Sometimes history is not in the past and its most vile aspects keep showing up. That’s sadly true in the workplace and in the agenda for the EEOC, explained Stuart Ishimaru, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Ishimaru, who has served on the EEOC since 2003, including a stint as acting chair, told DiversityInc’s audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day event in Washington, D.C., about the challenge of balancing blatant discrimination cases with cases of more subtle discrimination in the workplace today.
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Ishimaru only recently began to tell the story of his parents’ journey to Topaz, Utah, in the early part of the century. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that consigned Japanese Americans, such as Ishimaru’s family, to internment camps.
“How do we teach people that it wasn’t that long ago that discrimination and segregation were legal and acceptable in this country?” he asked.
Events such as the internment of Japanese families have been quietly relegated to the history books and distant memory, even though they happened more recently than people might understand, Ishimaru said. “What I worry about going forward is, will this and other people’s stories be told? Will we remember how we got here?”
The attitudes behind those events are leading to the kinds of cases his new team at the EEOC must work on. “Look at the charges that come in to us; you still see blatant, shocking discrimination,” he said, including nooses hung in lockers and stories of sexual harassment “that would curl your hair.”
Formal charges at the EEOC have generally been steady, which may not be an accurate reflection of what’s happening to people at work. For example, the EEOC had 95,000 formal charges in 2008 and 93,000 in 2009. Ishimaru said the poor economy could be to blame for the stagnant numbers as more people may be willing to “suck it up” to hold on to their jobs.
But as the cases come in, and seem to have increased recently, the EEOC’s challenge is to continue to go after the most blatant violations, particularly race discrimination, as well as more subtle, systemic forms of discrimination. Ishimaru used credit checks as part of the hiring process as an example. “Where is the link between this screening device and the applicant’s ability to do the job?” he said.
Ishimaru said the EEOC would work to find that balance and the office would bring more lawsuits. “The best way to avoid a lawsuit is to step back and think, ‘Is what you’re doing going to get you to where you want to be?’” he explained.
The good news for the executives in the room was that big companies like theirs are wiser about the workplace and their employees. “It’s part of the evolution of their desire to get and keep good employees,” Ishimaru said. “There’s been tremendous progress under the radar.”