BBC Capital

Work Ethic

When promotions don't seem fair

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

Q: Two mid-level managers in my firm, a man and a woman, were up for promotion. They were both at the same level at which professionals here typically move from a generalist position to a more specialised role. To my horror, the man was awarded a plum position in our most lucrative industry group, while the woman, who belongs to an ethnic minority, was given the same position in a lower-profile group. The rationale was that clients in the higher-wattage group would not be disposed to take her advice, because of both her gender and her ethnicity, and our firm would lose business if she were in the job. Can this be right?

Q. Two mid-level managers in my firm, a man and a woman, were up for promotion. They were both at the same level at which professionals here typically move from a generalist position to a more specialised role. To my horror, the man was awarded a plum position in our most lucrative industry group, while the woman, who belongs to an ethnic minority, was given the same position in a lower-profile group. The rationale was that clients in the higher-wattage group would not be disposed to take her advice, because of both her gender and her ethnicity, and our firm would lose business if she were in the job. Can this be right?

A: A general rule of ethics is that if a situation makes you uncomfortable, or if you would feel funny explaining it to your grandmother, something is probably not right. This isn’t just about perpetuating the stereotype that women don’t make good advisers. The higher-ups in your company seem to have decided that it’s okay to set staffers’ career trajectories based on their ethnicity.

“This raises not just an ethical issue but possibly a legal issue as well,” said Dale T Miller, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in California.

The rationale behind these promotions is also suspect, said Benoit Monin, a professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at Stanford’s business school.

“This is an argument that has been invoked in the past for racial discrimination in lower-paid jobs such as waiting tables in neighbourhoods with primarily white diners,” Monin said. Restaurant managers typically claimed that they would be happy to hire minorities, but were concerned their businesses would suffer, he said.

In a well-known 1975 paper, Hubert O’Gorman traced racial segregation in the US, in part, to some whites’ view that other whites they knew wanted the races to stay separated. That’s a common phenomenon in psychology dubbed “pluralistic ignorance”, Monin said, involving people “acting on their perception of other people’s attitudes.”

It turns out that those perceptions are frequently inaccurate. But such behaviour can lead to unethical outcomes: “Managers can erroneously anticipate prejudice in their customers and discriminate in employment practices as a result, when in reality customers should be given more credit,” Monin said.

And really, who is to say that your firm’s top clients would wince when your female co-worker walked into the conference room? It’s a good bet they would judge her more on the quality of her professional advice than on her gender or race.

Aside from legal remedies, your recourse, as a colleague of the affected staffers, is limited. You can talk to your boss, or your boss’ boss, about your concerns with this set of promotions — but be prepared for negative consequences for your own career, especially if your reading of what happened is based on hearsay or conjecture.

The next course of action — depending on the jurisdiction you’re in — might be to report this situation to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or to the local authority that handles discrimination complaints. If this kind of promotion preference is illegal where you work, it may well end up as a court case. 

Finally, consider whether this kind of situation is endemic at your firm. If it is, and you don’t like it, consider going to work for a new company. Such a move could be in your own best interest. After all, if the firm makes such critical staffing or other decisions based on unethical grounds, your own promotion could be jeopardy for a similarly unfounded reason.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.