Workplaces Are Pressuring Staff to Advocate for Social Justice

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Workplaces Are Pressuring Staff to Advocate for Social Justice


A white physician working in Raleigh, North Carolina, says he has participated in multiple diversity training exercises–including two in the last two years–without a fuss. But he was taken aback when his employer, Duke University Health System, said this summer it will roll out a comprehensive strategy to purge the last vestiges of racism from the workplace.

The way it looks to him, Duke basically wants him to admit he’s a racist and repent.

Like a growing number of organizations around the country responding to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Duke is adopting anti-racist advocacy as an organizational mission. That mission doesn’t mention time-honored workplace goals like color-blindness, meritocracy, or equal opportunity; instead, its target is the so-called complicity of America and its citizens in “structural racism,” “oppression,” and denialism.

“I feel like my employer is calling me ‘racist’ and I then saying I must agree,” the doctor, who requested anonymity, told RealClearInvestigations. He said he is troubled that Duke’s leadership is imposing its political ideology on staff, implicating employees in a sweeping moral narrative, and dedicating itself to the task of “uncovering this hidden racism the employer is sure lurks within.” 

Workers are coming under increasing pressure to support social justice programs on race and gender that would have been considered radical just a few years ago and too divisive to be injected into the workplace.

Now an organization’s commitment to fighting racism and identity-related “phobias” increasingly involves encouraging, pressing, or even requiring workers to get behind the company’s social justice mission. And it can spell trouble for employees who balk or publicly disagree.

Duke University President Vincent Price suggested in a June email that his take on American social relations is not up for debate, and that employees who dissent should reflect on their personal shortcomings.

“I cannot as a white person begin to fully understand the daily fear and pain and oppression that is endemic to the Black experience,” Price said in his email. “Ultimately, real progress will require an embrace of both personal and institutional humility, admitting to our blindness, our lack of understanding, and confusion.”

Price’s consciousness-raising is part of a growing movement. 

MicrosoftWells FargoGoogleAppleBoeing, and other corporations are vowing to revamp their cultures and pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to diversity causes and organizations. Major firms are promising to move quickly to increase African American representation in executive management and leadership roles.

Some companies, such as Starbucks and Microsoft, are tying executive compensation to meeting aggressive diversity targets, while a few are even experimenting with offering reparations to black customers.

Executives and managers are setting a confessional tone of guilt and penance, typical of anti-racism workshops, for all employees to emulate.

“I must continue my journey of understanding and empathy and examine actions I take, or don’t take, every day,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a June email to employees. “I take accountability for my own continued learning on the realities of privilege, inequity, and race and modeling the behavior I want to see in the world.”

Such perspectives are filtering down to the rank and file. Workplace wokeness can take the form of employees confessing to their unearned white privilege in diversity training sessions, workers wearing social justice slogans on the job, and employees participating in company-sponsored 8-minute 46-second moments of silence for George Floyd.

It’s too early to tell if these cultural changes will become a permanent feature of the workplace, but some employees find them inappropriate, intrusive, or even coercive, even as others feel they are long overdue.

To supporters, they are not impingements on personal conscience but compassionate and enlightened responses to deeply ingrained structures of oppression, ones that  produce unequal outcomes for people of color in life expectancy, household income, education level, incarceration rates, and other measures.

With the belief that doing nothing is supporting the status quo, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health declared in June that employees who do not get involved are part of the problem: “We each must choose to be allies, as standing by idly or silently is to be complicit in perpetuating racist systems and structures.” 

The backlash has been almost immediate. Just last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a religious discrimination complaint against Kroger Co., the grocery chain, for firing two conservative Christian employees who refused to wear mandatory rainbow hearts on their work aprons in an Arkansas store because, they said, it constituted advocacy for LGBTQ causes.

The women’s attorney, David Hogue, said he is representing about 10 other Kroger employees who are seeking a religious exemption from wearing the hearts on their smocks.

Also last month, President Trump issued an executive order banning racial and gender stereotyping in federal agencies and by federal contractors. What Trump had in mind wasn’t old-fashioned chauvinists and bigots–he was targeting racial-sensitivity workshops informed by a doctrine known as critical race theory.

“Many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual,” the executive order states. “This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

Trump was responding to news reports, based on leaked anti-racism training materials, describing how white federal workers were required to sit silently in discomfort while listening to black colleagues talk about their pain. In at least one session white males were asked to take responsibility for their heterosexual privilege and they were instructed that white male culture is associated with white supremacy and mass killings.

Trump’s order, which goes into effect Nov. 21, has wide reach. It applies to all federal contractors, which includes many universities, nonprofits, and businesses. But the White House was already moving against anti-racism activities before the executive order.

When Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber issued a letter in September declaring that anti-black racism is spread deeply throughout the Ivy League school, the Trump Education Department evidently called Princeton’s bluff by treating the mea culpa literally–announcing an investigation under federal anti-discrimination law.

Ordinary workers are paying the price for dissenting from the new workplace ethos. This summer Silicon Valley networking giant Cisco Systems fired several employees who posted “Black lives don’t matter. All Lives Matter” and other disapproving comments during a virtual all-hands diversity forum, according to Bloomberg News.

Meanwhile, David Shor, a white data analyst for the Civis Analytics consulting firm in Chicago, was canned in June merely for tweeting out a link to a study by black Princeton University professor Omar Wasow concluding that violent race riots in 1968 had a consequence unwelcome to the protesters: tipping that year’s presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon.

The trend is “a sign of the times,” said Ann-Marie Ahern, an employment lawyer in Cleveland at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman. “In recent months I’ve had several calls from people terminated for taking a position on one of these issues that is inconsistent with the position of the employer.”

Ahern said the employees in question were fired for harshly criticizing the social justice tenet of “white privilege” and using language that their employers found racially insensitive. She has also heard from people who experienced repercussions for expressing anti-LGBTQ views “in terms that have been less than respectful.”

What’s noteworthy about these cases is that the individuals lost their jobs or were disciplined for posting private opinions on social media, not for expressing the views at work.

At the federal level, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could rescind Trump’s executive order if elected, and it is not binding on businesses that don’t have federal contracts. In fact, the practices the order seeks to ban are increasingly accepted.

“The overarching question is: Should companies be involved in social issues at all?”  said Robert Föehl, a professor of business ethics and business law at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. “The overwhelming response to that, quite honestly, is that customers, employees, investors, and communities expect them to. And companies are trying to meet these expectations.” 

At some companies, it’s the workers who are demanding the right to express support for social causes in the workplace and pushing their employers to become advocates. Some have pushed back against companies that have disciplined and dismissed employees for expressing social justice views in violation of company dress code policy.

For example, at the Whole Foods and Whataburger chains, employees have taken legal action for the right to wear Black Lives Matter buttons and facemasks in customer-facing jobs. Starbucks recently reversed its ban on divisive political messages and said it will allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter shirts and slogans.

Employment lawyers say that people who work for private employers have limited rights under the nation’s well-established at-will employment doctrine. Employers can discipline and dismiss workers for any reason, including a bad reason or no reason, as long as they don’t violate discrimination laws covering protected categories such as race, national origin, and religion. Religion formed the basis of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Kroger, because those employees had requested special accommodations for their beliefs.

Civil servants and other public employees also have some First Amendment protections, and about half the states allow political expression as an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, but the exceptions can be very limited, according to a 2012 analysis.  

“It’s really important that people don’t overestimate the rights they have in the workplace,” Ahern said. “The employees need to be aware that they may not have a right to say ‘no’ to this.”

A recent article in Harvard Business Review titled “We’re Entering the Age of Corporate Social Justice” said programs under the feel-good rubric of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, are being supplanted by wholesale commitments to moral causes as central to the corporate mission.

“Where [corporate social responsibility] is often realized through a secondary or even vanity program tacked onto a company’s main business,” the article stated, “Corporate Social Justice requires deep integration with every aspect of the way a company functions.”

In outlining Duke University’s anti-racist mission, President Price declared there is “overwhelming evidence” that systemic racism in the United States creates unequal opportunities, and chastised skeptics who “choose to explain away these disparities.”

Price urged employees to reflect on how systemic racism manifests itself in their churches, neighborhoods, and their families. Furthermore, Duke employees “must” begin the work of “personal transformation” to become committed to anti-racist reforms, Price declared.

Because Duke has been so public about creating an institutional culture committed to progressive values, it offers a vivid example of how such institutional changes affect employees personally and emotionally.

“Duke has a tremendous opportunity to course-correct things, not only within our organization but the communities we service,” said Jessica Johnson, administrative director at Duke University Hospital in Durham. “The main hospital in 90 years old. In those nine decades, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve not seen a movement with so much momentum.”

Johnson is one of four African American women who made her comments in an hour-long video testimonial about race and racism, called Black Women @Duke and in America, as part of Duke’s institutional response to the Floyd killing in May.

Johnson discussed her anxiety at being perceived as a “diversity hire” and a “quota filler,” and how overcoming those negative stereotypes is “an everyday struggle” for her.

Thomas Pfau, a professor of Germanic languages and literature, said by phone that he fully agrees with Price’s depiction of America’s systemic racism, and he wholeheartedly supports many of the proposed remedies–such as financial aid for African American students and salary equity for African American faculty and employees.

But Pfau is troubled by Price’s statement that this vision of American society will become obligatory in courses, research, and diversity trainings. When asked if Price’s letter contains echoes of 1930s Germany, Pfau acknowledged that “it has come to mind.”

“Obviously, President Price’s intention is noble and sound, and thus stands in sharpest contrast with what transpired then,” Pfau said by email. “Still, to compel Duke faculty and students to offer public testimonials, as part of some mandatory training session, as to how they have enjoyed an undeserved privilege all these years, risks generating an atmosphere of moral coercion.”

“There would be a point where I would draw the line and would not be comfortable in participating in what might shape up to be a sort-of re-education session,” Pfau said. 

Gregory Kamer, an employment lawyer at Kamer Zucker Abbott in Las Vegas, disputes the notion that at-will employment law gives workers in private companies no rights to resist social justice initiatives that some employees see as heavy-handed.

Kamer, who worked as counsel to the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board for two years in the 1980s, said employees who find these workplaces practices offensive or discriminatory could fight back in the courts by claiming they are being subjected to a hostile work environment under federal anti-discrimination law.

“The bottom line is: Employees will resent this,” Kamer said. “You’re opening a new avenue to litigate in the workplace.”

Originally published by RealClearInvestigations





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