What If You Found Out Your Boss Was Donald Sterling?

What If You Found Out Your Boss Was Donald Sterling?

Unless you've been trapped in an elevator with Beyonce's sister, you've heard about the scandal surrounding Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers. (Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is buying the team for $2 billion.) The racist comments Sterling made in a private conversation with a girlfriend were more than shocking gossip; they raised serious questions about Sterling's ability to create a healthy work environment for the Clippers team and employees.

A company's leader sets the tone for the workplace; attitude and behaviors trickle down from the executive suite. If that leader is setting the tone, and that tone is racist, then the entire company may be negatively affected.

What would you do in such a toxic situation? Research company Veraquest recently asked 1,500 Americans just that -- what they would do if they were employed at a company and heard their boss make racist remarks? A number of intriguing findings emerged:

  • The study reveals that Hispanic (24%) and Black/African-American (28%) employees are much more likely than Caucasian (15%) employees to quit their jobs after overhearing a racist remark from their boss.

  • Conversely, Caucasian (21%) employees are more likely than Hispanics (10%) and Black/African-Americans (7%) to say they would "do nothing".

  • The top anticipated action among all three of the major U.S. ethnic groups is to report this type of situation to HR or a higher-level manager (46%-51%).

  • Younger employees are far more likely than older employees to quit after overhearing their boss's racist remarks (31% of 18-29 year olds and 28% of 30-39 year olds say they would quit, compared to only 13% of 40-49, 10% of 50-64, and 13% of 65+ year olds).

  • The good news: The vast majority of Americans (83%) would do something if they overheard their boss make racist remarks, instead of ignoring it.

What can employees do if they work for a "Donald Sterling?"

Most of us applaud the swift and decisive action taken by the NBA even if the latest bizarre twist has Donald Sterling declaring non-compliance. Unfortunately, few organizations when faced with racism, sexism or other discriminatory behavior, respond with such clarity. Due to our often vague employment laws, companies are more likely to try to sweep the situation under the rug. This is why the media frenzy over Donald Sterling's behavior may actually be of value to workers. When racist attitudes are exposed in such a public way, it puts everyone on notice: This is not okay. Speak up!

Christina did exactly that when she overheard one of her supervisors chatting with colleagues after they lost a company softball game: "We got too many white guys. Anyone know some black ringers?" She immediately filed a report with Human Resources. She also freshened up her resume.

Marcus wanted to quit his job after repeatedly being excluded from business-related social events. It was evident that deals were being closed and client relationships forged on the golf course and private clubs. The only members of the staff consistently not invited were Marcus and James, an Hispanic business development manager. But when Marcus contacted an employment attorney, he learned that his company's actions probably did not rise to the "outrageous conduct" necessary to successfully pursue legal action. The attorney suggested he give his employer notice of the unpleasant working conditions, and give them a chance to correct it.

To Marcus' surprise, his boss acted quickly to remedy the situation and thanked Marcus profusely. He had been unaware of the discriminatory pattern of the business socializing, which had largely been triggered by one opinionated (now former) manager. The boss had assumed Marcus wasn't interested in attending the events, not that he had been excluded.

"...the overall cost of employee turnover due to various forms of workplace discrimination is about $64 billion per year."

If employee unhappiness is (sadly) not enough to motivate businesses,there are real economic consequences for workplace discrimination. According to a 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Congress, the economic effects may include decreased employee productivity, a high turnover rate, and even lower profits.

Have you experienced a "Donald Sterling" in your workplace?

Veraquest Research chart.