Play and Work Fair: How To Improve And Achieve Fairness at Work

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy advising on workplace recource. Left to right sitting: Rosemary Armao, Alina Tugend and Marissa Evans.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy advising on workplace recource. Left to right sitting: Rosemary Armao, Alina Tugend and Marissa Evans.

We all intend to love our jobs, embrace our workplace culture and work happily ever after. Many of us are just seeking fairness at work.

But what do you do if you find yourself in a workplace that does you wrong?

You make it right.

Rosemary Armao, professor at SUNY-Albany in the Department of Communication and Journalism, says she worked in a newsroom years ago where the male editor referred to her only using his nickname, “Buttons.” That referred to her nipples. Another workplace offered no maternity leave.

What if you find yourself in a workplace that does you wrong? Make it right. #workingwomen

“I see myself as a commercial on the historical perspective since 1972 displaying the full range of challenges in the workplace,” Armao said at the recent annual Journalism & Women Symposium conference held in Roanoke, Va. But she consistently moved into new positions and new challenges, having learned the lessons and created startegies.

If faced with such blatant gender discrimination, sexual harassment and other challenges to fairness at work, you do have recourse, said Alina Tugend, award-winning journalist and author of “Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.”  Women are a protected class in discrimination challenges, as is anyone who is a target of discrimination by gender, disability, age or race. For instance, with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you cannot be let go or otherwise affected negatively at work because you are pregnant.

“Look at the company policy and see what your rights are,” Tugend said. She also advised that you decide what will be the impact on you emotionally and professionally if you take the step to file a complaint, and also the impact if you don’t.

Sexual harassment has been so frequently a topic in the news, the presidential campaign and even in virtual reality. Recently in mediagovernment and business, it seems there are daily reports and complaints of sexual harassment here and abroad. So what are steps you can take to ensure fairness at work?

Tugend advised, “Does the policy say you will not be punished for filing a complaint, and if so, can you prove retaliation for filing a complaint?” To build an irrefutable case for yourself, she suggests documenting every email and encounter. “Take notes and verbally document each incident with your friends,” she suggested.

Going one step further, Tugend said, “If you are in a state where you can record a conversation legally without the person’s knowledge, do that.” She added, “Maybe others are being harassed too.”

In your documentation, avoid generalities and statements about feelings or instincts. “Be very specific. And know that it is not against the law to be hostile.”  It is however, actionable to create a hostile workplace.

And if you do not get action from a complaint with human resources at your workplace, one option is to have a consultation with an employment lawyer. Even a letter from a lawyer can prompt immediate action and restore fairness at work, Tugend advised.

But you need to decide if this is the right path. “Do you want to get out with your reputation in tact?” Tugend asked. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight, just be prepared to know why you are doing it.”

Marissa Evans, health and human services reporter with the Texas Tribune, said an editor on an internship where she excelled, told her she was not ready for another internship at a nationally recognized paper. She assumed that was code because she is a woman of color.

“As young woman, when someone tells you that you are not ready, say, ‘please help me get ready’ and ‘tell me how to get ready.’ Those steps can change your career,” she said. Evans applied for the internship and got it because of references from other allies in her network.

More overt than refusing to write a letter is the enormous problem of wage theft, said Kim Bobo, executive director of Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid and What We Can Do About It. According to Bobo, wage theft comes from unpaid overtime and misclassified workers.

“Employers say you can only work 40 hours a week, but if you cannot get your job done in that time, you can get fired,” said Bobo, author of the upcoming book, The Worker Center Handbook.

Many organizations and companies also commit payroll fraud, Bobo said, by calling workers contractors or freelancers, when they are really employees.

“If you get up in the morning and say, “I work for this company, then you are an employee,” Bobo said.

Admittedly it is difficult to tackle an unfair working arrangement by yourself. “You are better off not doing it by yourself,” she advised.

It’s difficult to tackle an unfair working arrangement by yourself #womenleaders #taketheleadwomen

She suggested creating an association of two or more workers, because then you are immediately protected under the National Labor Relations Board as collective activity. “Get two to five people, give yourself a name, create a letterhead and send a letter to your boss on that letterhead saying you would like to meet for a conversation.” Bobo explained that you are then protected against retaliation.

Even if your workplace is not hell—and hopefully it is pleasant—you may choose to organize and unionize in order to protect the conditions you have and to improve the benefits.

Alice Ollstein, a political reporter at the nonprofit media outlet, Think Progress, said, “The misconception is that things have to be horrible in order to organize. We had it pretty good,” she said. “But there was no salary floor in new hires and a great gap in salaries as well as a fear and stigma of talking about salaries,” Ollstein said.

“We unionized so people at the bottom would benefit the most. The gender wage gap is the lowest among unionized workers,” Ollstein said.

Tugend agreed that making your workplace open on salary discussions will help close the gender wage gap and create pay equity. That is aligned with the mission of Take The Lead  to achieve leadership parity across all sectors by 2025.

“People are moving forward about salary transparency,” Tugend said. And no one wants to be lowballed.

Some of that movement on salary openness may be forced.

Miranda Spivack, visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University and a Ford Foundation Fellow at Yale Law School, said that in salary negotiations, you can say to your potential employer, “When this becomes public, you as an organization want to know that you pay fairly.”

In a separate keynote speech at the conference, Amanda Marques Gonzalez, executive editor and vice president for news at The Miami Herald, said in her management position, pay equity is important.

“Now that I have a chance to look at salaries, I make sure people are paid in the same pay range.”

As the only Latina editor of a major metropolitan daily newspaper in this country, Gonzalez also said that women have the ability to shift a workplace culture to be more positive.

Women have the ability to shift a workplace culture to be more positive #taketheleadwomen

“At the heart of it is this, let’s not lose sight of the power of our womanhood and remind ourselves of that power. I have refused to succumb to the idea that I have to think like a man in order to be effective professionally.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon