When I was an employment attorney, I noticed that the rare times a discrimination case went to trial (most being settled out of court or resolved by a motion), the jury often could find no liability for a discrimination claim but on the same set of facts found the company liable for retaliation.
My theory was that many jurors — the average person — project themselves onto scenarios and makes judgments on how they would have acted in the same situation, or how they like to believe they would act.
So, for example, jurors trying to decide whether a supervisor has discriminated against an employee for being physically disabled don’t want to believe they would ever do that. So they don’t make the leap that someone else would behave that way — even when the facts and circumstances of a particular case logically lead to a different conclusion. Retaliation, on the other hand, is a smaller leap to make. Most people sympathize and have fewer emotional triggers over the idea that a person who feels unfairly attacked will attack back — even if the way they do so violates the law.
A recent study supports the general idea of my observation: People don’t like to believe that unfair things happen. A recent article I read talks about the studies that show that the more people talk about something negative happening, the more they have to make themselves believe the victim of injustice had to bring it on themselves.
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What the article refers to is the belief that the world is basically fair and just, thus, people who have horrible things happen to them involving other human beings must have brought it on themselves.
“Hence the finding, in a 2009 study, that Holocaust memorials can increase antisemitism. Confronted with an atrocity they otherwise can’t explain, people become slightly more likely, on average, to believe that the victims must have brought it on themselves.”
Think about how many times you’ve seen that happen in the workplace involving something that isn’t directly tied to a discrimination issue. For example, a co-worker is fired by a boss who everyone tends to agree isn’t the most fair human being in the world. And yet, what happens is that people rush to look for the ways that the fired employee deserved it, even when the facts say otherwise. I admit that’s a complicated example — people have bad consequences at work for a variety of open and confidential reasons. The point is that people rush to reframe unpleasant events in ways that make them feel that it couldn’t happen to them, or to assure themselves that they would not treat another in an unfair and damaging way.
It’s a tough topic because what these studies are saying is that there is a backlash for speaking the truth about unpleasant events. Yet, is the solution to be silent and create no backlash?
Each of us has tremendous capacity to look at facts with objectivity and compassion, without being overwhelmed or irritated by others’ pain. We could stand to exercise those muscles. Otherwise, backlash just tends to create more backlash.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ diversitydiva.