Monday, June 15, 2009

Examining our prejudices

As my wife and I were loading our kids into the car for a trip to Lowe’s last Thursday night, we noticed someone we didn’t recognize talking to our neighbors across the street. As we were getting into our car, the man crossed the street and approached us. He was in his early twenties and casually, but neatly, dressed. He was carrying a packet of papers in his hand, and began rambling about running track, a trip to England, and selling magazine subscriptions. He handed me his packet of papers to look at, which ended up being a bunch of handwritten notes of magazine titles. When I told him that we already bought subscriptions from our nieces and nephews, he changed his story to something about soliciting used books for his mom. Needless to say, my spidey sense started tingling. I quickly finished gathering my family into the car, excused ourselves, and drove off. I also called the police. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person skeeved out by this guy, because the police already had a description and two squad cars on the way.

I’ve neglected one fact from this story. The particular person who made me nervous enough to call the police happened to be African American. Given his weird behavior, shifting purposes for going door-to-door, and lack of legitimate handouts, I’d like to think I would have reacted the same way no matter his race, especially in light of our neighborhood’s diversity. But, I am left wondering if his race added to my level of discomfort.

Most people do not set out to discriminate. In my career, I’ve come across very few employers that made a conscious decision to fire someone because of their race. Yet, no matter how enlightened and progressive we like to think that we are, we all harbor life experiences and prejudices that shape our behavior. Those prejudices don’t make us bigoted or racist; they just make us human.

Businesses get themselves in trouble when they believe they aren’t capable of discrimination. The key to avoiding potential liability is to recognize that we are all capable of discriminating. That recognition allows us to examine the prejudices that could lead to disparate treatment and hopefully avoid it. Something to think about the next time you hire or fire someone.

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For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or