Paul Butler: Base hiring, promoting, disciplining on character, competence

Paul Butler

It has been refreshing over the past couple of weeks to read, watch or listen to news that takes a break from COVID-19. On the downside, the new domination has been the dreadful events of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police in Minnesota.

Oscar Wilde coined the phrase, “Life imitates art” and I say, “Work imitates society.” We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to see that what happens in society, spills into the workplace — both the good and the bad.

It’s good that racial discrimination in the workplace is strictly prohibited by a number of federal and state laws. It’s good that when it comes to interviewing, employers should not ask questions about a prospective employee’s race.

The primary federal laws that address racial discrimination in the workplace fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act prohibits employers from failing to hire based on race; firing or disciplining because of race; paying less or providing fewer benefits on account of race; failing to provide benefits, promotions, or opportunities, because of race; and improperly classifying or segregating employees or applicants by race.

The 1964 act would have been a realized dream, based on what Martin Luther King Jr. had said just a few months earlier in Washington:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Therein lies the key phrase — “the content of their character.” When it comes to the workplace, we should be hiring, promoting and even disciplining people based on two aspects — their character (who they are) and their competence (what they do).

King was talking about his children. When those children entered the workplace, they had to be able to demonstrate they had the potential to be good people at work — which is the character side of the economic coin. Just like everyone else, they were promoted or disciplined based on their competence — the other side of the economic coin.

The conditions of the Civil Rights Act should apply to all peoples of all races, and my concern is we sometimes see the scales tipping too far the other way to make up for the horrors of our history.

As a business owner, I have been penalized when applying for vendor contracts because, as a Caucasian, I am not a minority. We hear of organizations wanting to rebalance their boards, senior leadership teams, and even their complete workforce to be more “racially represented” or “proportionally aligned.”

To be “diverse” implies we are still “divisive” at work. To be “inclusive” implies we are still “exclusive” at work. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and so affirmative action to reward vendor contracts or jobs based on anything other someone’s character and competence propels us backward as a nation at work.

To hire or promote someone based on the color of their skin is not only wrong but it’s also condescending to the person. Martin Luther King called for equality, not more inequality.

It should always be the “best” person for the job that matters — not just to fill some quota or to “mirror our consumer base,” which is how one corporate human resource executive expressed it to me in her company’s efforts to hire exactly “27.6% non-Caucasians.”

Oh, how my heart yearns to read, watch or listen to some Good News.

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