State of Employment: Workplace Discrimination

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The Bank of America lawsuit raises new questions about employees facing racial bias in the workplace. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has long embraced these causes. Nick Inzeo, from the Commission, explains.


Now for another perspective, we turn to Nick Inzeo. He is head of the Office of Field Programs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC enforces laws against job discrimination, but is not involved in the Bank of America case. Nick Inzeo, thanks for joining us.

Mr. NICK INZEO (Head, Office of Field Programs, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, most of the complaints about discrimination we hear involving workplaces like this generally involved a hostile environment. They say that employer X, you made it clear you didn't want me to be here, and you made it impossible for me to succeed - you know, tolerating, you know, racial slurs or, you know, sexist behavior. This doesn't seem to be what this is about. A part of the argument seems to be that we put you were we needed you. This is what the customers want. Is this is a common pattern?

Mr. INZEO: Let me first start by saying it's not uncommon. But let me then back up a little bit. EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits - among other things - racial discrimination in employment. Discrimination cases today have become somewhat more subtle - in some ways, unconscious.

The Civil Rights Act prohibits all forms of discrimination - hiring, whether it's a hostile work environment, promotions, treatment of employees - it is all covered by the statute.

MARTIN: Is banking the industry in which it mainly appears, or what other industries in which - has this issue arisen in?

Mr. INZEO: There's a reported case of a university. We see it sometimes in health care areas. So it covers the spectrum of the American workplace.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you the same question I asked Darnley Stewart. When workers complained to Bank of America about being steered toward territories that were more likely to - that were not as likely to be as lucrative as others - according to the complaint, they were told that is was to make customers more comfortable, that they thought the customers would prefer to deal with someone of their own race. Is that a defense? Has that been a successful defense?

Mr. INZEO: It is not a defense. Customer preference is not a defense to racial discrimination. And certainly, an employer's perception of customer preference just could not stand as a defense.

MARTIN: I guess the question I'm interested in is if you're saying that customer preference is not a defense, how then should companies address questions like that, when particularly, when you have, perhaps, minority groups who have not typically been - felt that they've been well served by professionals? I mean, one can see where with members of the majority, you can say, look, if we allowed members of the majority to only deal with persons like themselves, then persons from these other groups would never have a chance. They'd never have a chance to grow their business.

But this country is very diverse now, as we found out last week when the new census numbers emerged, like a hundred million people here, a third of the country are now part of members of so-called racial minorities. How, then, are persons to express through the marketplace perhaps their desire - particularly in matters of personal finances - to perhaps work with people who they think might understand them? Is that just simply not tolerable these days?

Mr. INZEO: When individuals make determinations of who they're going to work with, whether it's what bank they go to, or when they themselves hire a financial adviser, they have the right, as individuals, to hire whomever they want. But when employers make decisions, assigning work to people, if you don't do it on an equal basis, it's discriminatory.

As individuals, if they want to individually find someone with whom they're comfortable to work with, they can. But to the extent that they're dealing with a larger institution, it's incumbent on all of us to make sure that the employment in those institutions is free of discrimination so that there are diverse work groups.

MARTIN: Nick Inzeo is head of the Office of the Field Programs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He joined us here in the studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. INZEO: Thank you for inviting us.

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MARTIN: Just ahead, is the grip of two small states on the presidential primary process finally loosening?

Mr. JOEL ACHENBACH (Columnist, The Washington Post): If you look at Iowa and New Hampshire, not only are they not representative of, you know, what America looks like - I mean, they're among the least representative. These are two lily-white, rural states.

MARTIN: Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach talks politics and why Americans are turned off. That's coming up next.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues. TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

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