Before You Set Fire to This Column, Hear Me Out

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ayersI am tired of the whole concept of “nondiscrimination.”  I was just writing a prospectus for a search for a university president and got to the part where I generally paste in the institution’s nondiscrimination statement. Reading, yet again, the list of those against whom discriminatory actions will not be taken and the equally long and incomprehensible list of federal regulations to which the institution swears it will adhere, I found myself suddenly cranky. Why, I asked myself, are we so desperate to prove that we are not doing something wrong?

The quick answer is, of course, to stay out of trouble with the law. If I don’t hire you solely because your father came from Japan, I can get into a world of trouble, just like I can get into a world of trouble if I knock over a gas station or rob a bank. But when I write a job description, I don’t append a statement about all the laws — civil and criminal — that my client doesn’t break.

For most negative acts, there is no need to specify that they won’t happen. Employers don’t need to say they won’t steal your identity and open lines of credit in your name or commit some other heinous act that harms you. Therefore, instead of delineating the negative things employers won’t do in a position announcement, we enumerate the positives they will do. They will pay you a competitive salary, provide benefits and perks, offer you opportunities for advancement of your career, give you a collegial and pleasant place to work, let you make decisions on important issues, and allow you to fulfill your own personal and professional goals. Here’s the beautiful part: Everything we write in those sections of a position announcement, presidential prospectus, or help-wanted ad is demonstrable.

On the other hand, how do you prove nondiscrimination? My father, a lawyer, used to say you cannot prove a negative. You can claim it, but proving it is altogether another thing and usually entails incredible amounts of information and a huge investment of time. That’s why our legal system is predicated on proving what did happen, not what didn’t.

It is even more difficult with a concept like nondiscrimination. All laws and regulations can do is assure that policies are not written and procedures not implemented that deliberately create unfairness. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is only a starting point. Laws and regulations can’t measure decisions made on the basis of thoughts and emotion. With all of the laws and regulations that are now in place, it is still possible to eliminate every woman, every minority, and every person who is LGBTQ or who has a disability from every pool of prospective hires for every institution or organization based on the personal biases and tastes of the person who has the power to make the final hiring decision. The good news: Law and regulations tell you what you cannot do; they don’t limit what you should do.

I was a child when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down from the Supreme Court. I was a teenager in the ’60s when the Selma boycott and Edmund Pettus Bridge were all over the news, and I was a young adult in the ’70s and ’80s when Wounded Knee and Alcatraz were occupied, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and many of our current nondiscrimination regulations were developed. In the ’90s and ’00s, I ran human service programs and wrote my own policies and procedures according to prevailing laws and regulations.

This is 2015. It’s a whole new century, and my old brain and young heart wonder if we have grounded on the rocks of complacency, content to define what we don’t do that’s bad instead of actively planning and doing what’s good.

I don’t want to write, or read, another nondiscrimination statement. I want to write and read inclusion statements. I want to see an institution’s vision for fairness and hear how it reaches out to diverse consumers and workers, how job descriptions are written and hiring policies are designed to level the playing field for all applicants, and how procedures are implemented that take out of the decision-making equation factors like race, gender, and age. I want to see the results.

This would not be easy. It would be downright gut-busting hard to change decades-old ways of thinking and patterns that are comfortable for no other reason than that they are familiar. In the last two centuries, though, harder things have been accomplished by others. We owe it to ourselves, and to them, to have a higher standard for how we treat humanity than we’re not doing anything wrong. We also owe it to ourselves and to our children’s children to be able to say, “Here are all the things we are doing right.”●

Vicky Ayers is the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc. Vicky is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. If you have a question, email Vicky at