Can equality be achieved in the american workplace without mandated laws?

Members of a business team discuss the launch of a new product at a weekly meeting.

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By Justin K. Thomas

June 8, 2017

Without state and federal mandates, America is probably 500 years away from workplace equality said Charles Krugel, a labor and employment counselor on behalf of businesses in the Chicago-land area.

“My short answer is, 'Yes,'" Krugel said. “There can be true equality without laws. However, societally speaking, we're probably 500 years away from that.”

Krugel says he has no empirical evidence to base his claim for that number of years on. He uses logic and the observation of overall improvement in the sociopolitical climate of 18th-century America to today.

“I am an optimist,” he said. “If you look at our [national] history, we do seem to be improving as a society. About 240 years ago, no one would have cared about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Lacquan McDonald or Freddie Gray. Now, their murders are catalysts for increased civil rights activism. Also, women have the right to vote and can hold public offices, and we’ve had our first black president. On the other hand, we're still dealing with the impacts of slavery, labor issues and biases towards certain people, so we still have a long way to go.”

Opponents to mandating equality say that compulsory equality, even with its best intentions, has garnered undesirable outcomes in the workplace, like resentment, especially when it comes to the racial aspects of hiring practices.

“Race relations within the United States have improved,” said Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business management at Brooklyn College, an affiliate school of the City University of New York. “However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which determined that legal segregation was illegal, has maintained an inadvertent controversy which continues to this day. If there had been a more neutral approach to striking down segregated laws through a more voluntarist or libertarian system, desegregation might have occurred more quickly and without as much bitterness.”

Langbert said that regulation of interpersonal behavior has resulted in tokenism and has directed anger from many people towards policies such as affirmative action.

“Firms that do not discriminate will become more efficient than those that do,” he said. “That is part of the reason why the U.S. has succeeded as a nation. The best gains have occurred where there was deregulation rather than regulation. Corporations need to refocus their cultures toward standards of excellence, achievement, and self-actualization. If this were to happen, discrimination in the workplace would be minimized.”

Additionally, mandates to maintain equality do not counter involuntary personal biases that can impact the hiring process, according to one expert.

Laura M. Graves, a professor of management at the Graduate School of Management of Clark University who teaches courses regarding diversity in businesses, says that people, including those interviewing potential job candidates, will unconsciously characterize each other.

“When we meet people [who are different from ourselves] we automatically categorize them by their demographic characteristics,” Graves said. “This is an automatic process; we aren’t aware that we are doing it, but it is happening nonetheless. It is particularly problematic in situations where we have limited information about others, such as reviewing resumes and conducting job interviews.”

Although these biases are automatic, Graves said that there are a few approaches hiring managers can use to help negate possible discrimination.

“Develop a comprehensive description of the job,” she said. “Outline selection criteria. Create interview questions that assess the job’s criteria. Ask the same questions of all candidates. Craft a chart that compares the candidates’ qualifications based on their training and interview responses. And have several interviewers involved in the selection process because having multiple perspectives will reduce the chance that any one individual’s biases will drive the decision process.”

Graves also notes that job interviewers should be aware of their own unintentional responses.

“When we interact with people who are like ourselves, we feel comfortable,” Graves said. “When [hiring managers] interview people, who are different from themselves, they will feel less comfortable, and interactions may feel somewhat awkward, and there will be difficulty in establishing a rapport. Conversations may be shorter, and the candidate may not have as much of an opportunity to share information about their skills and abilities. Feelings of awkwardness and discomfort may be subtle, but they are an important signal that bias may be present. Job interviewers need to watch for those signs. If interviewers are experiencing discomfort, they need to make sure that they don't cut the conversation short or fail to get in-depth information about the candidates' skills and abilities.”

However, since humans participate in discriminatory behaviors, even on a subconscious level, Graves said that there will always be a need for rules set in place to minimize the impact of implicit and explicit prejudices.

“Yes, we still need these laws and regulations to support equality in the workplace,” she said. “It is not just automatic processes that are a problem. There is still blatant, intentional discrimination occurring in workplaces of the United States.”