I am reminded of a movie I recently saw which depicted a young child, maybe eight years old, who was the son of a commander of a World War II concentration camp. The child found another child his own age, his friend being on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fence separating Jews from Germans. Because of a hole in the fence the German child was able to sneak through the fence, play with his Jewish friend, and even try on his clothes. Side-by-side, either one could be The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Miramax Films, 2008). The movie ended when both children were herded by into the awaiting gas chambers by unknowing German guards.
In our modern era, the workplace can represent a place of respect and interactive communication between diversified workers, or like the concentration camp discussed in the previous paragraph, it can be a place where different people, although equally qualified to do specialized tasks, feel picked upon and ostracized by workers who, in better circumstances, should be their equals.
Prejudice has existed, at one time or another, in just about every workplace in America (Wise, 2004). Usually prejudice and stereotyping exists because it also exists in the society and communities from which workers come. From the Civil War days through the close of World War II, Blacks were thought of as being inferior to Whites (Wise). This attitude existed in most American communities and thus, carried over into workplaces of both the public and private sectors. Black military personnel, who in the aforementioned era, were only seen fit to serve as kitchen workers or to do other menial tasks, weren’t able to simply leave the military to join the private sector, thinking that their lives were somehow going to immediately improve. Females had the same difficulty: Females have often been thought to be prying into a male-dominated world. Although accepted into the business community to hold menial or subordinate positions, until the seventh decade of the 20th century, were generally thought of as being unequal.
Throughout all of the 20th century, professional school employees were also met with prejudice and stereotypes, not only by school leaders, but in many cases by community residents, the people whose children they were hired to educate (Torres, Santos, Peck, & Cortes, 2011). Affirmative Action required minority teachers to be assigned to non-minority schools. School leaders, almost always non-minority, and other non-minority teachers, had dim views of these “different” teachers joining their ranks. Certainly, they thought, minority teachers could not possibly have the training, the high grades, or knowledge equal to non-minority personnel. School leaders and non-minority teachers actually found themselves apologizing to students and to their parents for these “different” teachers that had joined their ranks. Committee work, planning sessions, and other activities needed to manage a school efficiently always excluded teachers brought in by Affirmative Action. School leaders found themselves dividing personnel by race and then by activity. Non-minority teachers were assigned to planning committees while minorities were assigned to operational duties—supervising lunchroom and playground activities. Likewise, parents who were called to school for conferences, often came with the same issues already being displayed in the school between teachers of different races. White parents made it very clear to Black teachers, “I expect my child to excel and to go on to college, and there is nothing you can teach him that will help him!”
Interactions and laws created by the courts continued to inflict themselves on the public schools. Later on, when generally non-minority schools had fully integrated staff, the issues switched to schools serving predominately minority students. Non-minority teachers sent to these schools experienced the same problems found earlier in non-minority schools. Surprisingly, minority parents acted almost the same way as non-minority parents behaved a decade earlier (Torres, Santos, Peck, & Cortes, 2011). “You white folks have always picked on us and have always thought our children were ignorant. There is nothing you can teach our children!”
Whether the workplace is a city school district or an industrial or office setting in a city’s business district, the problems that exist between people are usually similar. The person or group responsible for stopping those barriers and for helping different people to become more tolerant of each other, is usually called the Human Resource Department. The task at-hand is tough: Telling individuals of diverse cultures, of different colors, of different finances, some born with the proverbial silver spoon and some born on what is popularly called the wrong side of the tracks, and other people with handicaps that cause non-handicapped people to think they are different—telling these people they need to put aside their differences so that their entire concentration is on the betterment of the organization by which they are employed, is often a difficult task.
Unfortunately, no company policy, no initiative, can change the way human being feel about each other (Hyde, 2005). People are not born with prejudice or stereotypes. They are part of our training as children. Though few of us want to admit it, we learn these things from those people who have the most influence on us when we are children—usually our parents. When we observe a school recess having children of diverse backgrounds, we see children in kindergarten all playing with each other, devoid of any differences. By the time the eighth graders get recess, children automatically divide themselves into five groups: non-minority boys, non-minority girls, minority boys, minority girls, and the final group is anybody who doesn’t automatically fit into the first four groups.
Left alone, the workplace is the same way. However, it is the job of the workplace leaders and employees in the Human Resource Department to channel workers’ expertise to the good of the organization. For the workplace to become successful, it is necessary to have a zero tolerance policy (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2006). When workers feel that they have been affronted by other employees there needs to be a grievance procedure in place. And to work effectively, this grievance procedure must have teeth. When an employee goes to his or her supervisor to complain about another worker, there must be a procedure in place to allow both sides to air their grievance, along with rules which apply evenly to all employees, and with fair but appropriate punishments applied evenly to both sides in a dispute. Within a reasonable number of complaints, maybe three, the final punishment needs to be dismissal. Again, even that dismissal must be applied evenly: No matter how important any single individual is to the company, no matter how important that individual’s task is to company success, if he or she has been adjudged guilty by his or her peers, the appropriate punishment must be meted out. It is only through strict rules and enforcement of these rules that every member in the workplace can be assured that regardless of feelings outside of the work environment, while at the workplace they know they can be assured of their personal safety and that the respect they are expected to give will always be reciprocated. Every human being wants to know the work he or she does is appreciated and regardless of skin color, religion, handicap, or other diversity, will never become The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Hyde, J. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592.
Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006). Discrimination of terms of moral exclusion. Theoria: Swedish Journal of Philosophy, 25(3): 212-231.
Miramax Films. (2008). The boy in the striped pajamas. Santa Monica, CA: Colony Capital.
Torres, J., Santos, J., Peck, N., & Cortes, L. (2011). Minority teacher recruitment, development, and retention. Providence, RI: The Educational Alliance at Brown University.
Wise, T. (2004). The color of deception, race, crime, and sloppy social science. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.