Discussing the Undiscussables: Gender, Harassment, Discrimination, Favoritism and All That

Back when I worked for pay in Region 2, our Regional Leadership Team had a couple of discussions around “undiscussables”. One I remember was about the Regional Forester overruling a Forest Supervisor on a resource decision. In my experience, just talking about it openly took out some of the underlying tension. But don’t believe me! You can read this from Leadership and Change, in an article from 2015:

Last year, the New York Times revealed that not everything has been golden at Harvard Business School. And surprisingly or not, the crack in the ivy-covered veneer at Harvard Business School is the challenge of gender equity. Revealed was that females got lower grades than man even though the sexes enter the school with similar test scores. Female students and younger female faculty in the classroom were hazed, and female students felt pressure to dress well, ‘look hot’ and not be ‘too assertive’.

Yikes, nothing really new here – but what is most surprising is how long these behaviors appear to have been tolerated at the Business School to the point that Harvard staff describe them as their “dirty little secrets.” As at Harvard, asking people to name their own workplace undiscussable, or a difficult to talk about topic, is a great way to open the door to ‘honest culture conversations’ in most organizations.
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As you can see, just naming the undiscussable can lead to ‘honest culture conversations’ that are the basis for sustainable change. At Harvard Business School, Dean Nitin Nohria named this approach: “Sunshine as the best disinfectant.” “

I don’t think it’s remarkable that the undiscussables in this article were about gender and favoritism. Forester 353 raised these same questions in a comment here.

How will the numerous – possibly hundreds of accusations over the past several years with increasing intensity, both true and especially those proven false, effect the future work place? I can tell you from personal experience that it won’t be positive one, even though it should be. Attractive women will be shied away from by self conscious male superiors because the risk of some accusation isn’t worth it. I’ve already seen people walking on egg shells in meetings and in the field when in mixed company because of the fear of something being mischaracterized.

Less than qualified people of both sexes have already be being promoted because of “equality” issues, often creating an elephant in the room. Now will we see more women promoted regardless of qualifications or being the best person for the job? Long term if this happens, it is not beneficial to an agency, company or the person being promoted.

At first I thought “this is a society wide problem, someone smarter and more experienced than we are can figure it out.” But it affects our lives and undiscussables are not good for the Forest Service. Plus we have a place here where people freely disagree all the time, mostly civilly. So if people are interested, this seems like a good place to host this conversation. We can start a new thread for other FS undiscussables people might want to bring up. While this is generally about the Forest Service, others are welcome to share their own experiences and thoughts.

3 Comments

  1. OK, I’ll start. One thing about being a retiree is that it’s natural to take the long view and have compassion for all sides, because we have seen many things from both sides.

    In the early 80’s a co-geneticist had to travel by herself to meetings because her Forest Supervisor followed the Mike Pence rule. Female resource professionals were pretty rare in Region 6 (I believe we had a Women in Timber meeting at Hood River with 20 of us or so?), and so her Supe’s schedule did not often involve this kind of travel. Flash forward 40 years… for the most part, people travel now just fine. That’s because most people behave well. Some people do not. Some people make passes at each other, some misread signals, particularly under the influence of certain beverages, and some are abusive. Some people lie about others and try to trash their careers. Some people have emotional affairs. Some people are friends. Some people, if they see other people together alone, might think if they’re two guys “maybe they’re planning their next fishing trip” but if they are a girl and a guy “maybe they’re having an affair.” If the people are gay, this could be reversed. Some people are inveterate gossips and get a thrill of stirring up trouble.

    I don’t remember a time when the “most qualified” person was selected. When I came to Region 6, in my little field, it was mostly a good old boy system. People from the RO would weigh in on our selections with no apparent rational reason for why we should or shouldn’t hire these people. This was so pervasive that we used to call it “Management by Innuendo.”

    I do think that there are base level qualifications that should not be waived. My first experience with this was trying to hire a computer person from outside in Region 5 during the Consent Decree. Veteran’s Preference worked in such a way that I had to hire a guy and had to do paperwork to convince someone that having computer experience was necessary.

    So let it be said that I absolutely agree with the goals of Veteran and diversity hiring. Diversity hiring is more difficult, or at least it was, because you were supposed to preferentially hire people who were diverse but you couldn’t tell that from the app (this was before I retired so that may have changed). I asked if we could hire detectives to check on outside applicants.. and I wasn’t really joking. There’s a lot of frustration on all sides and I wish we had been able to openly talk about it.

    But if Veterans and diversity hiring are preeminent, as they perhaps should be, you can do the math and see that if most Vets are male and the ratio of male to female in the fields of natural resources in each race or ethnic group is greater than 1:1, your policies might have the unintended consequences of reducing women in the workplace. And if everyone is being hired in Fire, which is definitely not 1:1, say in Region 5, where the Fire organization is big, the folks who are hiring are between a rock and a hard place. Just another thought to add into the mix.

  2. The problem is that by not hiring or promoting the most qualified person you start a downward spiral. This spiral is minimal at first, because in an organization or company, it is the sum of the parts (people) that truly make it work. But as this practice persists then you begin to influence the sum in a greater and greater way. In private business it fixes itself or destroys the company, unfortunately in a government agency it slowly takes it toll.
    There were variations in physical test requirements for field work to better fit the sexes, even though the actual physical demand was equal. The problems with this made themselves apparent during interviews and statements during deployment investigations, even though the field people saw the problems daily and final reports dismissed much of it, although we saw the advent of the pack test.

    Then there was a need to have more diversity in the management, so promotions were based more on race & gender rather than experience and ability. As time went on we have seen the negative results of this, which was two fold. First, there was resentment from those (in the candidate pool) who thought they were more qualified and those who worked under the position, who thought that the person who received the promotion was not qualified. This resulted in many good people leaving the agency or just not going to the agency and going to the private sector. Unfortunately, in the agency in many instances the solution to having an unqualified person in a position was to promote said person out of that position – especially true when race & gender were involved in the original promotion. Second, by ignoring the best qualified & best ability, management ignored or discarded the fact that these are usually the most productive people too. So we watched as it took more people or more hours to do the same job perviously done. Had this been private industry, it would have spelled the end to the company. The agency seems to just accept it and redraw the expectations. In the private sector there are numerous reasons to clean house without getting caught in the EEO arena, whether its elimination of a division or poor market conditions.

    Then we have the latest topic of sexual harassment. And what a deep dark hole this is! In the 40 years I’ve been in the workforce there has never been much acceptance for incompetence by co-workers, it was met with crude comments and intimidation, while not PC, when done man to man little was said, but if it was man to woman it was a quick way to end a career. Then you had the men and women who thought they were God’s gift to the rest of humanity and dressed and/or acted in a way that asked for attention, but then if a comment was made, it could come back to haunt you months later if you were on the promotion panel. Again, if you were “Poncharello” it was ok, but if you were “Barbie” things weren’t quite so ok. We can tell a guy he’s looking good, but if you tell a women that she looks nice you could be in the HR office. ( I personally got a verbal warning for commenting on a co-workers new hair style/color) You have people getting “alterations” yet expecting that no one will comment or pay attention. You have people that accept positions knowing full well they don’t have a clue how to do anything but have meetings to plan meetings. You have people who will simply think they deserve the promotion or position because they are of a particular gender or race. This is evidenced by the fact that when they don’t get it, there is an EEO complaint or threat of suit.
    AND then you have the bottom feeders. The supervisors or people in power who leverage all of the above in return for or in connection with relationships.
    I contend that if there were a blind test of qualifications, including experience, there would be less incentive to act in ways that have created this problem.

  3. Forester, I can definitely relate to what you’re saying. I remember in the old timber days in Region 6 (80’s) the story was that one person had screwed up something vis a vis sales and was moved to a nice job in the Regional Office in nurseries. This was discouraging and demoralizing to the nursery people (often women) as I recall, because that was more work for people who did know the job, since he couldn’t really give people advice, although he may have caught on.

    There was another time in the 80’s, I was trying to get a job near my husband on the west side of Oregon. I was really qualified for it via degrees and experience and supported by my Forest Supervisor, but the Ranger didn’t want me. I later found out that he had assaulted some other female and he was moved to another district far away.

    So this kind of thing has gone on for 40 years at least, and the FS has survived. Some of us leave to pursue other options, and some come back. Some come to the FS from other agencies, the military and other places. But it’s the nature of the mission and the people that joins us together (even when we’re retired).

    It was true that during the last five years or so when I was working for pay, the pressure was draconian to hire Diverse People. I can see both sides.. non-draconian efforts hadn’t really worked that well. Personally I had a problem with “these numbers are not quotas” and “we can’t write this down, but I was on a phone call where they said we needed to..”. But at the end of the day, it was the call of the President and his appointees and we had signed up to work in the Executive branch. Even when it seems impossible. Even when it’s a major pain in the patootie. As I used to say about planning, “the pay’s the same” and “if you’re not the lead mule, the scenery never changes.”

    One more thought, I think that most people in the Forest Service are plain old good hardworking people. Many of us have bad chemistry with each other from time to time and need to sort things out. Only a few are really manipulative, and since we run into them infrequently we haven’t developed the tools to deal with them. Thank Gaia for Employee Relations and EEO folks !

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