Tom Gilson

Discrimination On the Basis of What?

From a termination letter written to an employee of Brookstone, Inc.:

Peter, Brookstone is an equal opportunity employer, meaning that we maintain a healthy, safe and productive work environment free from discrimination or harassment based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, national origin, physical or mental disability, or other factors that are unrelated to the Company’s legitimate business interests. This provides us with a workforce of varying cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Discrimination can be defined as treating an individual differently based on factors such as those listed above. Harassment is the verbal, phyical or visual conduct or communication degrading to either gender, or to racial, ethnic or religious groups or behavior that is personally offensive to the recipient, impairs morale or interferes with the work effectiveness of Associates.

The comments you made to Ms. —- were inappropriate and unprofessional. While you are entitled to your own beliefs, imposing them upon others in the workplace is not acceptable and in this case, by telling a colleague that she is deviant and immoral, constitutes discrimination and harassment.

(The recipient of this letter strongly denies using the word “deviant,” but does own up to saying that homosexual behavior is immoral.)

Now for all you logicians out there, do you see the glaring internal contradiction in the letter quoted here?

Hat Tip: Touchstone Mere Comments

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17 thoughts on “Discrimination On the Basis of What?

  1. The internal contradiction is merely an expression of the U.S. zeitgeist.

    Free speech and accommodation is given for certain viewpoints/lifestyles/religions, etc., while others are vilified (discriminated against?) for expressing the same.

    Reading the account via Touchstone Mere Comments reflects a tone/manner in which the incident may have occurred which vitiates the illusions that one might have that the fired employee was an in-your-face contrarian creating conflict in the workplace, wherein this incident was merely the vehicle in which to remove the disruptive employee.

    That version of the events bolsters my opinion that the excerpt of the above letter is not merely an expression of illogic, but an expression of a mindset that subjects one worldview to another.

  2. I assume the “glaring internal contradiction” you’re referring to is that, by taking action against an employee on the grounds of discrimination, the company is itself engaging in discrimination.

    Actually, the letter lists the factors on which discrimination is considered unacceptable, and it could be argued that its own discrimination is not on any of those factors, so there is no internal contradiction. The company’s discrimination was not on the grounds of “race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, national origin, physical or mental disability” (at least not ostensibly). But does it fall under the general category of “other factors that are unrelated to the Company’s legitimate business interests)”? Arguably not, since it is probably in the company’s legitimate business interest to avoid the sort of ill-feeling between workers that might be caused by one worker telling another that the latter’s lifestyle is immoral.

    More generally, this is the old question of whether it is self-contradictory to be intolerant of intolerance, or to discriminate against those who discriminate. The answer is no. These only appear to be contradictions because of the conflation of pejorative and non-pejorative senses of those words.

    The original, neutral sense of the word “discriminate” is merely to choose one person or thing over another. It has come to have a pejorative sense of choosing on the basis of some unacceptable reason. But it is acceptable to be intolerant of unacceptable intolerance, and to discriminate against unacceptable discrimination. There is no contradiction there. In a similar way, there is no contradiction in the state executing murderers or locking up kidnappers. There are situations where killing and deprivation of freedom are acceptable, and other situations where they’re not.

    I’m not addressing here the question of whether it actually is unacceptable discrimination to tell a co-worker that her homosexual lifestyle is immoral. I’m just saying that there’s no inconsistency between calling it unacceptable discrimination and taking action against someone who does it.

    P.S. To put it another way, the issue here is not self-contradiction. It’s a disagreement over the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

  3. I think, Richard, if you look at the rest of the original documents you’ll find that the employee was at first subjected to an environment of harassment, and then discriminated against by the company, on the basis of his religious beliefs.

  4. Hi Tom,

    I didn’t read the rest of the documents either, and I do not see the internal contradiction in this document. The purpose, for an employer, is creating an atmosphere with as little non-work related conflict as possible so that as much work can be done as possible.

    I do see a contradiction in a follower of Christ confronting someone they obviously do not have a good relationship with over their immorality (any non-work related morality) at a work site.

    Are we really going to go around being the morality police with folks who do not share our morality – and especially with folks who do not share the source of that morality: the Risen Christ and the indwelling Spirit of God?

    We need to bring them to Christ and let the Holy Spirit sort out their morality once it has moved into their temple.

  5. Two responses, John,

    One: I’m not sure this employee was doing the morality-police thing, based on the other documents. If he was, that may well have been out of line, just as you said.

    Two: Nevertheless, if he was doing it on the basis of his religious beliefs, I don’t know why his behavior wasn’t equally protected under the law. Note that I’m speaking now about law, policy, and their application to employment. Your point is a valid one from within the perspective of Biblical Christianity: if he was being moralistic, that would not have been the most Biblical way to act. But that’s an internal debate, as it were, among Christians. Suppose this person attended a fellowship where being moralistic was considered part of one’s Christian duty? You and I would disapprove of that, to be sure. But it would be a religious position nonetheless, and as a religious position, it ought to be protected under the company’s diversity guidelines.

    We don’t have access to the actual facts of the case; we only have the information that each side is presenting publicly. Maybe one of the parties was being particularly more obnoxious than the other. I wouldn’t know if that was the case, and I wouldn’t know which one, based on the information I have. But the question of principle is this: if an employee says, “my religion takes the position that homosexual practice is immoral,” is that grounds for termination? Should it be?

  6. But the question of principle is this: if an employee says, “my religion takes the position that homosexual practice is immoral,” is that grounds for termination?

    Without context, it’s difficult to say, in my opinion. As a statement of fact, it would not be. But used as a continuing implicit judgement of another employee (as Brookstone claims), it would be. It would be no different than an atheist employee repeatedly saying to a Christian employee, “my belief is that you’re deluded”. This is harassment based on religious belief and no company should put up with it.

  7. Hi Tom,

    Taking the linked article at face value – it appears the gay woman, sensing an opponent to her views, stalked him to get a reaction out of him. I think that is harassment as well – she smelled blood in the water and picked a fight on a religious view.

    Accepting that is what happened, then the lawyers will sort out who discriminated against whom. Of course, she might be a Christian that does not believe that Christianity considers gay marriage to be immoral (but that is another issue)

    For us then, how do we answer when someone “chases us down” like that. It would be hard for the fired employee to know where this would go – but in hindsight I think the only response is “that’s interesting, now I have some work to do . . .”

    Or go to your boss and say “Hey, Mary seems to be trying to get me to react to her being gay and getting married – do you think you could ask her to leave me alone on this? It is really making me uncomfortable – it is not something I want to discuss at work”

  8. Or go to your boss and say “Hey, Mary seems to be trying to get me to react to her being gay and getting married – do you think you could ask her to leave me alone on this? It is really making me uncomfortable – it is not something I want to discuss at work”

    You mean turn the tables on the agent provocateur?

    Good idea.

  9. On its face, it does seem like good advice to take the issue to one’s boss.

    However, if I remember correctly, there was a power dynamic inherent in the conflict as well. The fired employee was a “second deputy manager” (sounds like “assistant to the assistant”) while the person who took issue with the employee was a full-fledged manager (albeit from another store).

    Ergo – the fired employee’s boss was the peer of the person making the case. Dynamics of organizations favor preserving the status quo, and in this case, it would be the peer-to-peer managerial status quo that would hold sway.

    You may find Williams College Professor Robert Jackall’s book Moral Mazes to be quite illuminating on organizational dynamics, ethics, and morality.

  10. Justaguy:

    You are probably exactly right about the power dynamics – but once you bring it to his/her attention then (and only then) you have placed the company (in the form of his manager) in the position of acting or becoming part of creating a “hostile work environment”

    By bringing the manager’s attention to the situation, you also freeze any ability to safely fire you because it appears you are also being disciplined for “whistle blowing”

    I suppose it is stupid that we have to play these stupid “victim” games – but if seems we should be aware of the requirements if we are going to claim to be (and are being) discriminated against.

  11. I think, Richard, if you look at the rest of the original documents you’ll find that the employee was at first subjected to an environment of harassment, and then discriminated against by the company, on the basis of his religious beliefs.

    Tom, your claim was that the letter was internally inconsistent. But the letter said nothing to indicate that the company was harassing the employee or discriminating on the basis of his religious beliefs. So there’s no internal inconsistency.

    In any case, your judgement that sacking him was religious discrimination is questionable. He was sacked for passing moral judgement on another employee’s gay lifestyle, an action that the employer deemed was inconsistent with the employee’s duties. It’s possible that this was just a pretext, and that the employer’s real reason was prejudice against the employee’s religion. But that seems unlikely. The real reason is most likely that the employer was concerned (perhaps unduly so) about being accused of inaction in the face of harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation.

    That’s not to say that I think the employer’s actions were justified. Rules should be applied reasonably. If the facts are as claimed by the sacked employee, I would agree that it’s unreasonable to describe his actions as harassment, and unreasonable to sack him for them. That’s my judgement based on what we’ve been told about the circumstances, the language used, the provocation, etc. The invocation of a “zero tolerance policy” suggests that the employer wanted to remove the decision from the realm of difficult judgements and make it a purely black-and-white matter. But I don’t think that’s possible.

  12. I think that’s a fair statement of the logical problem as I put it forth here, Richard. The letter itself is not internally inconsistent, and you are right to say it wasn’t. I made the mistake of not referencing the essential background information. I should have said something like, “in view of this employee’s religious beliefs and the part they played in his action, does anyone see a glaring inconsistency in what the company communicated to him on his termination?” Thanks for the correction, it’s always a learning process here.

  13. From the OP:

    Discrimination can be defined as treating an individual differently based on factors such as those listed above. Harassment is the verbal, phyical or visual conduct or communication degrading to either gender, or to racial, ethnic or religious groups or behavior that is personally offensive to the recipient, impairs morale or interferes with the work effectiveness of Associates.

    Why have some Americans become such pansies that they cannot allow for free speech that counters their own sense of propriety? If the individual in question had made a ringing endorsement of the gay rights agenda could he have been cited for discrimination?

  14. John –

    I agree with you in theory; I’m just stating that in reality situations like these and what might seem to be an appropriate response (going to the boss) is likely to bear out as a fruitless effort.

  15. Justaguy:

    Again, you are probably absolutely right – all it really does is provide CYA for the future wrongful dismissal suit.

    I know followers of Christ usually do not think in terms of that kind of outcome – and that might be a very good thing 🙂

  16. According to the linked article, Peter did not react until the fourth or fifth time the gay woman mentioned that she was marrying another woman. Apparently, she was deliberately trying to make him uncomfortable.

    I would argue that he was being harrassed for his sexual orientation — he is a heterosexual. If he is to keep quiet about his sexual orientation (and religious beliefs) in the workplace should we not expect the same of the homosexual woman?

    Does merely expressing an opinion that one finds offensive constitute harrassement? Doesn’t a pattern have to be established?

    It seems that only the homosexual is allowed to be offended; whether or not a heterosexual is offended doesn’t matter.

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