Asking the “Right” Questions

Over the weekend, I attended a thought-provoking conference put on by the Discrimination Research Group, graciously hosted by Deborah Rhode at Stanford. There were a number of disciplines represented, including economists, psychologists, sociologists, and business school faculty. The conference was interesting because it put the explanations of “why” to the side for the moment, and instead focused on providing the “how” of empirically documenting some of the outcomes in employment discrimination cases. From the lawprof side, I especially enjoyed the insights of Tanya Hernandez (GW) on diverse workplaces and Susan Bisom-Rapp (Thomas Jefferson), who commented on the international aspects.

For me, though, and I’m still putting this together for myself, one of the “bigger picture” insights coming out of the conference was about values, change, and paradigm shifts. It started with the subject of the conference, employment discrimination, and asking whether diversity improves the bottom line. In other words, on purely an economic basis, can a “business case” be made for diversity in the workplace? The example used at the conference – an intriguing one, I think, especially because I teach business associations as well as employment law – is the shift to “green businesses” to create further economic gains. But is a shift to “green business” for the sake of further economic growth a mask for any kind of change? If the point of having green businesses is just to increase consumption of other sorts, then perhaps the paradigm itself is flawed. Do we only save the environment when it’s good for business, or do we do this at other times when it requires sacrifice because there are other values that matter? The same set of questions, I think, can be asked in relation to diversity at work.

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