Spotting Discrimination Trends, Hidden Disabilities Are Top Issues at Diversity Conference

Annual event features woman who inspired TV’s ‘Scandal’

By Dana Wilkie October 29, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO—Hidden disabilities, spotting discrimination at work and moving beyond lawsuits were among the topics experts addressed during the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Diversity & Inclusion Conference here.​

Nearly 500 people attended the Oct. 28-30 conference, an annual event featuring HR professionals, attorneys and experts who discuss how to better include women, people of color, the disabled and others in the workforce.

Judy A. Smith, president of the strategic communications firm Smith & Co. and the inspiration for the TV series “Scandal,” told those attending the conference’s kickoff session that HR managers need to be more alert to discrimination trends that could lead to lawsuits.

“You want to head it off at the pass,” advised Smith, whose company is advising a client involved in a large discrimination lawsuit that started after a worker “came to the HR person to complain that they [thought] the workforce was … hostile, that there was no room for promotion.”

“So the HR person just said, ‘Well, you want to try to take these additional training courses,’ and that was it,” said Smith, who has advised politicians, corporations and celebrities embroiled in crises. “And then somebody else came in and made the same complaint. So [employees] got together, got seven, eight more people. We have a class-action lawsuit. You really have to be in tune.”

According to Smith, managers must recognize that employees are no longer afraid to file anti-discrimination lawsuits against companies.

“Before, people used to have the fear of God in them that, ‘Oh, I can’t sue a company. I’ll never work again. I’m gonna get blackballed,’ ” she said. “People don’t care about that now—they just don’t. They’re like, ‘What the heck. I don’t have a job anymore.’ For them it’s a better payoff. Quite frankly, if they got a million dollars because you guys want to settle a lawsuit, heck, they don’t need to work for a few years. It’s a different landscape.”

Detecting Disabilities

A recurring theme at the conference was hidden disabilities, which speaker Michael John Carley described as a mental, physical, developmental or learning impediment that most employers can’t detect. Conditions include depression, diabetes, epilepsy, dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and autism spectrum disorders.

“Everybody hiding a disability is suffering a little bit,” said Carley, executive director of the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership, which raises awareness about workers who have Asperger’s. “We’d like to have working relationships with people around us such that we can share what our lives are really like. If a company is doing training about a disability—and instead of watching managers cross their arms and say to themselves, ‘This is silly garbage and PC nonsense,’ you see them nodding their heads and saying, ‘This makes sense’—it allays so many of your fears about suffering repercussions.”

Shaking Up the Culture

Rohini Anand, global chief diversity officer at Sodexo Inc., told attendees that it took a major discrimination lawsuit to shake up the culture at her company.

In 2006 the food-services and facility-management giant settled an $80 million class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by black workers who claimed they weren’t being promoted at the same rate as their white colleagues. Anand was hired shortly after the workers brought their suit, and in the past four years the company has ranked at or near the top of DiversityInc’s business index for diversity and inclusion. The index is a leading assessment of diversity management in corporate America and globally.

“We could have stopped there; we could have checked the boxes … but we made lemonade out of lemons,” said Anand, who acknowledged that the food-services industry lags behind the rest of corporate America in its diversity and inclusion efforts.

Today, she said, Sodexo identifies diverse workers early in their careers so managers can put them on leadership tracks. And executives try to practice inclusion even if it affects the bottom line. For instance, she said, Sodexo has rejected the business of conservative universities that pressured the company to remove from its website inclusive language about the LGBT community.

Adora Svitak, a 16-year-old child prodigy whose writings are known internationally, challenged conference-goers to focus on young job applicants’ hobbies, travels and pastimes rather than a college degree, which she called “a fancy piece of paper.”

She said America’s youth want jobs at places like Oregon-based Mindvalley, which describes itself on its website as a place that embraces “epic dreams,” “bleeding-edge technology,” and a “quirky work culture.” 

“We are impatient and visionary,” Svitak said. “We feel ready to make our mark, and this impatience, this vision, this readiness are all assets to any company if you’re willing to make room to listen.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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