ORANGE COUNTY VOICES : BIGOTRY : Workplace Rules Still Evolving--and Woe to Those Who Don’t Keep Up : With work-force diversity on the rise, so are the number and types of prejudices that savvy employers need to guard against.
The most popular girl in my eighth grade class was Janet Handleman. Despite Janet’s overall popularity, one of my friends took great delight in making fun of her. Most of his jokes were about her nose. As I discovered, however, her nose was just the visible target of his ridicule. The real reason for my friend’s taunting was that Janet was a Jew.
To a 13-year-old boy fresh from the plains of small-town Nebraska and in my first ethnically diverse city school, this was all new to me. I’d never known a Jew, and I don’t have any specific recollection now that I even knew why that qualified Janet for teasing. What I do remember is that my buddy’s teasing hurt Janet’s feelings and that the taunting also made me vaguely uncomfortable. I also remember that I never bothered to ask him to stop.
That little flashback comes to mind in the wake of the affair involving Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York columnist who recently was suspended after an especially mean verbal attack on a Korean reporter who had taken issue with one of his columns. The incident serves as an object lesson as to how the rules of the workplace continue to change.
The Breslin outburst suggests society hasn’t made much progress in the quarter-century since I knew Janet Handleman. But, of course, it has. That’s why Breslin found himself in the soup.
You’d think the good ol’ boys would be used to it by now. The civil rights and feminist movements already removed whole sections of the “book” on what was acceptable office conversation.
Changes continue apace in the ‘90s. In addition to race and gender, workers now are on guard regarding ethnicity, sexual orientation and, as the work force gradually gets older, age.
In Orange County government, minority representation in the work force has grown from 10% to about 30% in the last 10 years. The private sector also reflects the increasing diversity. It is a trend not expected to change.
Three examples from Orange County government highlight the situation:
Case 1: When a group of Vietnamese employees began cooking food in the office microwave, the pungent odor offended co-workers. The problem was resolved by the affirmative action staff, which got both sides to agree on a compromise that banned some foods and allowed others.
Case 2: An employee in his 60s had a habit of using words like kike and nigger . His co-workers didn’t like it, but none complained until the man fired a woman. She brought the matter to the attention of the affirmative action office. When confronted, according to affirmative action officer Ben Alvillar, the man didn’t flinch. “He said, ‘What’s wrong with that? I was only joking.’ He was out of touch with what was happening,” said Alvillar.
Case 3: A new manager announced that he rewarded hard-working employees. That was fine, according to Alvillar, except that the manager concluded his pep talk by saying “So if you’re young and willing to work hard and climb the ladder, you’re going to make it. Otherwise, forget it.”
Without knowing it, he had hit a nerve. Older employees objected to the reference to youth. The manager was admonished by superiors that his language smacked of ageism.
Given the county’s diversity, employees and supervisors must get hip to the new rules of acceptable workplace language and behavior. “It’s an essential question that every company in Orange County is going to grapple with,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county’s Human Relations Commission.
County government and some private firms already have programs that spell out the changing rules. The University of California also has come up with a list of “fighting words” that are to be avoided on campus when talking about various minority groups. “It’s supposed to inform people that certain acts of violence can be verbal, not just physical,” said UC Irvine ombudsman Ron Wilson.
“I believe in the First Amendment and the right to free speech,” Kennedy said. “I believe in the protection of people having the right to spew whatever their feelings are. But I also believe in people being held responsible for what they say.”
Allowing outbursts like Breslin’s, he said, “sets an atmosphere in the office where people with more extreme feelings or prejudices feel more righteous in acting out their prejudices. So it sets a standard of behavior . . . which can be repressive. It can hurt personal or professional stature to be belittled among your peers.”
As the ‘90s unfold, will the melting pot in the Orange County workplace produce a rich savory blend or a boiling brew? Much of the responsibility seems to lie with the white male power structure. But who knows? Perhaps sometime soon, a new chapter will be written in the office handbook of acceptable behavior, with this warning to the majority employees: “Please try to be more sensitive to the feelings of the blue-eyed blonds among us.”