Archive for the ‘discrimination’ Category

Women, Bank Notes, and Patterns of Inequity

Canada’s government is under fire with regards to gender equity, and business leaders should take notice.

Attention has recently been drawn to a petition calling for women on bank notes. Currently, Canada’s bank notes feature only dead (white) male politicians. Queen Elizabeth is the only woman featured, and she’s not Canadian. The result is that Canadian women, no matter how accomplished or historically significant, are excluded from being celebrated in this high-profile way. The petition notes that Canada’s $50 bill once featured “The Famous 5” (women instrumental in the fight to acknowledge women’s legal personhood) and Thérèse Casgrain, a Canadian senator who had once been a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in Quebec. But in 2012, those images were replaced with an image of an icebreaker.

Zero representation of Canadian women seems a clear matter of inequity. Of course, it can be pointed out by way of rebuttal that the bills mostly honour dead Prime Ministers, all of whom (the dead ones, that is) happen to be men. But that just means that it’s a case of systemic discrimination, sort of like back when certain police forces required officers to be over 5’10” or something. They didn’t say that women couldn’t be officers; it just happened (*ahem*) to be the case that very few women qualified.

The other thing that might be pointed out is that it’s not as if anyone is asking for anything onerous or expensive, here, in asking for women to be represented. It’s an easy move with plenty of symbolic significance. It’s the respectful thing to do. Other Commonwealth countries have done it. Why couldn’t Canada?

Of course, it’s easy to pick on individual issues like this, and to see them as representing a general attitude of disrespect. And that’s not always fair. So it makes sense to look more generally at what the Government of Canada has done to show its commitment to gender equality.

Let’s start at the top. How has the Government of Canada done at showing commitment to gender equity by, say, appointing women to Cabinet? Well, there are 12 women in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, out of a total of 39 cabinet ministers. That means Cabinet is 31% women. That’s very roughly proportionate to the number of women in Parliament, since there are currently 76 women sitting in the House of Commons (out of 308 seats, for 25%), and 38 more in the Senate (out of 105, for 36%). But of course it’s nowhere near proportionate to the number of women in the Canadian population, or for that matter on the list of eligible voters. That represents a middling grade at best. This is, after all, 2013.

The Harper government has also been criticized for the under-representation of women on the Supreme Court of Canada. I don’t have a real opinion on this, and I realize that in selecting SCC judges the matter of qualification for the job has to be paramount, far more important in fact than in selection of cabinet ministers. But still, well-informed individuals, including SCC justices, say there’s room for improvement.

Add to this the fact that there have been claims that women’s rights have in fact suffered significant setbacks under Harper’s government.

When you put it that way, the lack of Canadian women on Canadian banknotes looks a little more significant, more like part of a pattern than an aberration.

What’s the take-away for business leaders? If you don’t want to have every decision and policy questioned from an equity point of view, make sure your track record on the issue is one that reassures, rather than provoking cynicism or outright antagonism.

Is Fare by Weight Fair?

Is it fair to charge airline passengers based in part on weight? That’s the plan recently announced by Samoa Air, and it’s a plan that is raising a few eyebrows.

Yes, it’s an ethical issue. But no, there’s no clear answer.

Interestingly, the mainstream media stories I’ve read about this thus far have made little mention of the obvious moral worry, namely discrimination. On the face of it, this looks like systemic discrimination against overweight and obese flyers. You and I could be in adjacent seats, booked seconds apart, but if you happen to be 20 pounds chubbier than me, you’ll pay more.

Whether being fat is sufficiently under personal control to make it a permissible basis for discrimination is hotly debated. But it’s worth noting that a weight-based policy also discriminates against those whose extra pounds are pure muscle. A heavyweight boxing champ would be about fifty pounds heavier than me, and would therefore pay more. The same goes for someone with the same build as me, who happens to be 4 inches taller. So if this is discrimination, it’s discrimination against those who are heavy, not those who are fat.

The other factor not mentioned in the few stories I’ve read about this is the environment. In aviation terms, weight translates into fuel, and more fuel burned means more environmental impact. So in charging by weight, an airline is basically levying a kind of carbon tax. And while how much you weigh isn’t fully within your control, the amount of luggage you bring with you is, and Samoa Air charges based on the total weight of you plus your luggage. Charging more on that total encourages people to carry less, and in principle might nudge frequent flyers, at least, to lose a few pounds. Such reductions eventually mean reductions in carbon emissions, and that’s a good thing. So even if there is a problematic form of discrimination going on here, there’s at least one factor on the other side of the moral equation.

Finally, it’s worth noting that to the extent that we’re worried about discrimination against bigger people (regardless of why they are big), being charged extra for their weight is far from the only price bigger people pay. Sufficiently large people also “pay,” for example, in the form of pain suffered by squeezing into airline seats not designed for people their size. That’s one of innumerable ways in which people who are outside the norm suffer in a world of products and services that are mass produced. But then, if the unusually large person pays a price for being squeezed into a seat designed for smaller folk, the person next to them pays a part of that price, too.

Of course, Samoa Air is a tiny airline, based in a tiny country. And commentators suggest that the company’s example is unlikely to be copied by major airlines. Indeed, it’s probably next to impossible: Samoa Air not only charges more to heavier passengers, it gives them more space — something likely impossible on standardly-configured passenger jets. But it is precisely for this reason that Samoa Air makes for a good case to use in ethics training and education. Before coming down on one side or the other, it’s important to tease out not just that there’s an ethical issue at all, but that there are in fact a range of ethical questions here.

Reverse Discrimination in High-Profile Hiring

Discrimination has a bad name, in part because what we typically mean by the word “discrimination” is more like “unjustified discrimination” or “discrimination on morally-irrelevant grounds.” But discrimination per se — even discrimination based on normally-irrelevant characteristics like race or disability — is not always bad. In a very few cases, discrimination is rooted in bona fide job requirements. The classic example is that it’s OK to discriminate against the visually impaired if you’re hiring pilots; having good eye-sight is a bona fide requirement for being a pilot. Being white, on the other hand, is not.

For a recent controversy over reverse discrimination (or rather over a failure to engage in such discrimination) see this recent case from Halifax, Nova Scotia. By Clare Mellor, for the Chronicle Herald: Africville trust hiring prompts some anger: Choosing white minister ‘insulting’

Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation.

“I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist.

“Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.”

The trust was set up to establish a memorial to Africville, a major African-Nova Scotian community destroyed on the orders of Halifax officials in the 1960s.

The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position….

So-called “reverse discrimination” is challenging, ethically. Preferential hiring of individuals from historically-disadvantaged groups can be a ham-fisted way to right past wrongs. But in at least some cases — particularly cases involving high-profile positions — the symbolic significance of the job in question has to at least be considered. (A very similar controversy arose a couple of years ago, when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind hired its first non-blind CEO.)

The first thing to note about the Halifax / Africville case is that it’s not primarily a black-vs-white dispute. It’s clear that those who oppose the hire don’t speak for Halifax’s entire black community. The Board of Directors of the Africville Trust is the body that did the hiring, and although detailed information about the composition of the Board is hard to find, the article cited above does say that the Board “includes six representatives of the Africville [i.e., black] community.” That doesn’t change the fundamental ethical questions at stake, but it does sweep away any thought that this is just an us-vs-them debate.

It’s also worth pointing out a legal worry, here. Hiring based on race is generally wrong, and typically illegal. It’s not clear to me (a non-lawyer) that excluding non-blacks from consideration for a job like this would even be legal. Do the critics of this hire simply think that the job posting should have said “Whites Need Not Apply?” Likely not. But a subtler position is logically open to them, anyway, namely a position that says something like “if in doubt, give the job to the black candidate” (based perhaps on a presumption of greater personal understanding of the issues at stake). But again, I don’t know whether that would be legal. (Does anyone reading this know?) And surely no on really wants to settle, as one activist quoted in the story suggests, for a candidate who is merely “fully qualified”. After all, there might well be a number of “fully qualified” candidates, and so you’re still going to need to make a decision. And if the job is important, then we likely want it filled not just by someone qualified, but by the most qualified person.

But on the other hand, critics of this decision do have a point, and that has to do with the symbolic value that would attach to putting a black person in charge of the Africville Trust. It’s not hard to see that selecting a black man or woman for this kind of leadership role would send a certain kind of message, and maybe give black kids in Halifax another positive role-model, one more non-white individual occupying a position of prestige and influence.

All in all, I’m not sure what to think about this one. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this: if you think a case like this has a clear and simple answer, you’re probably not thinking about it hard enough.

Deaf Nudists, Rights, and the Responsibilities of Business

Here’s another “tempest in a teapot” story with much larger implications.

By Daniel Wiessner, for Reuters: Deaf man complains nudists would not provide interpreter

A deaf man has accused a nudist park in upstate New York of violating federal law by refusing to provide him with a sign-language interpreter at an annual festival.

Tom Willard, 53, of Rochester, filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department claiming Empire Haven Nudist Park violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing his requests for an interpreter.

“I am fed up with being turned away every time I try to do something, by idiots who somehow feel the ADA does not apply to them,” Willard wrote in the complaint….

Now it’s true that the ADA‘s “Public Accommodations” does require businesses and nonprofits to take reasonable steps to reduce barriers for the disabled. But according to this page explaining the application of the ADA, Willard is probably out of luck, legally speaking:

Q. Will a bookstore be required to maintain a sign language interpreter on its staff in order to communicate with deaf customers?

A. No, not if employees communicate by pen and notepad when necessary.

In other words, a business doesn’t have to provide a customer’s chosen accommodation, as long as they do something to achieve a fair outcome. (If someone reading this understands the application of the ADA better, please comment!) At a bookstore, you don’t need a translator as long as you’ve got a pen and paper. The same would pretty clearly apply at a nudist park.

Now all that is about the law, not about ethics per se. Ethics and the law are two different things, and that goes for the legal and ethical responsibilities of business, too. But that doesn’t mean that legal issues are “merely” legal issues. The legislation with regard to how businesses need to accomodate disabilities is right there, in black and white. But such legislation is must be interpreted, and interpretation inevitably involves the application of ethical principles, and the relevant ethical principles here include not just the principle that we ought to do more to lower barriers, but also a principle of reasonableness that says that the needs of the disabled have to be balanced against the legitimate interests of businesses and other organizations (and of their other stakeholders). Judges and juries end up having to apply such principles, among others, when discrimination cases reach court. In the 99.999% of cases that never end up near a courtroom, it’s up to businesses — and the people who work for them — to do their best to apply those principles too.

Values-Based Consumerism as Double-Edged Sword

It’s a game of connect-the-dots. Do you, as a consumer, feel any responsibility for the purposes to which the companies you patronize put their profits? Do you care about a company’s values, beyond the effect those values have on how the company conducts business? What about its CEO’s values, or the values of its biggest shareholder? Do those factors enter into your purchasing decisions? Should it?

To make the question more concrete, consider the following:

  • If you’re politically left-leaning, do you want to patronize a store owned by someone on the right?
  • If you are a Christian, would you buy a car from an atheist?
  • If you’re pro-choice, would you buy groceries from a chain of stores owned by a staunch pro-life advocate?
  • If you’re in favour of strict gun control, do you want to boost the profits of a company that donates to the National Rifle Association?

For a less-hypothetical example, see this story (in which I’m quoted) by Nicole Neroulias in the Albany Times Union: “Corporate giving is questioned”. The focus of Neroulias’s story is a recent controversy regarding TOMS shoes. The short version goes like this: Blake Mycoskie, head of TOMS, agreed to be interviewed by Jim Daly, president of the right-wing Christian group Focus on the Family. Feminists and defenders of gay rights protested, and Mycoskie issued an apology. On his blog, he wrote: “TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all.” Without questioning his sincerity here, it’s clear that Mycoskie had become aware that his flirtation with FOTF had riled his company’s socially-progressive customer base. Why would someone socially progressive continue to support a company perceived to be in cahoots with the Christian right?

Three quick points:

1) On one hand, it seems to me that, yes, at least in principle, consumers must take an interest in the causes supported by the companies they patronize. We are responsible for the causes we support, even indirectly. Of course, most of us contribute far too little to the coffers of even our favourite companies to make any appreciable difference at all. If a company has a 1% profit margin, and gives 1% of that to some cause, that means that one penny out of every hundred dollars you spend goes to that cause. But then, even merely symbolic contributions matter.

2) People who want corporations to adopt social causes should be careful what they wish for. It’s all well and good to say that companies should do something to “give back” to the community. But when they agree to do so, what’s to say that they’re going to give to a cause that you believe in, rather than one you find abhorrent? Would you rather your favourite software company contributed to your least-favourite charity, or just stopped contributing to charities at all?

3) One of the most interesting things about all this is that what we’re seeing here is the undoing of the competitive market’s tendency to prevent people from acting out their biases. One of the best things about modern markets is that they punish prejudice, and make it more difficult. It’s easy to discriminate against the minority cobbler down the street by traveling a few extra blocks to buy from “your own kind”; it’s much harder to act out your racist biases when buying shoes at a big department store because, well, you have no idea what colour or sex or sexual orientation of the person who made those shoes is. Market transactions today are effectively anonymous and depersonalized, in a way that makes biases of various kinds effectively impotent. The push for certain kinds of corporate social responsibility, accelerated by moves toward corporate transparency and social media, is effectively undoing this.

In the end, it’s not at all clear whether it is a good thing that the market is becoming another avenue for acting out our ideological disagreements.

Want to Avoid Scandal at the Top? Hire a Woman!

There’s an antiquated quip / greeting-card slogan / bumper sticker that says, “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” I say “antiquated” because in 2011, we all know that very often — let’s say half the time — the best person for the job is a woman. That’s far beyond “sometimes.” But there’s one job-related talent that seems to make women especially qualified for positions of senior leadership, and that is their apparent ability to avoid bringing themselves, and their organizations, into disrepute by involving themselves scandals.

See this story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for the NY Times: When it Comes to Scandal, Girls Won’t Be Boys

Female politicians rarely get caught up in sex scandals. Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soul mates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John) or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace….

Now, Stolberg’s piece is about male vs female political leadership. But the same point can be made in the corporate world. What do the names Skilling, Madoff, Boesky, and Hurd all have in common? Well in addition to referring to persons implicated in major scandals, they all have the title “Mr” in front of them. Indeed, it’s relatively hard to name a female CEO or other senior executive who was culpable in a headline-making scandal. Martha Stewart’s name comes to mind, but her insider trading had nothing to do with her executive position. (And sure, Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Productions, gave Jenny McCarthy her own TV show, but that’s a different kind of scandal.)

Of course, we have to be careful with letting anecdotes stand in for stats, here. The first and most obvious reason why my male CEOs are involved in more scandals is because there are more CEOs. According to the Globe and Mail, “Only 17 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada’s top 500 private and public sector companies are female.” According to Catalyst (a nonprofit aimed at expanding business opportunities for women), only 30 of The Financial Post 500 companies are headed by women. In the US, the numbers seem even lower: as of 2009, there were just 13 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Still, it does seem that males are liable to be involved in scandals out of proportion to their statistical dominance in the C-suite. Male CEOs seem more likely to behave badly than female ones. Does this have anything to do with the documented correlation between testosterone and financial risk-taking? Hard to say. But it wouldn’t be that surprising if a tendency toward risky behaviour in one domain were correlated with a tendency toward risky behaviour in another.

So should boards of directors actually discriminate against men, given the male tendency to become embroiled in scandals? No. For one thing, the fact that “more” male CEOs than female CEOs seem to get into hot water has to be put into context: very few CEOs of either sex get themselves into the kind of trouble that makes headlines. So to say that men are more likely to get into trouble is like saying that the risk of getting hit by lightning is higher than the risk of shark attack: both risks are in fact tiny. And besides, we probably don’t want to advocate discrimination against individuals based on their membership in a group that merely has a statistical tendency towards a particular weakness. But then again, such a statistically-driven hiring bias might well be better than the entirely baseless bias that results in their being so few female CEOs in the first place.

Naomi vs Cadbury

Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.

See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:

Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.

The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….

Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva”, regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.

You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.

Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.

Workplace Accommodation of Masturbation

Here’s an odd story, to say the least. A woman in Brazil has apparently won the legal right to masturbate at work — frequently — and to watch porn on her work computer as part of that activity.

Here’s the story, from David Moye blogging for the Huffington Post, via the Employer Handbook blog:

In a decision that can only be described as touchy, a Brazilian judge has reportedly ruled that a 36-year-old female accountant can legally masturbate at work and watch porn on her work computer.

Ana Catarian Bezerra successfully argued that she suffers from a chemical imbalance that triggers severe anxiety and hypersexuality, according to a viral news story….

It’s a story sure to engender plenty of giggles, but it’s also another example of a bizarre little story that serves as a pretty decent starting point for consideration of more serious issues.

A couple of quick points:

1) It’s worth considering the gender issue, here. People’s reactions to this story clearly have a lot to do with the fact that the individual involved is a woman. I wonder, if the employee with the habit of excessive on-the-job masturbation had been male, would people’s reaction change from giggles to disgust? I suspect so. I suspect a male with this proclivity would garner far, far less sympathy. Now in making this observation (or, I should say, this educated guess), I am emphatically not claiming reverse discrimination. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the fact that many of us would judge a man more harshly in this situation. In fact, that makes a good deal of sense to me. Men account for the vast majority of sexual predators and are the more frequent perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace. So it’s not surprising if our primary reaction to a male with a masturbation-at-work habit would be critical, rather than supportive. That’s not to say that a man wouldn’t deserve the same workplace consideration that the judge in this case mandated; it’s just to say that a man might have a harder time getting sympathy. I’m not sure what to do with that distinction, but it’s worth noting.

2) The woman in this case is basically arguing that she has a kind of disability, one that the workplace ought to accommodate. All obvious jokes aside, it’s an issue that ought to be considered seriously — as the court in this case clearly did. Now, the woman in question claims a chemical imbalance that triggers her odd behaviour. And of all the odd behaviours that take place in the workplace, something of a private and sexual nature certainly isn’t the oddest or most disruptive. But refusal to accommodate this particular disability wouldn’t need to be based in a repressive Victorian view of human sexuality. The very fact that humans — and I’m thinking in particular of co-workers here — have the reactions they do to the thought of other humans pleasuring themselves means that such behaviour, especially when publicized is bound to be disruptive, even if it happens out of sight. But then again, our society is still crawling slowly towards truly embracing the notion, enunciated most forcefully by John Stuart Mill, that we shouldn’t have rules against behaviour that doesn’t harm anyone, and that, hence, what goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. But it’s not clear just how that rule of thumb applies when the ‘business’ in question is actually someone’s business, and when the closed door involved is an office door.

McJobs, and Height as Bona Fide Employment Qualification

Starbucks cupQuestions of employment discrimination and of what counts as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” are always challenging.

See, for example, this story published yesterday in the Globe & Mail: Starbucks sued for firing dwarf from barista job

The U.S. government is suing Starbucks Corp. … saying the coffee company fired a barista in El Paso, Tex., because she is a dwarf.

When the employee asked for a stool or small stepladder to perform her job, Starbucks denied the request and fired her that same day, claiming that she could be a danger to customers and workers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission….

As several commenters on the Globe story point out, the space behind a Starbucks counter is not a great place for an employee to stand stationary on a stool. It’s a fast-paced workplace in which people work with hot coffee and scalding jets of steam. So, Starbucks is at least not being entirely unreasonable in suggesting that allowing their would-be employee to stand there on a stool. That, I take it, is the key legal question.

But it seems to me that there’s another issue here, which has to do with just how critical this particular job is to this particular person. How critical the job is reveals the extent to which the company’s refusal to accommodate counts as an impediment to the would-be employee’s interests. Consider a different kind of example. Consider a situation in which the job in question is a high-paid unionized job, in a town with few employers. In such a situation, having that job might be really, really important. Or consider an employee who is moving up a corporate ladder. Imagine that the job at the third rung of the ladder (but only that one) requires that the employee receive some form of accommodation. Here, accommodation is crucial not just for the job, but for the employee’s entire career trajectory.

So there are, arguably, jobs for which accommodation is exceptionally important. But (with all due respect to the nice people who make my grande no-whip mocha) most of us don’t think of a job at Starbucks that way. We think of a job as a barrista as basically just another McJob, one which pays maybe a little over minimum wage and which is interchangeable with lots of other kinds of jobs in similar industries.

On the other hand, Starbucks likely doesn’t see its jobs that way, and doesn’t want to. At least, that’s the impression one gets from visiting the company’s Career Centre. So even if it turns out that Starbucks isn’t legally required to accommodate this person, doing so might be consistent with the values they claim to embrace, and the kind of workplace image they want to project.


Thanks to Dominic Martin for showing me this story.

Corporate Motives and Discrimination

Motives, especially corporate ones, are hard to figure. Some people, of course, are skeptical about the notion that an abstract entity like a corporation can have motives (or intentions or beliefs of attitudes or any of those sorts of things), even though we all have a tendency to talk about corporations as if they are capable of having them. It’s pretty common to talk about a company “expecting” profits to rise next year, or “wanting” to increase its market share, and so on. But even if we’re not so skeptical about attributing motives (etc.) to companies, their motives can be pretty elusive. We may not be ready to believe corporate spokespersons when they tell us what their company’s motives are, and besides, even if everyone within a company agrees that a certain course of action is the right one to take, it’s entirely possible that different parties within the company all have different motives for doing so.

But sometimes it’s good to at least try to understand what motivates companies, particularly when we want to diagnose a widespread and/or persistent problem, in order to suggest changes.

This question of determining motives came to mind when I read a story about an age discrimination case at 3M: “3M settles age-discrimination suit for up to $12M”.

3M Co. has agreed to pay up to $12 million to settle an age-discrimination lawsuit with as many as 7,000 current and former employees.
The 2004 lawsuit targeted the company’s performance-review system, alleging that older workers were disproportionately downgraded. It also accused the company of favoring younger employees for certain training opportunities that could fast-track them for promotions….

If we accept for the sake of argument that some sort of systemic discrimination took place at 3M, what on earth might have motivated such behaviour?
Here are a few possibilities:

  • Profits. Maybe the discriminatory practices and policies were an attempt to increase efficiency in order to boost profits. This of course is the go-to assumption for most corporate critics.
  • Energy. Maybe those who engaged in age discrimination weren’t thinking specifically about the end goal of profits, but merely had a certain vision in mind of the kind of company they ought to have, and the kind of youthful energy that makes a company vibrant.
  • Recruitment. Maybe 3M wanted to give younger employees lots of opportunities so that they could brag about opportunities for young employees when recruiting new talent. Most recruits, after all, are likely to be young, and ambitious young people are likely to be drawn to a company that holds the promise of great opportunities.
  • Bias. It could be that various key decision-makers inside 3M were simply personally biased, as many (most? all?) of us are, against older employees.
  • Justice It’s at least possible that key decision-makers within 3M actually thought that giving preferential treatment to younger employees was the morally-right thing to do. Quick, ask yourself this: if 2 patients each need a heart transplant, and you’ve got just one donor heart, and one patient is 15 and the other is 55, who would you give the heart to? Surely all of us are tempted, from time to time, to think that the young are particularly deserving of opportunities. Note that I’m not defending such a view, here.

What do you think? Note that the point here is not about the 3M case, but about what could motivate a company, any company, to engage in discriminatory behaviour. And again, I think it’s worth contemplating the possibility that there simply was no corporate motive (nor maybe even a truly corporate “cause”).

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