Michelle T. Johnson on How Discrimination on the Internet Translates in the Workplace

The following is a guest post from Michelle Johnson, author of The Diversity Code, on how hurtful actions on the internet hinder workplace performance.

One of the reasons why people get so uptight when the subject of diversity comes up in the workplace stems from the thinking that it’s automatically going to be about race relations and sexual harassment and sexual orientation issues. And no matter how much someone (ok, me) tries to drill the importance of having a more expansive approach to difference, most people usually roll back to the default mechanism of thinking of the Big Three.

While those differences are always important and do need to be addressed in a comprehensive discussion, they’re not definitive of diversity.

But when it comes to the law, well, sometimes it just gets down to the get down.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article: “For the six months that ended April 30, [2010] more than 70,000 people filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying they had suffered job discrimination, a 60% increase in bias claims compared with the same period a year earlier.”

Unlike the expansive differences that are addressed in some diversity programs, EEOC complaints can only address the protected classes that include race, gender, age, disability and others groups that the law specifically addresses.

The WSJ article points out that in a suffering economy, people who feel as if they have been discriminated against and don’t readily move on to a new job are more prone to file a discrimination suit.

While it may seem unconnected, the other side of the coin is that while I’ve always noted the harsh, mean and down right bigoted statements that are the “comments” that accompany online stories, the number of these kinds of comments and the degree of vitriol has exploded the last couple of years.

“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even with their own families,” said Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star, in Richard Prince’s Journal-isms. “There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”

I call this the flip side of the coin because for every person who is complaining about discrimination that others write off as that of someone seeking to be a victim or playing the “fill-in-the-blank” card, there is an individual who most likely works somewhere, anonymously spewing bigoted, mean-spirited comments in response to some story they’ve read.

My point isn’t that every person who files an EEOC complaint has a legitimate case OR that every anonymous cyber bully is a manager discriminating in Corporate America.

Rather, it’s that as long as the polarized “comments” and conversations continue to proliferate, it’s contributing to a social and work environment that is not just flip sides of the coin but is adding up to a tab that all of us pay for one way or another.

Michelle T. Johnson is creator of the “Diversity Diva” newspaper column, a former employment attorney, and author of Working While Black. Her diversity workshop clients have included Wal-Mart, H&R Block, and several municipalities.

Tomorrow Jim Hasse dispels some common misconceptions about hiring employees with disabilities!


One response to “Michelle T. Johnson on How Discrimination on the Internet Translates in the Workplace

  1. Maybe you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it as a trend but I have just quit reading the comments on major websites most of the time because overall they are just HATEFUL. This is true even of mainstream sites like NY Times, Business Week or Tech Crunch. For more generic sites, like yahoo – just forget any hint of civility or reasoned discussion.

    You are definitely right that anyone looking for evidence of racism, sexism and general mean-spiritedness in America need look no further than the any thread with more than a dozen comments!

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