The new workplace McCarthyism

Unspecified “insensitive” statements can lead to unemployment

March 2, 2018
by Michael Hlinka

From the February 2018 print edition

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.

In high school, we were taught about McCarythism, a temporary period of madness that occurred in the US during the 1950s. There was an American senator, Joe McCarthy, who made a name for himself by asserting that there was widespread infiltration of Communist agents in American government agencies. A series of hearings followed that ruined many careers with little or no evidence. McCarthyism is now understood as the practice of making accusations in the absence of hard proof, requiring the accused to prove his or her innocence…if even given the chance.

This turns jurisprudence as we know it in North America on its head. A critical principle of the justice system is innocent until proven guilty. There is and should be a heavy onus on the accuser to make the case. When I was growing up, it was said that better 1,000 guilty men go free, then one innocent be convicted. But that was then. This is now.

I am going to tell you a story. One important caveat in advance: I have only heard one side of the story. However, I know the individual in question and I think that this is a reasonably honest presentation of events.

It starts with this eight-year employee who occupied a position in mid-management with a leading publicly traded company. His work record was excellent: he had always been an above-average performer according to his performance reviews. A new supervisor joined the department, and there was a general consensus that she was not particularly competent. The workplace situation started to deteriorate until there was a meeting, where the eight-year employee openly challenged the new supervisor’s ability to do her job.

Not the smartest thing to say. Had I been asked to provide advice in advance, I would have suggested that he keep his mouth shut. If she was indeed as incompetent as suggested, it is possible that sooner or later the higher-ups would have reached the same conclusion. However, the words were spoken, and they could not be taken back.

After the meeting, one of his colleagues came to him to discuss what had transpired. The protagonist of this story was somewhat worked up. He ended up saying—and he admits to this—that he attributed some of her behaviour to her ethnic background and upbringing. (Neither the male employee nor female supervisor had been born in Canada.)

I avoid making these types of generalizations. I do my best to treat everyone as individuals, not as members of a group. That being said: I remember something that happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. One of my students was an international student from Afghanistan, and shortly after the US invasion of her native country, I ran into her on the street. I asked if everything was okay at home, and that if she was ever worried, there were counsellors at George Brown College and my door was always open. She smiled in thanks, and I patted her forearm in a show of support.

I will never forget the look on her face. She clearly interpreted this gesture (which was and I hope you trust me on this one, innocent) as a sexual come-on. And as a result, I have been very conscious to treat students from certain nations differently than I do native-born Canadians.
I digress. Sort of. The bottom line is that a comment was made and it got back to the supervisor in question who subsequently reported it to the organization’s human rights division.

Here’s where the McCarthy-ism stuff kicks in. The male employee was called into a room with a couple of people he didn’t know. He was told that he had made a serious transgression and was offered an immediate severance package. He asked for the opportunity to give his side of the story and was told that they weren’t interested in hearing it.

He was scared and wasn’t thinking straight, so he quickly agreed. He figured that with his experience and contacts, he could land on his feet relatively quickly. And he was smart enough to realize that his career had hit an insurmountable wall with that employer.

However, what he didn’t realize was that this was part of his severance documentation. That is, he was being released because of unspecified “insensitive” statements. And now he’s searching for work and he has no idea what his former employer will divulge if and when it is approached.
This is McCarthyism, pure and simple. And my belief—and fear—is that there will be many more incidents of this sort, because if you are truly incompetent and happen to be a member of a group deemed “historically disadvantaged,” this is the best hope you’ve got.