Saturday, May 9, 2015

Vegan Discrimination and the Workplace

Vegan Discrimination
Last year a dilemma had presented itself. I had accepted a new job offer but before my employer made it official, my new boss had requested my “friendship” on Facebook. What should I do?

I primarily utilize Facebook, Twitter and social media for animal activism. Almost daily, I post images and share information intent on educating people and encouraging them to go vegan. I promote legislation, petitions, and ask others to act on behalf of animals. I am sometimes confrontational, challenging people's cruel complacency and unconscious exploitation of animals. As a source of engagement, these sites also provide me with an online community of vegan support as a majority of my contacts are vegan.

Such being the case, I was reticent to accept my new boss’s friendship on Facebook, however, both options seemed fraught with risk: accepting my boss's friendship chanced bias, and not accepting her friendship could result in awkward feelings and the appearance of having something to hide. I have nothing to be ashamed of and sooner or later my vegan beliefs were bound to surface in workplace conversations and interactions. Still, I didn’t want to jeopardize my new job before I even started, so after waiting a week I approved it.

Unfortunately, my experience and similar ones involving the workplace are not unusual and present conflicts for vegans every day.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits the discrimination of any job applicant or employee based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability. Discriminating against a person for any of these reasons is illegal, but that doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t take place. Sometimes it’s difficult to prove and other times individuals aren’t aware of their rights. Nevertheless, vegans are not a protected group in the United States, at least not now.

In 2010, the United Kingdom acknowledged the beliefs of vegans on par with religion. The UK Equality Bill offered protection against workplace discrimination and required that public authorities, including schools, consider the impact of all their policies on vegans and other minority groups. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission noted that the “ethical commitment” of vegans to animal welfare is “central to who they are. A belief need not include faith or worship of a god or gods, but must affect how a person lives their life.” Likewise, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty, also protects the philosophical beliefs of vegans.

Some may think government laws protecting vegans are gratuitous, but while most people will claim to be against animal cruelty, those very same people are more than happy to engage in said cruelties, ignoring the harm they themselves inflict on animals when they eat flesh, dairy and eggs. Furthermore, workplaces are replete with employees who make insensitive and uninformed remarks and crack jokes at the expense of vegans and animals, yet they would hesitate to publicly make similar statements if the topic were about women, minorities or the disabled.

Recently during a vegan book club meeting, a member expressed concern about a recent job interview she had during which company employees took her out to lunch. She tried not to discuss her veganism but the interviewers’ confusion over why she wouldn’t eat what they were eating or what they had suggested she eat, made this difficult for her. In response to their barrage of questions, which made her feel uncomfortable and put on the spot, she finally disclosed that she was vegan. Over the course of lunch she noticed that the demeanor of those interviewing her had quickly changed. In the end, despite her being highly qualified for the job, she didn’t get it and the company didn’t tell her why she didn’t get it. She said the worst part was not knowing whether she had been discriminated against simply for being vegan.

In Nick Cooney’s book, Change of Heart, he discussed the importance of social norms in shaping beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. “People view an attitude as correct to the degree they see others holding it," he said. "What those around a person are saying and doing at that moment also have a significant impact on people’s judgments. . . . Humans have a natural tendency to greatly value their own social group and ignore and denigrate those not in it.”

As soon as someone declares their veganism, all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes are made. Likening it to a kind of Scarlet Letter, vegans are often negatively branded because they don’t subscribe to the violent dictates of the status quo.

Generally speaking, folks don’t want to be challenged by their peers or made to feel as though their values and behaviors are in question or—worse—immoral and unjust; they want to feel as though they are behaving in ways that are justifiable merely because they reflect what everyone else is doing. More often than not, a vegan doesn’t have to say or do anything to make a nonvegan defensive or uncomfortable; their presence alone speaks volumes because they are not conforming to widely accepted standards and customs.

Our book club members collectively concluded that the employers acted inappropriately, perhaps even illegally, when they interrogated our member about her veganism during the interview over lunch, and that they most likely sought a new employee who shared their own ideas and conduct, however egregious, because of their propensity for conformity and homogeny.

Discrimination against vegans is wrong, however, the majority of those who exploit animals and consume animal products also control political, economic, and social institutions, just as prejudiced whites once did and, in some places, still do. It is unfair, but it is a reality. Therefore, it is our duty as vegans to work for systemic change by creating more vegans and emboldening others to question the animal industrial complex so that animal exploitation and injustice will become a thing of the past.

It is a sad state of affairs when those who care about promoting a way of life that strives to end institutionalized animal abuse, environmental degradation, failing healthcare, violence, and global hunger are met with resistance and obstinacy; when those who present an ideal way to coexist that’s mutually beneficial to all living beings are made to feel silly and unwelcome; when those trying to make the world a better place for everyone are deemed a threat to the selfish and depraved hankerings of those who seek to maintain power, money and control.

In the end, we vegans must remain committed and not be discouraged. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

During my last job search I often worried whether potential employers had passed me up because they had looked me up online and found this here blog which you are now reading. I worried that this medium—which affords me the opportunity to express my beliefs and concerns and advocate for animals through the written word—inhibited my chances of securing employment. It is certainly a real possibility, but I refuse to be silent. Too many lives are at stake. And if a company chooses not to hire me because of my vegan activism, despite all the valuable skills, talents, and experience that I can bring to it, then it is probably for the best.

Vegan Starter Kit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post Bethany.

One of the things that still shocks, amazes and confuses me is the way many people react when they find out I am Vegan. For some reason people seem to feel like they need to “fix” me. I get all kinds of comments, some quite off color. I try to laugh them off and engage the people in a real conversation. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

It is truly appalling that someone needs to worry that their belief system and way of life could keep them from getting a job or even cost them a job. Especially when we are talking about a lifestyle that has compassion for all life at its core.

Vegans should receive the same rights and protections as any other group that has the potential to be discriminated against. Although to be honest I just find it so hard to accept that people actually discriminate against others based on what they want to eat, or not eat. I think you are correct when you talk about people feeling that their values and behaviors are immoral and unjust. We (Vegans) don’t even need to say anything. It seems our presence alone makes people feel bad enough on some level, even if they won’t acknowledge it, that they feel the need to lash out to feel better about themselves.

Hopefully, as our numbers grow this will become less and less of an issue.

Rich