Equal Opportunity

Fifty years ago, four of us girls met at our classmate’s house to work on a history project. We gathered in her sunken living room and set out our books and papers. On his way out the door, our friend’s father gave her some instructions. “I’ve got an ad in the paper for the apartment. If anybody calls, just take down their name and number and say I’ll get back to them,” he said. “If they sound Black, tell them it’s taken.”

We glanced at each other; our friend looked uncomfortable. “Okay,” she said to her Dad.

After he left, no one said anything.

Forty years ago, I was living in Boston, doing temporary office work while I was in graduate school. At the small employment office across from Park Street Station, you could hear pretty much everything that went on, including the employees who answered the phones. And so, those of us waiting for our assignments heard one job counselor say to another, “If they sound Black, tell them it’s been taken.”

No one standing there said anything, including me. And, yes, in Boston in 1981, everyone with half a brain knew this was both wrong and illegal. By 1981, I wasn’t a teenager living at home. I was an adult who needed a job. To speak up then and there, to the low-paid young women who handled the job listings, would not have changed a thing, it seemed to me, except that my work for the day would have vanished. The idea of reporting the agency to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seemed unreal, even dangerous. Who knew what repercussions there would be. I had not been raised to involve myself in the affairs of the world. I did nothing.

Thirty years ago, I ceased to overhear such remarks. By 1990, every tech employer had developed a corporate ethics policy that shone with purity of heart and sincerity. No form of physical or mental wrongdoing would ever be tolerated by any employer, to hear them tell it.

To be fair, such policies maybe once in a while enabled a preyed-on employee to seek redress. Maybe a Black employee who was the target of some racist jerk actually got help from an HR person who cared, and who was free to act. Maybe a young woman, stuck at the receptionist’s desk, had support when some creep started visiting her every day, staring at her body, making suggestive, unfunny remarks, and of course insisting that he was only being friendly. Maybe a sympathetic HR person, who was free to act, actually forced the creep into line. Maybe the receptionist got to keep her job, instead of having to leave to get away from him.

You notice that little qualifier, though: who was free to act. Never forget that HR is the handmaiden of upper management. If the racist, if the creep, is related to a higher-up, or has a critical role or any other advantage or privilege, no HR person is going to step out of line to help the person who is being abused.

The ethics policies make this difference: if no privileged character is involved, if the abuser and the target are both nobodies in the real power structure of the company, then HR is empowered and required (for fear of lawsuits, of course) to act. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that, if your boss took an interest and told the creep to get lost, maybe that worked. If your boss told you to laugh it off, or said the problem was yours, you had no other recourse. Another thing HR did then, and does now, is back up management.

In all the years that these pure-minded corporate ethics policies have been in place, I have never heard anyone speak openly of rejecting candidates for any personal characteristic. But it’s strange, isn’t it, how after all those years, the upper management of those companies still doesn’t include anyone who sounds Black.

I bet you anything that, even though my friend’s father has been dead for years, she still wouldn’t call him out.

January 10, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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