The Ethicist: I Think My Former Employer Is Underpaying a Black Employee. Should I Tell Her?

March 3, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “I Think My Former Employer Is Underpaying a Black Employee. Should I Tell Her?”.

I worked in human resources at a national nonprofit organization with more than 100 employees. In the summer, we hired two people for the same position. They had similar educational and work experience. One of the employees is a black woman living in a large city in Florida, and the other is a white woman living in a small city in the Midwest. When the employee in the Midwest was offered the position, the hiring manager did not consult the human-resources department and offered her a salary above the typical range. The employee in Florida was hired just a few days later and was offered a salary several thousands of dollars below what the Midwestern employee makes. The cost of living is significantly less in the part of the Midwest where the white employee lives, making the wage difference illogical. I am also furious that the nonprofit is paying a woman of color significantly less than a white woman, simply because of organizational politics.

Although I brought this up to my boss, I heard nothing about any attempts to address the situation. I have since left the organization. Do I have a moral obligation to tell the employee in Florida about the wage discrepancy and discrimination? Name Withheld

My response: Labeling something a moral obligation doesn’t change the situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the “But the New York Times told me to” excuse but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response: Here’s one difficulty in doing anything about overall disparities in income between men and women, and between whites and blacks: Even after we have established a general pattern, identifying the social mechanisms that sustain it can be a complex matter. And it hasn’t been easy to study pay discrimination in a systematic way, because data has been sparse. That’s one reason the Obama administration decided to collect information from larger employers about how they pay workers of different sexes and racial and ethnic backgrounds, in a program that was to have started in 2018. It may also be why the current administration suspended the program indefinitely. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the old business saw goes. And if you don’t want to address a problem, you might prefer not to be informed about it.

Here we’re looking at two differently rewarded workers who are doing more or less the same job for the same organization for the same period. What might explain the disparity? Not credentials and work history, which you say were comparable. Not differences in seniority at your organization. And not differences in performance at your organization, given that we’re talking about starting salaries. Cost-of-living considerations only make the disparity greater. The only salient difference you’ve identified is in the employees’ race, and so, yes, bias is a serious possibility.

You don’t make it clear whether these salaries were set by the same manager, though. Given the different locales, I’m guessing they weren’t. This complicates things. Now we have to consider the possibility that the Midwestern manager is habitually more generous. We also have to consider the possibility that the local job market in the Midwestern state was particularly competitive for someone with this job candidate’s credentials. Or the possibility that the Midwestern employee had a higher salary requirement. This could reflect greater seniority at her previous workplace. Or it could reflect past bias. These days, H.R. departments discourage questions about a job applicant’s salary history, in the hope that wrongful disparities won’t be perpetuated. In several cities and states, those questions are even forbidden by law. But the applicant is always free to convey her salary expectations and decline a job offer for less.

Even if the disparity didn’t arise from racial bias on the part of those who set the salary, you might still find the results unfair. Shouldn’t people get equal pay for equal work? This principle can be tricky to implement, however. Your organization is competing for workers with other organizations, so one factor in determining “fair” compensation is the market wage for comparable jobs. As a result, the same work may be better rewarded in one place than another. How fair is that? It’s too much to expect that people will agree about such issues.

A basic element in our thoughts about fairness is, in fact, a negative one: You shouldn’t reward or penalize people on irrelevant grounds. Moral psychologists sometimes say that moral intuitions about fairness are fundamental and hard-wired, reminding us that even a very young child will readily shout, “No fair!” Consider the recent experiment in which one monkey does a task and is rewarded with a grape (yum!), while another monkey, doing the same task by its side, is rewarded with a cucumber (yuck!). That second monkey throws a cage-rattling temper tantrum.

But let’s be precise: These are really intuitions about unfairness. We have an easier time agreeing about what’s unfair than about what’s fair. (Similarly, we can agree about instances of inequality without agreeing about what full equality would consist in.) That’s O.K. A simple sense that it’s unfair to be advantaged or disadvantaged at the workplace by characteristics with no bearing on our ability to do the job is all we need to be troubled by evidence of discrimination — even if it’s a matter of what, in employment law, is termed “disparate impact,” rather than “disparate treatment.”

One way to reduce these disparities is to have workplace policies that include this simple thought: You ought to have some reason for paying different amounts to people doing roughly the same work. If you don’t have a policy like that, all sorts of biases are more likely to come into play. (Labor economists have, for instance, shown that employees often get a premium just for being conventionally attractive. Catherine Hakim, a British sociologist, introduced the term “erotic capital” to reflect this fact.) The manager who decided to offer several thousand dollars over the target salary should have been required to give a serious explanation as to why. Only by being systematic here can we achieve the reasonable aim of a society where there aren’t rewards for being white (or attractive or male) or penalties for not being white (or attractive or male).

Ethical organizations want to avoid unfair practices in pay. So your employers may have a problem, assuming you’ve got all the pertinent facts here. (Whether you do will depend on your knowing the details about both negotiations, and being in the human-resources department doesn’t guarantee that.) You shared your concerns with your boss, and you don’t think this had any effect. True, you’re evidently not certain or you would have said something stronger than “I heard nothing,” but let’s figure you’re right. You may nonetheless have achieved something, which is to make the head of H.R. think about the issue. That’s the first step to adopting policies that would give more attention to avoiding bias.

At the same time, I can see why the H.R. director might not have done anything. You can’t tell someone you’ve just hired that you’ll be paying less than you promised. And giving the black worker in Florida an unasked-for pay hike would cost the organization a chunk of unbudgeted money (and open it up to having to adjust others’ salaries too). Suppose the hiring manager in the Midwest messed up by offering too much. Putting it right would involve other managers. It would cause a fuss. And avoiding fuss is typically the first aim of management.

Given that you left, there’s not much the organization can do to you if you inform the employee in Florida about what you learned. She might indeed be able to use the information to get a raise, although she would have to put her relationships in a new job at risk, perhaps gaining an undeserved reputation as a troublemaker. Whether it would be a good strategy for her is, of course, something she could decide for herself.

The main argument against what you’re considering is that you would be revealing privileged information. In general, you have a duty not to do that unless what you’re revealing is an actual breach of a law or a serious ethical wrong. From what you’ve said, I doubt this case meets that standard. But there certainly are people you can tell without violating the terms of your employment: the board members of the organization. They have a responsibility to see that the organization is an ethical employer, and making sure policies are in place to avoid bias is part of the task.

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