The Associated Press published a story on October 26, 2009, that confirmed that racism is still alive and well in the United States and there is still a need for the workplace discrimination laws.
It seems that Larry Whitten bought a dilapidated hotel in Taos, New Mexico and quickly discriminated against his employees and enraged the town of Taos. So here is an object lesson in what not to do as an employer:
- Whitten, described as a Texan who last lived in Abilene, met with his new employees and says they were hostile. So he banned the speaking of Spanish in his presence because he was paranoid that they might start talking about him and he wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying. So he enforced a type of English-only workplace rule, which is often one of the first red flags of discrimination that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looks for when investigating racial discrimination in the workplace.
- Then Whitten told some employees with “Hispanic-sounding” first names that they would have to Anglicize their names while at work. So “Marcos” would have to be “Mark” to satisfy Whitten’s deluded belief that hotel guests would otherwise find their names difficult to understand or pronounce. Whitten’s defense? “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than the satisfaction of my guests, because people calling from all over America don’t know the Spanish accents or the Spanish culture or Spanish anything,” Whitten said. I don’t know what century Whitten is living in, but according to the United States Census Bureau, Hispanics are projected to make up 15.5% of the nation’s population by next year’s census. Spanish names, language and culture are certainly not unfamiliar to Americans. In New Mexico, Hispanics make up more than 40% of the population and in Taos, Hispanics are the majority. Just doing a little people-watching while Whitten was visiting Taos should have clued Whitten into the fact that a little more racial sensitivity was going to be required in his new workplace.
- One of Whitten’s fired employees, Martin Gutierrez, summed up the racial insult from the employees’ perspective: “I don’t have to change my name and language or heritage. I’m professional the way I am.” That’s the point that Whitten obviously missed somewhere in his 63 years. He wasn’t judging his employees on their professionalism, their performance or their customer service abilities. He was making employment decisions based solely on his stereotypical beliefs about race. It is classic racial discrimination to assume you know something about an individual’s merits, motivations or abilities when all you really know about that employee is the color of his skin or the sound of his accent.
- Whitten fell into a trap by believing that providing what he perceived his customers wanted would be a good excuse for his racist decisions. However, the ignorance or racism of your customers, if it even existis, cannot prevent an employer’s liability for violating the discrimination laws in the workplace. If Whitten’s hotel guests had preferred only good-looking female employees or only energetic, young employees under 40, would he have violated the gender and age discrimination laws also? Maybe he would have, but if you are an employer, don’t follow his example.