A Different Bias

A new wave of discrimination cases suggests hiring conflicts are no longer black-and-white issues, but have entered the black vs. Hispanic domain.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
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Surveying the remains of his city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin stated, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" In another speech, he referred to The Big Easy as the "chocolate city."

Nagin has since apologized for his remarks after widespread criticism. "I'm really sorry that some people took that the way they did," he said in a statement shortly after the "chocolate-city" comment was made.

Many civil-rights advocates, however, say the issue is not whether such comments are interpreted in particular ways, but whether they are made at all. Many view Nagin's words, and people's reactions to them, as the latest in an ongoing dialogue about the growing tension between America's two largest minority groups: blacks and Hispanics.

"[The two groups] are rubbing shoulders with each other over territory, politics and economic space," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based political analyst, commentator and author, who recently wrote a column entitled "The Black and Hispanic Clash" for "Layered over that, you've got the differences that any two separate groups of people bring to the table anyway, so what you end up with is a combustible situation."

Concerns over Hispanic immigrants taking jobs that have traditionally been held by blacks were bolstered recently when the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled "Blacks vs. Latinos at Work." It focused primarily on two discrimination cases filed by black job applicants, claiming they had been passed over in favor of lesser-qualified Hispanics.

In one instance, Donnie Gaut, a black applicant with 12 years of warehouse experience, claimed he had been unfairly turned down for a $7-an-hour stocking position at Los Angeles-based Farmer John Meats in 2002; he subsequently filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to Anna Park, the EEOC regional attorney who oversaw the case, the agency's investigation revealed the pork packer had been exclusively hiring Hispanics.

According to Park, Farmer John's defense attorney claimed the company had a hard time hiring blacks because "there are not a lot of [them] living in that area." However, says Park, not only were there black applicants for the job in question, but a UPS warehouse located directly across the street had managed to hire a number of black workers.

Acting in what it called an effort to avoid "what would have been costly and protracted litigation," Farmer John's parent company, Clougherty Packing Co., a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., agreed this past October to a $110,000 settlement to be split between Gaut and six other black applicants who claimed they had been rejected for jobs because of their race. However, says Steve Duchesne, spokesman for Clougherty Packing, "this resolution in no way suggests the company did anything wrong."

Park also recently oversaw a discrimination case against Zenith National Insurance Corp., a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based firm specializing in workers' compensation. The EEOC charged that Zenith passed over 10 black applicants for a mailroom job in late 2001, instead offering the position to a Latino man with no previous mailroom experience. According to Park, many of the black applicants were clearly more qualified -- one man alone possessed 12 years of mailroom experience. Zenith, which declined to comment for this story, eventually agreed to a $180,000 settlement.

While these cases clearly represent allegations of discrimination, they also represent a shift in the kinds of claims being presented to the EEOC. Minorities are now reporting they are being passed over in favor of other minorities.

"Historically, African-Americans have always competed with whites for jobs, but now, they are competing with . . . [applicants whose skin color is] brown," says Paul Lawrence Vann, a Fort Washington, Md.-based workplace diversity expert, and author of Living On Higher Ground. "That's something they are just not used to."

While Park feels claims of preference for Hispanics over blacks are more of a "West- coast paradigm," she says she wouldn't be surprised if the New Orleans reconstruction spawned a plethora of new claims.

Unfortunately, she says, the EEOC doesn't have a handle on how many similar cases have been filed and/or settled. With 15 district offices spread across the country, the agency has no central means of tracking cases involving specific minorities. However, she believes these two cases are far from isolated incidents. "If the commission did track them, you probably would see many more cases involving different races," she says.

Leveling the Field

In both the Farmer John and Zenith cases, Park says, Hispanic managers were in charge of hiring. She believes they opted for Latino applicants out of a desire to hire "people they're comfortable with, people who look like them." With a growing number of minorities in positions of power and increasingly making hiring decisions, many companies are making the false assumption they will instinctively know how not to discriminate, she says.

"A lot of employers think, 'They're people of color; they must know better; we're not going to train,' " says Park. "That's a mistake. If people are promoted into management positions, they need to understand their obligations, particularly when they do hiring."

That's exactly the approach taken by fast-food giant McDonald's Corp. Despite a large number of minority managers and franchisees, the company goes to great lengths to ensure that everyone charged with hiring -- whether at the store level, any of the company's 21 regional offices, or its Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters -- receives exactly the same training with regard to diversity.

In addition to standard courses held at McDonald's famous Hamburger University, the company holds a variety of diversity-themed seminars, including Winning with Diversity and Inclusion, which "addresses the whole issue of building diverse teams and working in an inclusive environment," according to Patricia Harris, vice president of McDonald's USA and chief diversity officer of McDonald's Corp.

While she concedes it's impossible to control every move that managers make in such a decentralized hiring environment, Harris says she's confident McDonald's has put the proper mechanisms in place to ensure managers use their best judgment when making hiring decisions.

"We can't manage every person out there in every restaurant, but we provide the tools and the training, so that, hopefully, they are hiring the best people based on their backgrounds and qualifications," says Harris. "I'm not saying that we're perfect, but it's not one of those things I lie awake at night thinking about."

Allstate Insurance Co. in Evanston, Ill., requires that all managers be certified before they are allowed to interview job candidates. This is accomplished through the completion of two day-long courses, taught by members of the HR, legal, diversity and corporate security departments. They use case studies and role-playing exercises to explain not only legal requirements with regard to hiring practices, but also how to conduct proper, discrimination-free interviews, using questions that have been approved by both the human resource and legal departments.

"No one at Allstate is allowed to interview an applicant unless [he or she has] been trained not only in the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law and what we want to accomplish here at Allstate, which is an inclusive and diversified environment," says Dennis Gomez, vice president of human resources. "You have to have people who are trained and are honest and ethical because if you don't have those types of people doing the interviewing, you are going to fail."

Likewise, Montvale, N.J.-based KPMG requires anyone involved in hiring to go through a formal program entitled Hiring High Performers. The first hour is an "intense labor-law summary," which takes place online. It provides a review of EEOC requirements "in layman's terms, not just in HR terms," says Cheryl Levy, KPMG's national recruiting director for experienced hires.

Participants then move onto a five-hour course taught by KPMG recruiters. Once again, they review the relevant laws and then teach participants to develop nondiscriminatory behavioral types of questions focused on candidates' previous experience or education.

"Organizations need to make sure their people are able to make quality decisions in the midst of differences and tensions," says R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., CEO of R. Thomas Consulting & Training Inc. in Atlanta, president of The American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of Building on the Promise of Diversity: How We Can Move on to the Next Level in Our Workplaces, Our Communities, and Our Society. "In order to accomplish that, they must say to their people, 'Here are the requirements and if you are making hiring decisions on the basis of something other than requirements, the onus is on you to justify why you are doing it,' " he says.

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Shattering Stereotypes

Frequently, experts say, stereotyping is to blame for some employers' decisions to choose one minority over another. While people tend to think stereotypes carry negative connotations, some of those circulating today are anything but negative -- at least for the group being stereotyped. Take the seemingly widespread belief that Hispanics make better workers, for example.

"There's a belief among employers that Hispanics -- particularly Hispanics who have come here having escaped some pretty hard conditions -- are driven to work harder," says Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan group that aims to advance interracial dialogue. "It certainly does make it very difficult for others to compete if there is this generalized view that Latinos are the preferred people for the job, that they will work harder and be less demanding."

Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington, argues that assessment isn't altogether inaccurate, however. "There's an immigrant ethic that if you are going to go to all the trouble of changing where you live, you're not going to get a handout; you're going to work," she says. "And we do work hard."

Unfortunately, she says, stereotypes and biases are often so deeply ingrained that people may find themselves making critical decisions based on preconceived notions of a particular racial or ethnic group's attributes (or lack thereof) -- without even realizing it.

"We use stereotypes all the time in making our decisions, but it's helpful from a training standpoint to work with managers to see how their thought processes are working, so when it gets down to making certain important decisions, they can ask themselves, 'Am I basing this one on a stereotype or am I basing this on the actual situation?' " says Beth Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corp., a Honolulu-based provider of software for human resource processes.

Carvin recommends bringing in diversity experts who can work with managers to help them discover "how unconscious stereotypes really pervade all of our thoughts." She also suggests that companies establish cross-cultural mentor programs -- matching a white male executive with a "protégé of color," for example. According to Carvin, such relationships take the mentoring process one step beyond the traditional purpose of raising the career prospects of a talented young employee.

"The mentored employee will benefit from being able to work with a high-level executive, of course, but the executive will also benefit from the opportunity to work with someone from a different culture than his or her own," says Carvin. "As the executive gets to know the employee as a person, it helps break down some of the stereotypes."

Unfortunately, some members of senior management don't seem to care about the individual attributes of Hispanic workers, says John Trasvina, senior vice president for law and policy at the Mexican-American Defense League in Los Angeles. They have already come to view the population as "preferred applicants" -- not because of any belief in a back-breaking work ethic, but because they consider them to be an easily exploitable source of cheap labor, he says.

Specifically, he adds, some employers view Hispanic immigrants as being less aware of their rights and less likely to speak up for themselves, both due to the language barrier and the fear of being reported to the federal government.

Essentially, Trasvina says, employers are fanning the flames between Hispanics and blacks. This effort to "pit community against community" has civil rights activists, such as LULAC's Lemus, deeply concerned -- concerned enough, in fact, to plan a session on the subject for her organization's 77th Annual National Convention & Exposition, to be held June 26 through July 1 in Milwaukee.

Vann echoes her concern, adding that Latinos and blacks must be cautious not to start blaming one another for seemingly illegal or unethical acts by employers. He cautions employers to stop engaging in such divisive practices or risk facing a united black- Hispanic front, rather than one group resenting the apparent net gains of another.

"The Latino community and the African-American community have both suffered under social injustice and lack of opportunity for so long," he says. "This is the time for us to unite, rather than divide."

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