Monday, June 13, 2022
Catherine Ross Dunham, Social Truths in the Workplace: How Adversarialism Undermines Discrimination Litigation
This article explores the effectiveness of dispute resolution for gender discrimination claims in the American system of civil litigation. Adversarialism is a defining feature of the American system of civil justice, beginning with reduced trust in the quasi-inquisitorial system of Chancery in the nineteenth century and escalating with the increased importance of lawyers and public trials in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although adversarialism remains of great importance in some aspects of the American system, this article questions whether the adversarial system is the best dispute resolution system to address workplace-based discrimination claims, as those claims are intimately connected to changes in social and cultural understandings within the workplace and within American society.
The tenets of our system over-rely on the assumption of a shared social context to define social truth. But that assumption is flawed in workplace discrimination litigation as workplace context varies by profession, and the worker experience varies based on the individual’s position in the hierarchy. For example, in a gender bias-driven workplace, a male supervisor may see the workplace culture as fair and merit-based, whereas his female contemporary may view the workplace culture as competitive and closed, seeing her position as that of an outsider who had to navigate her career path carefully. These varying perspectives create different social truths in the workplace, which are challenged by litigation. When the female employee claims that she was discriminated against in an unfair workplace, her social truth is thrust against the social truth of other supervisors and managers who view the workplace as fair. Litigation places those two conflicting understandings of workplace culture into direct controversy and positions the relevant parties as adversaries not only on the legal issues, but also on the issue of what is true about the workplace culture, reducing the opportunity for meaningful cultural change within and without the workplace.
This article asks what type of dispute resolution system can create a more reliable assessment of workplace social truth. By exploring options such as the quasi-inquisitorial systems of American Chancery and European conciliation, as well as the role of arbitration in American civil litigation, the article suggests that a non-adversarial approach allows for a more holistic resolution of workplace controversies. If a conflict is overseen by a judicial officer who can approach the conflict from a place of conciliation, cognizant of the relevant community and social context, resolution options can not only offer relief to the plaintiff within the subject workplace, but can also protect the relevant economic and cultural interests of the defendant. Conflict resolution which attempts to understand the competing social truths of the workplace, can offer an opportunity for voluntary change in the workplace without placing parties fully at risk, as they are in the “winner-take-all” litigation scenario. Furthermore, as our social truths evolve and change, our dispute resolution system, which de facto manages those truths through adversarial litigation, should be reconsidered for its role in creating new truths about whether the workplace is fair to all.