What do I do if I find evidence of discimination at work?
August 12, 2011 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I found a rather innocuously named file on our shared document server at work. It seems to suggest that my boss is discriminating against a co-worker based on both race (or at least the fact he's from India) and his visa status. What do I do with this information?

Details. I work for a small company in the UK. My co-worker is from India and is generally great. I believe we are his visa sponsor atm although presumably if he quit or was fired he could get a new one.

In the letter he says "at the risk of being called bigot and cynic he comes from a culture that haggles" and that "We have some leverage over him at the moment because of his visa but as soon as he starts a family that will be lost." The general context is this guy getting a raise.

The boss has a history of being a bit of a hard-ass and (probably) bullied someone in to leaving recently so he has form for not being the greatest manager ever.

As far as I know this letter was at most only ever circulated among the directors at the company, and might just be his own personal brain dump. However it is stored publicly and we have a code of conduct against writing racist and/or discriminatory material. It's certainly evidence of his decision making process.

What should I do with this information? We don't have a dedicated HR dept or particularly obvious way to get advice about stuff like this here. And if my outrage meter is being too sensitive I'd rather just get on with my job.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well if they do fire him, give him the letter so he can take it to an employment tribunal.
posted by parmanparman at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

You probably shouldn't do anything, as this is not really any of your business and doesn't directly affect you. If you did want to do something, you could let the Indian fellow know about this document, as it is publicly stored, and then he can pursue litigation if he wants.
posted by clockzero at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2011

Issuing the disclaimer that I'm from the US and don't know the political/legal ramifications of the UK -- is there some kind of advocacy group or organization that could counsel you on what to do with this? You wouldn't be bringing charges or filing anything yourself, that would be THEIR thing to do. But you could be the "anonymous tipster" that caused THEM to come to your boss.

At the least, I'd expect they'd know all the ins and outs of what does and does not constitute an actionable offense, and if this really is something that you needn't worry about, they'd be able to tell you that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:04 AM on August 12, 2011

Um, being a total rat-bastard, I'd make a copy (just in case) and also record when/how I found it. Then, if they do fire the guy, I'd hand him a copy of the letter and if necessary testify.

Because, seriously, fuck your boss. There are few things I enjoy more in life than burning people like him down to bare rock, and then nuking the rocks.
posted by aramaic at 10:05 AM on August 12, 2011 [32 favorites]

Does the company's legal counsel regularly visit? If this is really bothering you then maybe you could try to pull him aside for a few minutes and mention some generalities of the issue. Don't mention specifics until he asks you and gives you assurances of confidentiality.

Otherwise, if you're on good terms with the co-worker you can hint at the location of the file and let him deal with it. This would assume he would be loyal enough of a friend to not tell anyone that you told him about it.

IANAHRguy. This seems like a bit of a minefield, and given that there's no on-site HR you may be causing problems for yourself while not necessarily helping the Indian co-worker. Maybe someone with knowledge of UK employment law will be able to provide an advice hotline number.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 10:08 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

With the caveat that IANAL and I am from the U.S., I don't see anything discriminatory (in an illegal, protected class sort of way) there at all. I see that your boss isn't being a nice guy here, but precisely what do you see that seems illegalish?
posted by jon1270 at 10:10 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

At the very least your coworkers should be aware of this so they can stand with him should the boss act on his prejudice (racial or otherwise).
posted by elektrotechnicus at 10:11 AM on August 12, 2011

if your company has an all-hands email address (all@yourcompany.co.uk or whatever) that is open to the outside world (they usually are), email the letter to it via a random gmail account. Or just to your boss, so they know that unknown people know about the letter.
posted by rhizome at 10:15 AM on August 12, 2011

Two things.

First, unless your boss has actually taken an adverse action against this employee, simply talking about things which are arguably discrimination probably isn't actionable. No harm, no foul. Turns out it isn't illegal to be a dick when you aren't actively hurting anyone.

Second, be very careful that you don't wind up getting yourself in trouble here. Just because the document was on a shared folder doesn't mean you had legal permission to open it, and "whistleblower" protections generally only apply when you go to the authorities, not private individuals. Sharing this document with a fellow employee could get you in a heap of trouble.

Of course, nothing's stopping you from leaving an anonymous post-it on his desk with the location of the file...
posted by valkyryn at 10:15 AM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you feel moved to act (and I'm not sure you should), do so by informing your coworker and let him decide what to do. Taking this elsewhere might result in unintended consequences. For all you know, he got just what he was looking for in his salary negotiations.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:17 AM on August 12, 2011

Couldn't the I.T. person figure out who accessed the file and when? Bear that in mind and be careful. I would get as many people as possible to access the file so that it isn't just your computer's information on it. Even then, they'd probably be able to figure out it was you. Tread carefully.
posted by cashman at 10:18 AM on August 12, 2011

anonymously give the path of the document to your coworker. wash your hands of it. find a less jerky place to work.
posted by nadawi at 10:28 AM on August 12, 2011

I'm going to take the other side here and say there is nothing wrong with what the boss wrote. This type of discussion happens all the time, its not racist, and I'm guessing you don't know the whole story anyways.
posted by H. Roark at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Couldn't the I.T. person figure out who accessed the file and when?

Not necessarily. Most of the time this kind of auditing needs to be set up specifically, and it's not always easy.
posted by rhizome at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2011

I'm not sure that his is necessarily discrimination. Certainly my boss here is aware that I tend to be much more aggressive because I come from a Dutch business culture, and that our English employees are fond of understatement.

I can guarantee that during discussions over my salary between my (Indian, as it happens) bosses the fact that I was culturally speaking super likely to jump ship if I didn't get a good raise was brought up. I don't think trying to understand other business cultures is wrong.

Although I don't think it's accurate to say that he necessarily comes from a culture with a lot of haggling. Who knows, maybe your boss knows that he comes from a family of Gujurati traders based in Mumbai?
posted by atrazine at 10:49 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Think very carefully about doing anything. IMHO that letter is not really discriminatory. Nobody has done anything wrong except you, arguably looking at a document without authorization. In fact, some uninformed people might accuse you of 'hacking' into your bosses computer and stealing sensitive information. We've all seen how subtleties like it being a shared drive gets lost in the noise.

Any action you take is almost certain to lead to a witch hunt, are you 100% certain it could never be traced back you? Is it really worth the risk?

I don't even think there is an ethical case for doing anything. Your boss may be a hard ass but there nothing wrong with that. His statement isn't that racist, 'a culture that haggles' is pretty mild and may actually be in response to something your friend actually did (like haggling), you don't know. However, disclosing confidential information that you shouldn't have access to is pretty clearly wrong.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:50 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is very tough, because here are your choices as I see them (and let me add that I completely agree this letter is racist):

1. Do nothing, stay safe, and feel complicit because you know you've done nothing to stand up to racism.

2. Notify your co worker without doing anything else, and know that you've now thrown the burden of dealing with racism entirely on the selected victim.

3. Leak anonymously and feel OK with yourself, but know that your job is now at risk.

4. Leak publicly and know that your job is now at risk.

I speak from experience, though I live in the US. I did some whistle blowing of my own in my prior career. I still know it was the right thing to do, but it ended my career path. I would do it again, don't get me wrong, but this is never a safe thing to do.
posted by bearwife at 10:51 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

That letter is not evidence of your boss discriminating against your co-worker. It's evidence that he is expecting your co-worker to negotiate with respect to his salary; this assumption is based on a cultural stereotype which may or may not be correct or relevant (I'd think an immigrant is more likely to just accept the salary offered in order to stay in the company's good books).

The letter is also evidence that your boss is being calculating about what the company has to offer the employee based on their leverage over his immigration status, but frankly there is nothing odd about that - it's douchier than average, perhaps, but companies are always making judgments about how much to offer based on what they think an employee's other options are.

Frankly, I think you're jumping to the least charitable conclusion based on your dislike of your boss. Do nothing. Accusing your boss of racism over this will likely get you fired, not your boss.
posted by Dasein at 10:57 AM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

If I were in your shoes, I'd take a screenshot of the file location and a screenshot of the file, email the screenshots to yourself via personal web-based email, and then simply keep it handy in case something happens to your coworker. The screenshots can verify that it was publicly accessible and that you didn't alter the document, as well as the time and date on the screenshot file.
posted by juniperesque at 11:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

From what you've described, the document isn't discriminatory, and neither is your boss. He mentioned a stereotype, and he mentioned how the life situation of your colleague might affect the company's position in the future, but in neither case was he disparaging or malicious. Of course, I'm from the US, so I may be missing something specific to the UK, but I think it would be helpful if you clarified what about the letter seems discriminatory to you.

Given that it doesn't seem discriminatory, I don't think you should do anything.
posted by OmieWise at 11:10 AM on August 12, 2011

You are going to have to decide to do what is strictly required or perhaps what is ethical. If you believe that a company is discriminating against someone and you believe that you have proof I would be careful about exposing yourself to action by the company should you decide to let the target of the discrimination know what is happening. I don't thing that the H.R. department could be counted on to protect you from retaliation should you decide to go to them with what yu have found. I do not suggest talking to anyone in the company about this.

Should you wish to release the information to the employee that is being targeted in a completely anonymous manner , please memail me and I can direct you to an anonymous remailer service that will allow you to inform the targeted employee of the document without compromising your identity.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 11:51 AM on August 12, 2011

There is no way anyone here can tell you if that letter is legally discriminatory or if you have whistleblower protection unless they know the law in your jurisdiction and all the facts. Consult a lawyer if you want an informed answer.
posted by yarly at 12:34 PM on August 12, 2011

When I sold electronics at a big box store, people from a certain ethnic persuasion would come in and haggle, just like this document states. It was really, really frustrating because I was just the hourly guy there and had no power to change prices. Every time one of these situations arose, I had to go find a manager and get them to lower the price (which they usually did, as dumb as it is).

Is it racist of me to note that the people involved in this haggling all appeared to come from the same culture? No. Is it racist to be annoyed at having them "go over my head" and cause extra work? No. I don't think there is anything immoral or wrong about recording your observations.
posted by tacodave at 1:47 PM on August 12, 2011

tacodave: As a counter point I would like to share an experience that I had working back in 2000 for a large mortgage bank that hired roughly 50% of it's IT staff from India as H1B visacontractors. The company regularly skirted the law vis a vis wages for that population, not so much because of ethnicity , but rather the hold that the company had on them because of their H1B status. To be specific, whereas I and others in similar positions were making 106K and greater a year with full benefits, the HIB people from India were making less than $25 an hour with no benefits at all. Furthermore the H1B people would very carefully gripe in off work settings to certain people that they trusted about how the company made them work large amounts of overtime with no increase in wages. If a H1B contractor complained their position was suddenly found to be no longer needed within days and their visa was terminated. almost all of these people had families here and many had homes. The company was denying jobs to Americans and overworking and vastly underpaying the HiB people - because they thought that they could get away with it (they dissolved in bankruptcy via mismanagement 8 years later).

So this may not be an ethnic issue at all but rather an issue with improper payment to H1B contractors. Contractors working for Microsoft and several other companies won awards based on underpayment of overtime some years ago. Whatever the reason, the manager's letter could possible be used in some sort of civil case later on for underpayment . I'm no lawyer but giving this kind of letter to the affected employee (anonymously) and letting him/her decide what to do with it may offset wage discrimination that may (or may not) be happening.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:02 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that it implies racist and your boss was particularly stupid to write it down.

I'm not sure that it's worth it to raise as an issue because I don't know if it is actually illegal, but I bet the people at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission would now. They have a helpline.
posted by plonkee at 2:04 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd have to read the letter to be sure, but it seems to me that your boss was indicating that one might be able to pay your co-worker a lower rate because he's Indian. That is ethnic discrimination.

The "we can have leverage over him because he's an immigrant" stuff is not ethnic discrimination, but is off-putting.

I would do what Empress Cal. suggested and try to find an immigrant rights group who might know what can/should be done in this situation.
posted by hungrytiger at 2:56 PM on August 12, 2011

I'd have to read the letter to be sure, but it seems to me that your boss was indicating that one might be able to pay your co-worker a lower rate because he's Indian. That is ethnic discrimination.

That's what I grocked from this.

All I can say is tread very, very carefully right now.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:44 PM on August 12, 2011

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