Q&A



What have you found to be the most surprising part of your job?

I am still surprised by the level and types of discrimination allegations that I see, even in this era — and I am even more surprised to see how many of these allegations are proven true.

If you are like me, a person born in the ’60s who really developed sociological awareness in the ’80s and ’90s, you may think that some of the most overt acts of discrimination exist only in our history books. Today we see, and investigations have supported, claims of overt name-calling, stereotyping and blatant harassment based on race, gender, sexual preference and national origin. I recently heard a former employee of a company describe acts against him by coworkers that were vile, physical and emotionally disturbing — all because he is gay. What concerned me the most is what was described as a corporate culture that seemed to tolerate, and failed to appropriately address, the allegations of discrimination.

Are discrimination cases in Massachusetts on the rise or decline since your tenure?

I am not sure if discrimination incidents are on the rise in the sociological sense. What we do know is that the number of cases filed with the commission was approximately 3,500 in 2004, 3,400 in 2005 and 3,200 in 2006. The numbers started to trend up in 2007 to about 3,400, and in 2008, we took in almost 3,700 cases. The majority of complaints at the commission, approximately 81 percent in 2008, occurred in the employment context, with housing and public accommodations rounding out the filings.

From a sociological perspective, I cannot be definitive about what has caused the increase. One factor that may have contributed to our increased intake may be our partnerships with other civil rights agencies, our educational efforts, or other outreach efforts over the past two years. As I frequently say, a person who knows his or her rights has taken the threshold step to obtaining civil rights protections.

Another factor for the increase in filings may be the declining economy. We are certainly seeing more cases involving terminations that occur within the context of reduction in force [or] layoffs. We know that, historically, there is a correlation between economic downturn and increase in discrimination filings — which makes sense if you try to think of the situation in a logical way.

One could speculate that people who are terminated may attempt to examine how and why they were terminated, versus a coworker who was retained. The question they may ask is, “Why me?” In other circumstances, a terminated employee may examine how he or she has been treated during the course of employment and may feel a need to file a complaint. Yet still, some investigations have led me to wonder if some employers are confusing employees’ disabilities with incompetence or inability when deciding which employees to layoff, or whether some employers are using the cost elements associated with reasonable accommodations as justification for laying off an employee. Finally, there is the argument that the concept of “last hired, first fired” disparately impacts, or at least unfairly targets, racial minorities and women in some industries.

On the other side, the economy is also impacting the defense that some employers are now using to limit damages and recovery to complainants. One element of recovery in discriminatory termination cases is back pay. The concept states that the victim of discriminatory termination may be entitled to his or her salary from the point of termination up to and until the point that they prevail on their complaint. I heard a case recently where an employer suggested that even if they discriminated in terminating the employee, had he not been terminated, he more than likely would have been terminated at some point due to the economy.

Given the explosive nature of discrimination cases, what recommendations can you offer to help solve the problem?

I strongly believe enforcement is absolutely necessary, and I am confident that we are vindicating the rights of people who have been victims of discrimination. However, I am convinced that achieving equality and fairness requires a new approach. We are in need of a new paradigm. Understanding and discussions must occur. We must, as a society, overcome the fear and emotional baggage that exist in these discussions.

It appears to me that, in discussion about race, gender, sexual or orientation, people are entrenched in their positions, too wedded to outdated beliefs, and too emotionally stubborn to hear and understand each other. I know the discussion is uncomfortable. I understand that; sometimes finding the truth is emotionally and physically wrenching. But we must do this. The rhetoric and activities in recent months have been ratcheted up to a level that surprises and, frankly, concerns me. Education cannot be a sole remedy. It must be accompanied with discussion and understanding.

Will there ever come a time when your office will no longer be needed?

I sincerely hope that day will come. I would say, however, that we have a long way to go as a society for that to happen, if it ever could.

I once heard a much respected jurist comment that equality does not seem to come naturally to us as a country. Accordingly, I would say that fairness and equality must continue to be legislated, taught and enforced. Frankly, civil rights law enforcement in the Commonwealth must continue as long as there is even one purveyor of discrimination and at least one victim.

What recommendations can you give to young professionals?

For those starting out, I would say: Learn your craft and do it well. Know that your talent, your character and your aspirations are your calling cards. Be known and needed for who you are and the value you bring.

For those further along, I would say: Endure. Keep doing your best; expect to be rewarded for your best. Know your rights and do not be afraid to seek protection of your civil rights.

To everyone, I would say: Do all that you can to treat the people you meet the way you would want to be treated.