Saturday, July 09, 2011

Like Freudian Slips, Pink Slips Leave Traces.

It’s hard not to like Joe Dunn.  He’s bright, he’s charming, and he’s determined.  I can see why he was elected to the State Senate several times.


Last year, I asked Joe Dunn to speak on the subject of gender bias in the legal profession.  He accepted and engaged our large audience of employment lawyers in an educational and entertaining way. He was for a time Executive Director of the California Medical Association.  He’s been an active supporter of the new UCI School of Law.  He recently became the Executive Director of the California State Bar.  You get the feeling this guy is well connected.


Joe Dunn just fired four top level managers in the State Bar’s prosecution unit.  The ages of the dismissed:  55, 57, 57, 58.  Each manager had been with the office 20 to 25 years.  In a few weeks we will know the ages of their replacements. You know where I’m going with this don’t you? After all, I’m an “employee rights attorney.”  I’m trained to see things like this. 



The question is whether the shape emerging from the mist is indeed age discrimination, or merely accident.   “Ageism” is that figure in the mist, a boneless shape that requires the aggressive search for proof to give it flesh.  The actual result is often more like a wax figure than a living outcome.  The reason is that discriminators are unaware of their own biases.  It is as if a werewolf of the unconscious takes over, and the conscious self awakens to suspect someone, maybe oneself, did all that harm. The possibility is too much to accept.


Like Freudian slips, pink slips leave traces.  Joe Dunn may have left such a trace.  An “anonymous source” in the prosecutors’ office said the four were let go because they could not adapt to the “radical change” required by Dunn to remove the backlog of discipline cases.  Promises, goals, and deadlines, all require one added element:  resources.  Managers without resources who insist on maintaining the same level of quality inevitably must fall short of the impossible.  The State Bar has not allocated extra needed resources to meet Joe Dunn’s goal.  “So how do you do it?” asks a rational manager.  By “adapting to radical change” seems to be the answer.  Is there a subtext here?  “And you’re too old and fixed in your ways to adapt.” 


Life remains more interesting than fiction.  We use fiction to simplify and understand life.  We know the outcome and the motives in fiction, if we will but persist to the end of the story.  In life, we may never know.  Did Joe Dunn follow an unconscious age bias in firing his four top managers?  I do not know.  Is it reasonably possible?  Yes. Will there be a lawsuit?  I think it likely, unless the office paid whooping big severances and obtained releases of liability in exchange.  Now that would be another dilemma for Joe Dunn, given the limited resources of the office.  


Joe Dunn is a quality citizen, who has performed exceptional public service, and is well liked and respected.  He is also human, and with the rest of us, is more driven by unconscious forces than conscious ones. If bias motivated Joe Dunn, I’m convinced it operated out of his personal “blind spot.”  Dunn has been an advocate of worker rights throughout his career.  He also has been executive director of two enormous professional organizations.  His affiliations, like his motivations, are varied and complex. 


To test the presence of unconscious bias in your relational choices, take the free online testing offered through Harvard University.  You may be surprised by the results, as I was.  My results indicated I have a strong preference for white, conservative, middle aged people.  The result exposed a personal “blind spot” that challenged my “ideal” self-image.  The results hurt, but they began a process of challenging my decisions to expose possible bias. 


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