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Prejudice combats productivity.

Workplace bias still lurks in Alaska's business world.

The docket of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights is thick with evidence of discrimination by employers against their workers on the basis of race, national origin, gender, age and physical disability. And experts say engaging in or tolerating workplace bias costs some businesses dearly, not only in terms of lost productivity but in exposure to considerable financial liability under local, state and federal laws.

Diminished productivity from discrimination takes many forms besides the lowered output of individual workers on the job. Sick leave often mounts as employees try to avoid encounters with co-workers or supervisors who are harassing them. Even well-intended employers who don't maintain and enforce clear anti-bias policies must sometimes divert valuable managerial resources to deal with discrimination crises. Turnover resulting from bias requires costly and time-consuming recruitment and often further investments in training.

In a recent case heard by the commission, an African-American woman alleged that her employer of 16 years refused promotion to a higher clerical position because of her race and sex. She said despite her excellent credentials and work record, an equally-qualified non-black male who had only been with the company for three years was promoted instead. Though the firm countered that the man had superior personal computing skills as required for the position, the commission documented substantial evidence of sex and race discrimination, a finding which led to payment of back wages and an offer of the next available position.

According to Lynne Curry-Swann, a management trainer and consultant based in Anchorage, this kind of situation wreaks havoc with morale.

"It's absolutely a productivity issue. If you allow people to be biased, those who are the object of the bias will work less well," says Curry-Swann.

Tracking the Problem

Documenting the scope of workplace bias in Alaska is difficult. About the only statistics available are those maintained by the state human rights commission, and relatively few of their complaints ever reach a public hearing stage. This, in itself, reflects two divergent sides of the workplace bias issue. On the one hand are the prospects of bad publicity, which no one wants. On the other hand, many cases are settled once commission investigators begin sorting out the incidents. Simple ignorance and confusion about what constitutes discrimination account for many complaints.

"The question is to what degree do we allow our biases to color our decisions and to what degree do we set up protections," notes Curry-Swann. "Bias does exist, and so you have to take an extra step."

Curry-Swann feels some gains have been made nationally to cope with workplace bias, even during three conservative administrations not noted for making discrimination a high priority. "Things moved forward and back at the same time, (but) I personally don't see as much bias in Anchorage as I did in the 1980s."

In her experience, Curry-Swann says, many employers have good intentions but are ambivalent about if or how to address discrimination.

"Solving a bias issue can take a whole lot of time, and people are afraid of creating a problem while solving a problem," she says, adding that hard economic times -- like Alaska's boom-and-bust cycles -- can raise bias to a crescendo.

According to Paula Haley, executive director of the Alaska Human Rights Commission, complaints are on the rise because of greater public awareness of available remedies and protections resulting from recent publicity, and because "when economic times are difficult, people are more inclined to challenge a practice they feel is wrong because they have fewer options."

Ironically, a robust economy can produce its own share of complaints simply because there are more people in the work force being exposed to discriminatory behavior.

Haley notes that what makes workplace discrimination especially painful for workers is the feeling of entrapment. The old adage of "sticks and stones" doesn't work because you can't walk away from the bias without walking away from job responsibilities and security.

According to Haley, the last two years have seen substantial increases in workplace bias complaints. Disability complaints have doubled, while the incidence of sex discrimination complaints have quadrupled. Age discrimination filings have doubled.

Job Bias Tops Complaints

Employment discrimination cases constitute the vast majority of commission complaints, with 487 (out of a total of 547) filed last year. That's a substantial jump from 434 in 1991 and an even larger increase over the 339 employment complaints filed in 1990.

There are indications that these figures may reflect increased awareness and publicity rather than a dramatic increase in discrimination, although Haley is convinced that bias itself is on the rise.

"I'm seeing more egregious discriminatory behavior allowed to go on without supervisory intervention," Haley asserts. "That may speak to all of us as people and to the increase of hate in society generally."

Despite Haley's concern, both she and Curry-Swann note increased efforts by Alaskan employers to at least inform themselves of the law and its ramifications.

"There are more requests for technical assistance, (for presentations and phone consultations) from employers," says Haley. "They are much more open to learning than they once were."

On the other hand, Haley notes, the settlement rate of commission complaints has not risen significantly because employers are seeking interpretations about the definition of bias and liability limitations, particularly in cases involving disability and sexual harassment.

"Employers were not willing to settle because they wanted a determination from this commission as to whether something is discriminatory, because they feel it isn't."

One recent case filed with the human rights commission illustrates the positive manner with which some companies deal with the discrimination issue. A cleaning woman was sexually harassed by a man employed by the firm which contracted her employer for cleaning services. She reported the problem to her employer who relieved her of cleaning duties, with pay.

According to commission records, the employer investigated the matter while she continued on the payroll and reported the man's behavior to his supervisors, who in turn formally censured and counseled the man. Although the woman had filed a sex discrimination complaint, the commission found that both her company and the firm who employed her harasser had responded in a timely and reasonable manner to correct the problem. The case was dismissed.

A closer look at types of bias highlights how complex, and hurtful for both employer and employee, discriminatory behavior can be.


According to Curry-Swann, "Gender bias is a real high-profile concern because it's pervasive, but subtle." She says she gets a couple of calls a month regarding bias stemming from sexual harassment. Media coverage of sexual harassment incidents may produce 20 letters from both men and women venting anger, confusion and pain.

One aspect of gender bias -- income disparity -- has been well-documented in Alaska. The Alaska Department of Labor reported last year the income gap between male and female workers had actually widened since the initial analysis in 1988.


Despite media attention on disability and gender discrimination, "filings based on race haven't dropped at all," says Haley. She notes there are serious problems with employers allowing tensions between workers based on race or national origin to continue unfettered.


An increase in employment discrimination complaints based on age could be the result of several factors, but Haley says better awareness of individual rights is key.

"We tend to see a fair number of age-related filings by men who are older and who are seeking labor-type jobs. They feel younger, stronger men are getting jobs they could still perform."


According to Haley, complaints alleging discrimination based on disability are about evenly split between those arising from lack of accommodation on the job and those arising from failure to hire at all.

"It's amazing how many people are on the job who become disabled and who don't receive accommodation from the employer," says Haley. "We probably have more back disability cases than anything else."

Making resolution of disability issues more difficult are conflicts between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which strives to keep people working, and workers' compensation policies, which tend to encourage workers to stay off the job during treatment.

According to Duane French, executive director of ACCESS Alaska, a handicap advocacy organization, discrimination against disabled workers or disabled people seeking work is still widespread despite modest gains.

"We have a long way to go. In Anchorage and Southcentral, the fact that only 12 percent of disabled people are working is a terrible reflection on the community in the sense that we are underutilizing the potential," says French. "Getting the job is the biggest problem. Once they get a job, people with disabilities are able to demonstrate their skills."

Even so, says French, there are still many forms of bias in the workplace. People fear that handicapped workers won't be able to sustain productivity, or that their condition is contagious.

Experts agree that misinformation and ignorance are at the root of all discriminatory behavior, which is why education is key to any company strategy to reduce liability exposure and foster a productive workplace.

How to Address Discrimination on the Job

Curry-Swann notes there are several steps companies can take to address discriminatory patterns in management and between co-workers:

1. Be willing to listen and learn from those who complain of discrimination.

2. Be familiar with the rules and regulations. There are municipal, state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination, similar in intent and sometimes different in provision. For example, three different federal statutes targeting discrimination apply to businesses with different numbers of employees. State law covers all employers.

3. Take complaints of discrimination seriously; give employees the benefit of the doubt.

4. Investigate allegations thoroughly and fairly "rather than stay at the mystery and fear level," warns Curry-Swann. Remember that all employees, even those accused of bias, have rights.

5. Ensure that discipline is consistent with company policy and applicable regulations and meted out quickly and fairly.

6. Examine company operations and identify strategies to prevent future problems.

"Most effective companies that I know, in order to be effective, do annual training, even just three to four hours in some cases," says Curry-Swann. She encourages other measures -- staff meetings, newsletters, company social activities -- to foster better rapport between workers and managers.

"You could put yourself at risk for a $100 liability just for ignorance," warns Curry-Swann. "Sometimes biases are just a real bad communication problem."

And sometimes it's more than that, which is why private sector vigilance against discrimination is so important, says ACCESS Alaska's French, creating both a social and economic imperative for action. "We need to insure that we have a city, state and nation that create opportunity for all peoples. We strengthen our entire community when we do that, and strengthen our economy as well."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:workplace bias in Alaska's businesses
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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