currently, this age group is getting hammered by economic conditions and policies, personal financial circumstances, and frequent age discrimination in the workplace.

To some extent, this Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog (here, for example), America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

My own interest in this topic relates to my work on workplace bullying. I’ve witnessed the challenges that face those in middle age who have lost jobs and livelihoods due to bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work. The ongoing specter of age discrimination often undermines their efforts to seek new employment.

These are difficult topics, but they are vitally important, and they should be front and center in our national political and policy debates, even though anyone following the news knows they are not. For those who want to learn and think more, however, I’ll make two suggestions:

First, watch Elizabeth White’s TEDx talk, “Fifty-five, Unemployed, Faking Normal.” It’s an 18-minute reflection on what it means to have lost your job at middle age and to face the financial challenges that can follow. I’ve written about her important work before, and I’m a big fan of her book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life (2016). Richard Eisenberg, writing for the Next Avenue blog, previews White’s TEDx talk:

White’s TEDx Talk, filmed earlier this year in Richmond, Va., is a composite of her story and her friends’ — women and men in their 50s who are “faking normal.” By that, White’s talking about people who had good careers and lives until they didn’t. She describes them in the TEDx Talk as people who “entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be.”

Second, read Elizabeth Olson’s New York Times piece, “Shown the Door, Older Workers Find Bias Hard to Prove,” which explains the legal challenges facing laid off workers who are alleging age discrimination:

Yet, even as the work force has a large number of older employees, one of the principal tools to fight such discrimination, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act — which Congress passed a half-century ago — may not be up to the task, said Laurie A. McCann, a lawyer with AARP Foundation Litigation, which is providing legal counsel to the Wichita plaintiffs.

“Ageism unfortunately remains pervasive in the American work force,” she said. Only two of the cases the E.E.O.C. filed in court last year involved the federal age discrimination act, according to a list assembled by AARP, the nonprofit older citizens group.

They were among a total of only 86 workplace discrimination cases litigated in court last year, AARP found. Few cases are taken to court because such complaints are complicated and expensive; it can take a long time to assemble relevant evidence and testimony.

WBI survey: Strong public support for workplace anti-bullying laws

new, scientific Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) national survey on workplace bullying shows strong public support for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

WBI’s 2017 survey is the latest in a series that includes similar polls in 2014, 2010, and 2007. On the question of support for workplace anti-bullying legislation, survey participants were asked: “Do you support or oppose enactment of a new law that would protect all workers from repeated health-harming abusive mistreatment in addition to protections against illegal discrimination and harassment?” Some 77 percent of respondents said they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the enactment of such a law. Here are their specific responses:

  • 47% “Strongly support”
  • 30% “Somewhat support”
  • 15% “Not sure”
  • 4% “Somewhat oppose”
  • 4% “Strongly oppose”

It is notable that the survey question itself tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I have authored that provides bullied workers with a legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Other key survey info

Here are other key results from the 2017 report, as summarized by Dr. Gary Namie:

  • 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it
  • 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
  • 60 million Americans are affected by it
  • 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
  • Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race
  • 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
  • 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
  • 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
  • 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
  • 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
  • To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs

The 2017 WBI survey was conducted in conjunction with Zogby Analytics and significantly underwritten by the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

Healthy Workplace Bill filed for 2017-18 Massachusetts legislative session

The anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has been refiled for the 2017-18 Massachusetts state legislative session. It is designated as Senate No. 1013, backed by main sponsor Senator Jennifer Flanagan and 46 co-sponsors. The bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. You can get all the information you need, including the bill text, here.

The HWB provides a civil legal claim for damages for workers who can prove that they were subjected to severe workplace bullying and creates liability-reducing legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward these behaviors. I wrote the first version of the HWB some 15 years ago. It has been introduced in various versions in over 30 state legislatures since 2003. In recent years, four states — California, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah — have enacted workplace bullying legislation that draws language from the template HWB, but these laws cover training and policies and do not create enforceable legal protections.

Here are the Massachusetts state legislators who have signed on to the HWB (in order of sponsorship date):

Name, District
Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, Worcester and Middlesex
Rep. Diana DiZoglio, 14th Essex
Rep. Frank I. Smizik, 15th Norfolk
Rep. John W. Scibak, 2nd Hampshire
Rep. Angelo J. Puppolo, Jr. 12th Hampden
Rep. RoseLee Vincent, 16th Suffolk
Sen. Thomas M. McGee, Third Essex
Rep. Louis L. Kafka, 8th Norfolk
Sen. Barbara A. L’Italien, Second Essex and Middlesex
Rep. Lori A. Ehrlich, 8th Essex
Rep. Daniel M. Donahue, 16th Worcester
Sen. Michael D. Brady, Second Plymouth and Bristol
Rep. James J. O’Day, 14th Worcester
Rep. Aaron Vega, 5th Hampden
Sen. Kenneth J. Donnelly, Fourth Middlesex
Rep. Denise Provost, 27th Middlesex
Rep. Jonathan Hecht, 29th Middlesex
Rep. Bruce J. Ayers, 1st Norfolk
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, 5th Essex
Rep. Brian M. Ashe, 2nd Hampden
Rep. Chris Walsh, 6th Middlesex
Rep. Ruth B. Balser, 12th Middlesex
Rep. Danielle W. Gregoire, 4th Middlesex
Rep. Steven Ultrino, 33rd Middlesex
Rep. Tacky Chan, 2nd Norfolk
Sen. Donald F. Humason, Jr,. Second Hampden and Hampshire
Rep. Brendan P. Crighton, 11th Essex
Rep. John J. Mahoney, 13th Worcester
Rep. Dylan Fernandes, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket
Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, 3rd Hampshire
Sen. William N. Brownsberger, Second Suffolk and Middlesex
Rep. Russell E. Holmes, 6th Suffolk
Rep. Jonathan D. Zlotnik, 2nd Worcester
Rep. Kevin G. Honan, 17th Suffolk
Sen. Joan B. Lovely, Second Essex
Sen. James B. Eldridge, Middlesex and Worcester
Rep. Claire D. Cronin, 11th Plymouth
Rep. David T. Vieira, 3rd Barnstable
Sen. Michael O. Moore, Second Worcester
Rep. John C. Velis, 4th Hampden
Rep. Kevin J. Kuros, 8th Worcester
Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, 14th Norfolk
Rep. James Arciero, 2nd Middlesex
Rep. Byron Rushing, 9th Suffolk
Rep. Paul McMurtry, 11th Norfolk
Rep. Paul Brodeur, 32nd Middlesex
Sen. Sal N. DiDomenico, Middlesex and Suffolk
Rep. Christine P. Barber, 34th Middlesex

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If you would like more information about supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts, please go here.

If you would like more information about supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill in other states, please go here.

Genetic testing for workplace wellness program participants: Coming soon to a company near you?

Ten jumping jacks and a blood sample, please

It sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are advancing a bill that would allow employers to require employees to undergo genetic testing in order to participate in voluntary workplace wellness programs. Workers who refuse may face significantly higher health care premiums as a penalty. Lena Sun reports for the Washington Post about the proposed Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act:

Employers could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs if a bill approved by a U.S. House committee this week becomes law.

…Under the Affordable Care Act [a/k/a Obamacare], employers are allowed to discount health insurance premiums by up to 30 percent — and in some cases 50 percent — for employees who voluntarily participate in a wellness program where they’re required to meet certain health targets.

…But the House legislation would allow employers to impose penalties of up to 30 percent of the total cost of the employee’s health insurance on those [wellness program participants] who choose to keep such information private.

Currently the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers and ensurers from using genetic information for discriminatory purposes. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of a recognized disability, which could be identified through genetic testing.

As Sun reports, the dozens of organizations that oppose this bill — which include “the American Academy of Pediatrics, AARP, March of Dimes and the National Women’s Law Center” — argue that the proposed legislation would substantially undermine the basic privacy protections provided by GINA and the ADA.

The bill has passed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

If enacted into law, this means that if you want to participate in a workplace-sponsored program to stop smoking, lose weight, or learn mindfulness practices, then you can be required to give your genetic information to your employer as a condition for doing so. If you don’t want to provide a genetic sample but still want to join the wellness program, then your employer can boost your health insurance premiums by up to 30 percent.

The bill itself is alarming enough, but the door it opens is positively frightening. Even if it doesn’t become law, the fact that it has been quickly ushered through a House committee by a pure party line vote sends a disturbing signal about the kind of policy proposals that are holding sway in Washington D.C. today. These are not normal times, and we should all be paying close attention.

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