Racial discrimination at ford?
June 20, 2001 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Racial discrimination at ford? White male managers accuse the Ford Motor Co. of reverse discrimination, claiming they are victims of racial, age and gender bias. After reading this article, I'm really at a loss as to where the racism is. They are reviewing all management and ditching those in the worst 5%...

"... older white managers who received "Cs" after long highly productive careers say they feel they are victims of discrimination."

Golly Pal. You know, the past counts for something but you have to keep producing or you're gonna get canned. What's the problem here? This isn't racism, it's meritocracy and I'm all for it. If they were giving bonuses to the evaluations based on ethnic background or sex then I could see the gripe. But the article doesn't say they are so what exactly is wrong with cutting the fat?
posted by revbrian (11 comments total)
Yup, I agree. But:

Dictionary.com says:
1. The act of discriminating.
2. The ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment.
3. Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice: racial discrimination; discrimination against foreigners.

I don't see a thing about white versus black in there. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination.
posted by jragon at 10:26 AM on June 20, 2001

That's a complaint I hear too often from folks who've been around for a while. They seem to believe that endurance, merely existing, in a job is a credential. They call it seniority, I call it sitting in a chair. They may have had long, productive careers, but it comes down to this: What have they done lately?
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:28 AM on June 20, 2001

The new job review system requires supervisors to grade employees from best to worst.

All the above about older employees is, or at least can be, true. But it's also been shown countless times that these sorts of "performance evaluations" can be and usually are total horses***. Especially when conducted by supervisors alone. They can say whatever they want. Oh, he had his hair parted on the wrong side, didn't lick my shoes. Let's give him a C this year. I presume that Ford would have to be a bit smarter than that, but gosh knows that employers can get the results they want through such performance evaluations if they really want to do so. I love the grades. Sheesh, why not just have a checklist or written evaluation? You have to have a grade, to make it look quasi-scientific, fair and professional in an on-the-surface way.

That said, there's really not enough info here to make sense of the case. Were these evalutions common before? Did the grades shift in such a way as to make the evaluation program seem invalid on its face?
posted by raysmj at 10:44 AM on June 20, 2001

it's meritocracy and I'm all for it

But you're not aging middle management, are you? They're probably scared and confused - from a very different world to the one we live in now.

Try reading Heller's "Something Happened". It doesn't really support my point, but it's a good read and it gives some idea of where these people are coming from (put away the knives, rope and painkillers before reading the final chapter, though ;-).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:20 AM on June 20, 2001

It goes against all my liberal instincts, but I've got one word to sum up the root of the problem here: unions.

My experience is with teachers' unions, which is somewhat different from the UAW (which, even if it doesn't directly represent the managers mentioned here, has certainly influenced the auto industry top to bottom), but the idea is the same. I just drove by picketing teachers: "Where's our signed contract?" read their signs. I wish I'd had my own: "Why can't Johnny read?" If the company I work for fails to turn a profit, I don't expect a raise this year. If, personally, I fail to contribute to the success of my company, I expect to be shown the door.

Teachers get screwed in this country, and auto workers have a history of having their jobs pulled out from under them at a moment's notice. Unionization is critically important to protect workers' rights, but the prevailing mentality in both these fields seems to be an unrealistic sense of entitlement. That's why guys like Michael Moore and...well, mostly just Michael Moore...just don't do it for me any more.
posted by jpoulos at 11:38 AM on June 20, 2001

This isn't racism, it's meritocracy

How do you know that? All you've got to go on is PR from one side or the other, like the rest of us, right?
posted by rodii at 11:44 AM on June 20, 2001

Um, sorry folks, but age discrimination *does* exist. I don't have any idea how bad it is at ford, but in the tech industry, it's horrible.

See, young kids will:
work for low wages (haven't paid "dues" yet)
work for many hours (don't have a family/life)
work without benefits (health/retirement)
tend to learn faster

Old people will:
work for what they're worth (dues already paid, thank you)
work ~40 hours (as they tend to have families)
require benefits (getting old, wanting to build retirement egg, not wanting to get sick and die, etc)
tend to learn slower

What most companies seem to not realize is that A. experience comes with a price. B. it's sometimes worth that price. The exceptions tend to be companies doing high-level weird research that need people with PhDs, which are hard to come by in the age 25 crowd.

posted by jaded at 2:32 PM on June 20, 2001

First off, I must say I'm ecstatic to see that we've finally taken that first tiny baby step towards fighting discrimination in toto, rather than merely fighting discrimination towards the loudest and best-organized groups. Hate is hate.

After reading this article, I'm really at a loss as to where the racism is.

Of course, we can't be expected to get any details at all from a 300-word wire service piece. But the law is pretty clear on such things. If the effect of such an evaluation system is that members of any one gender, race or age group (over 40) are disproportionately demoted or fired, then the company is de facto guilty of illegal discrimination. Whether or not the evaluation system was intentionally set up to produce such results or not is immaterial, though they might get smacked with more punitive damages if the workers can prove it was intentional.

They may have had long, productive careers, but it comes down to this: What have they done lately?

Well, let's get real here. People who have had "long, productive careers" do not just suddenly become megaslackers en masse (I'm being excessively Latin today; my apologies). These are relatively high-level employees we're talking about. If their performance had truly sucked, they would have been fired, or at least pushed aside somewhere irrelevant, long ago. If large numbers of 20-year-plus employees with good records (all of whom were at least "completing their projects" according to the article) are all of a sudden finding themselves being told their work isn't up to par, then something fishy, and probably illegal, is definitely going on.

Secondly, "What have they done lately?" is somewhat immoral, especially if it's not their work habits and abilities that have suddenly changed, but rather the system for determining how good they are. In other words, being told "You're great, don't change a thing," in every single evaluation for the last 25 years, and then suddenly being told in 2001 "We changed our minds. Under the new system, you suck," is just plain disgusting. In most other situations, one would call that "Being set up to take a fall."

Also, it's a proven fact that when skilled employee loses his job after the age of 50, his chances of obtaining another job of anywhere near an equivalent skill level, stature and salary are essentially nil, due entirely of course to nearly universal discrimination. He is completely fucked from that moment until the day he dies. Recovery is impossible. This is a big part of the reason age discrimination laws exist in the first place, so the firing of employees who have literally given their entire working lives (or at least majority chunks of it) to one company should not be allowed willy-nilly. If it were up to me, it would be completely illegal after a certain point unless intentional severe slacking on the employee's part could be proven in arbitration.

And now let's get to the most important piece of evidence against this whole thing: The evalution system is completely specious and has a built-in bias favoring the personal feelings of the supervisors over objective measurements. This system looks fair on its face - everyone gets a rating, lowest rated has to go - but what most people aren't noticing is that the managers aren't getting rated on actual performance. In a true meritocracy, it's each according to his abilities. If you're a college professor, and every one of the students in your class does truly excellent work, you can give every one of them As. If they turn out to be universally imbecilic, you can give every one of them Fs. But that's not what Ford is doing. They're handing you a set number of As, a set number of Bs, and a set number of Cs, and ordering you to attach one to each of your employee so that all of each letter are used up. You MUST give As to 10% of your workers and you MUST give Cs to 10% of your workers, regardless of how perfect or how horrible each individual member's performance actually is in your little group. If you have 50 guys under you, and you honestly believe in both your mind and heart that every single one of them gave truly equivalent 99.5% efforts, you still have to find some specious reason to say 5 of those guys are more equal than the others, and 5 of them are less equal.

Another reality against Ford is that the only truly honest way of ranking a group of employees is mathematically/scienfitically, and that's almost impossible to do for people in most management positions. If these guys were doing highly specific jobs, such as selling cars instead of designing them, it would be easy: Count who's making the most commissions for the dealership. If it turns out that one salesman has to be cut, and at the bottom of the list you have Bob, who sold $142,495 worth of cars last month, and Jay, who sold $142,494, well, sorry to see ya go, Jay, but it's right there in black and white, Bob just edged ya out. You can almost never plot it out that clearly in management jobs ... as long as the employees are doing their assigned duties on time, then separating the As and Cs from the middle always comes down to the hunches and personal biases of the supervisor. And in such cases, with a wide enough sample of employees to be rated, it's very easy to see if those supervisory biases are coming down harder against certain racial, gender or age groups of people harder than others. There's no merit in that.

(Would unions have much to do with this? Management employees usually aren't union members; is it different in the auto industry?)
posted by aaron at 4:28 PM on June 20, 2001

What aaron said. (I know, I know.)

In fact, my mother won an unfair dismissal case last year precisely because her employer used a different set of criteria when making redundancies than the ones specified in her contract. And didn't consult her on the change, or the process.

What's particularly annoying is that these sorts of "downsizing" activities tend to be carried out by levels of management that would never allow themselves to be subject to such choices. At least, I don't see Ford polling its employees on which directors aren't pulling their weight, and need to take a hike.

But in a work environment where execs such as Joe Galli can flit from job to job, and package to package, someone with a lifetime's commitment and experience with one company looks a bit of a sucker. And that's a damnable shame.
posted by holgate at 5:13 PM on June 20, 2001

Excellent post, Aaron. Additional notes:

1. Management is specifically prohibited from joining most unions.
2. There are universities in which professors are required to grade using a B mean; Virginia is the one that springs to mind, but I can't find a citation on the web.
3. Unless there's some sort of policy that takes into account a manager's racial background when they're doing this -- or unless upper management is, consciously or not, giving minority managers better grades -- the race of the managers issuing this complaint has nothing to do with anything; it's a brief article, but I can only assume that either the copyeditor took something out or the headline writer wanted to play up "reverse racism", when this seems to be a clearcut accusation of age discrimination.
posted by snarkout at 5:36 PM on June 20, 2001

Oh yeah.

4. Hate is hate. Even if these accusations are true, I don't think those grading middle managers "hate" them. Prejudice, discrimination, and hate are all separate categories.
posted by snarkout at 5:40 PM on June 20, 2001

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