When Intolerance Becomes Intolerable

Source: New York Times

June 2, 2008

When Intolerance Becomes Intolerable


Correction Appended

Many career shifts involve an “aha” moment. In Lisa Sherman’s case, the moment was not only the catalyst for a career change but also led her to tell her boss she was gay.

And her experience ultimately became memorialized in a case study for the Harvard Business School.

It all started in 1993 with a diversity training seminar at what was then Bell Atlantic, where Ms. Sherman was a vice president for marketing. She kept the fact that she was a lesbian to herself at work because, she said, she worried that being openly gay would derail her career. She was, by her own account, a master at what she calls the “black art of pronoun puppetry, substituting ‘him’ and ‘we’ for ‘her’ and ‘she.’ ”

During the seminar, participants were asked to write on flip charts, filling in the blanks on a variety of sentences: “Blacks are …,” “Asians are …,” “Jews are. …” Ms. Sherman said that many of the answers reflected certain stereotypes. But when she got to the page with gay people on it, she said that seeing the words written by her colleagues literally made her sick. “Pathetic,” “perverse” and “immoral” were among the ones she recalls. Some were written by people she had worked with for 15 years, many of whom she considered to be friends.

At that moment, she said, she decided she had to leave the company since she could not imagine working with people who thought those things about her. But before she left, she made an appointment to see the chief executive of the company, Raymond W. Smith, with whom she had a good relationship. She told Mr. Smith, she said, what had happened at the diversity seminar, and in the process, told him about being a lesbian. Even though Bell Atlantic officially supported diversity, including sexual orientation, under its antidiscrimination policy, she said she wanted him to know the real atmosphere that people like her worked in.

The meeting lasted several hours. She said she told him about her life and about her partner, a side of her personal life she had never shared with him. She called the meeting “extraordinary,” yet she stuck by her decision to leave the company, using this incident as a push to try other things in her career.

After a foray into entrepreneurship and another stint in corporate America (both in environments where she was open about her sexual orientation), Ms. Sherman, who lives in New York, is now the executive vice president and general manager of Logo, the gay television channel owned by MTV. As she puts it, “I went from being in the closet to being a professional gay person.”

Last year, Ms. Sherman told a version of this tale in a speech at the annual Reaching Out Conference, a gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in master’s of business administration programs. After her speech, Jens Audenaert, a gay student in the audience, asked her if she would agree to be interviewed for a case study for a class at the Harvard Business School taught by Bill George, author of the book, “True North” and the former chief executive of Medtronic. Ms. Sherman agreed, and Mr. Audenaert wrote up the case with guidance from Mr. George.

Mr. George said in an interview that he believed the case study was the first at Harvard to take a look at sexual orientation and leadership that also revealed the subject’s name. But he said the case has far broader implications than the issue of sexual orientation. “The color of our skin and our genders are obvious, but many of us have hidden differences,” he said. And in using this case, he said he wanted students to ask themselves the question, “Why am I afraid to tell you who I really am?”

The case consists of two parts, with the first part ending just as Ms. Sherman leaves the diversity training seminar. That way the students can place themselves in Ms. Sherman’s shoes and discuss what they would do at that moment.

According to the rules of the class, if students know the actual outcome of a case, they should debate the issues as if they did not know. The case identifies four courses of action. She could quit. She could “face her reality and try to change her work environment for the better.” She could meet with Mr. Smith and seek his advice. Or she could “just continue to do her job and build her career without saying anything.”

“The question is what would you do in this situation, and these are not easy questions,” Mr. George said. “Would you be a whistle-blower?

Ms. Sherman’s coming out left its mark on Bell Atlantic, where her departure spurred Mr. Smith to take significant steps to enhance policies and instill the kind of inclusive culture that Ms. Sherman thought was lacking. Now the chairman of Rothschild North America, an investment firm, Mr. Smith said he was disappointed but not completely surprised by Ms. Sherman’s colleague’s comments in the training seminar.

He testified before Congress in 1997 in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a proposed federal law that would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. And he wrote accounts of that experience for internal company publications to ensure that the entire company knew his views. He also made sure that the company moved forward on changing its benefits policies to include domestic partners, something that Ms. Sherman told him was being delayed by the committee responsible for putting through the changes. “I met with the group on a Thursday and made sure the policy was in place by the following Monday,” he said.

Mr. George said he believed that policies and training could create an inclusive culture and change the minds of people who “wrote such ugly things.”

“I’ve done it,” he said. “But, to be blunt, some of them will have to leave.”

Mr. Smith also takes a realistic view. “In any organization, there will be people with these kinds of intolerant and illegitimate feelings, so you can’t be surprised when people behave this way,” he said. “You do your best to enact policies, which can affect behavior if not what is in people’s hearts. After a while, if people behave in a tolerant way, they may start to think in a tolerant way.”


An earlier version of this column posted online misstated the circumstances in which Lisa Sherman, an executive and entrepreneur, made a comment about workplace biases. It was during a speech at the Reaching Out Conference recounting her diversity-training experience, not at a training workshop itself, that she cited a stereotype that “Jews like big offices.” (Ms. Sherman, who is Jewish, said she meant the line to be a tongue-in-cheek self-reference.)


0 Responses to “When Intolerance Becomes Intolerable”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: