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COMPANY CULTURE

3 Things You Can Learn from the Donald Sterling Fiasco

Sterling deserves all the punishments he's getting. But we should also be thanking him--because his actions teach us how far we've come.
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In an episode of Mad Men earlier this season, Bertram Cooper, the elder partner and one of the owners of the show's Madison Avenue ad firm requested that Dawn, an African American, be removed as receptionist because of her skin color.  The bigoted request was granted quietly on the fictional show and the scene seemed barely noticed by its viewers. Why?  It was the early 1970s, and that was the times back then.

So thank you, Donald Sterling--for demonstrating that such behavoir--thankfully--is entirely unacceptable in the 21st century United States.

As we're all aware, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers made a few of his own bigoted comments a few weeks ago, and started a firestorm of controversy so powerful that within days he was out of a job and is being drummed out of the league.  Of course what he said was hateful, racist and ignorant.  But if he said the same thing as a fellow partner of Bertram Cooper's back in the early '70's, his comments would likely have been brushed aside.  The fact that this didn't happen now shows just how much the business world has changed in only 40 years. Sure, Sterling deserves all the punishments he's getting.  But we should also be thanking him.  Because his monumental failure teaches us three things.

1. When it comes to discrimination in the workplace, we've come a long way.

Today, women, African Americans, gays, Latinos, disabled people are CEOs, senior managers and business owners.Do these peoples still suffer discrimination?  You bet they do. I hear what guys say about the attractive female executive when she leaves the room. I know that African Americans and Latinos are still viewed mistrustfully by some. I can tell that not everyone feels comfortable working alongside someone who's gay. But here's the thing: People are learning to keep their mouths shut. Opinions and attitudes won't change overnight. But they are definitely changing.  Today, if you're a business owner you better think really, really carefully before you refuse to a give a job to a qualified candidate just because of his or her color, physical appearance or sexual orientation.  This is just not done as much anymore. So thank you Donald Sterling for demonstrating that we live in a less bigoted world.

2. The Internet is leveling the moral and ethical playing field in business.

We talk all the time about the power of the Internet, but can we take a step back and appreciate the enormous influence it's having on reducing discrimination? Donald Sterling makes a couple of comments in what he thought was a private conversation, but the comments are mysteriously posted online. Like wildfire it becomes international news. Your employees are ready to snap a photo, take a video, tweet, blog, Instagram and SnapChat your discriminatory behavior the minute you make a mistake or say something stupid. And the Internet is merciless. Online commentators can be vitriolic, profane, passionate and tireless in their criticism of your behavior. The media loves these stories.  If you have racist comments you better not make them.  If you have discriminatory thoughts, you better keep them to yourself ...until the day comes when some new technology will actually be able to read your discriminatory thoughts!  Thank you Donald Sterling for showing how quickly our mistakes and bad decisions spread around the universe.

3. A new generation is taking over the world.

Bertram Cooper, the character in Mad Men, if he were alive today ... well, he wouldn't be, because he would be 100 years old or so.  My grandmother, a sweet old lady who grew up in the '30 and '40's, used terms to describe people she didn't understand (which means anyone different than her) in ways that would make you blush. But she died in 1980. The baby boomers are retiring and their parents, the ones who ruled the world where racism and discrimination was the norm, are dying or dead.  Now, we see startups run by 20 year olds, Sons and daughters born when Reagan was president are taking over the reins from mom and dad.  That generation did not grow up with the same type racism.  And their kids even less so.  These are the people that you will be hiring, selling to and buying from. This is the new generation. Most of them will not tolerate the kind of racism that was accepted as the norm by prior generations. If you're going to be successful, you'll want to make sure you're ready to deal with this reality.

So even though Donald Sterling is a rotten relic of bygone times, he's thankfully reminded us that the world has changed. The people now starting to run it are different.

If my daughter married an African American or if my son said he was gay, would I be upset? The answer is no ... and yes.  I would love them either way. But I'd be concerned.  Being different, even just a little different, is never easy, and I know they will have to face ignorant people in their lives who may give them a hard time. But I suspect that their challenges would be way fewer than they would have been 40 years ago. And although they may occasionally confront racism and discrimination on the street or while travelling to certain parts of the world, I would still feel confident that this would affect them less and less in the workplace.

The workplace has undergone enormous changes in just my generation. 

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 14, 2014

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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