What Should Mormons Do?

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Mormon employees at the University of Phoenix benefited from discrimination based on religion, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The University settled the suit, paying $1.9 million to 52 employees (an average of more than $36,000 each!) and agreeing to a “zero-tolerance” policy to religious discrimination, but did not admit wrongdoing.

What’s up with that?

Seriously. Can someone explain to me how things like this happen?

Perhaps I am naïve, (and, I admit I know nothing about how the University of Phoenix operates) but I tend to believe that there must be something to charges like this, especially when the University is willing to pay so much per employee to settle the problem. At least, the evidence the EEOC had must have been good enough to keep the case from being thrown out of court easily. (FWIW, I’d guess $1.9 million could pay for 3 full-time lawyers for an entire year at $300/hour. If the case was easy to win, surely they wouldn’t have settle for so much money).

The news reports says that this isn’t about who was hired or fired. Instead, it is apparently about giving advantages in distributing work. The suit “alleged that non-Mormon counselors were given fewer new student recruiting leads and more reprimands.”

So, assuming the EEOC is right, how could members of the Church (as I understand it, the University of Phoenix is owned and run by members of the Church) pull something like this?

Could this really be some kind of innocent, unintended favoritism?

I know we are all human. Mormons have committed some pretty horrible crimes over the years. I saw these things way too often when I was running Mormon News. Some things simply don’t surprise me at all — such murder under impassioned circumstances. I can understand someone getting angry when they shouldn’t, and overreacting. I won’t condone or excuse it, but I can see how it happens.

But who play’s favoritism over weeks or years due to an impassioned feeling?

I can also see how greed could lead to a series of planned thefts over weeks or years. But who plans favoritism when there isn’t a direct benefit?

The only though process that might make the motivation clear to me is the idea that we should help each other in the Church. If that is what the motivation is, then I think that the idea got corrupted somehow in this case.

Please help me understand.

44 comments for “What Should Mormons Do?

  1. I don’t believe you really are that surprised. People favor their own all the time, even if its risky. Someone who doesn’t understand tribalism deep in their bones is way outside the mainstream of human experience.

  2. I don’t believe you really are that surprised. People favor their own all the time, even if its risky. Someone who doesn’t understand tribalism deep in their bones is way outside the mainstream of human experience.

  3. Lots of insular subcultures behave like this. Ever heard of the Velvet Mafia??

    In this case, I’d be curious as to the denominational preference of the plaintiffs. Aggrieved evangelicals, perhaps?

  4. But who play’s favoritism over weeks or years due to an impassioned feeling?

    I can also see how greed could lead to a series of planned thefts over weeks or years. But who plans favoritism when there isn’t a direct benefit?


    I have sat in priesthood lessons where we were encouraged to give preference to our fellow priesthood holders (thankfully, I haven’t heard this in over a decade). I knew Church members who ran a fast-food franchise who’d give prime shifts to the Mormon teenagers, as if they were better workers. When I was an stake employment specialist, we had a guy who hired a lot of people for a city office, who wanted to ensure we only gave them to members and that we would not allow non-members to see the job postings. I’ve seen this firsthand dozens and dozens of times…

    As Adam puts it — it’s tribalism, and Mormons do it as well or better than anyone else.

    (This is why we attempt to claim kinship with the exploits and successes of people who are marginally Mormon — the athletes, the songwriters, the politicians.)

    I hadn’t heard of the UoP story until here, but my first reaction was not surprise over Mormon favoritism happening; rather, I’m surprised we don’t hear of this occurring more often…

  5. Tribalism is part of the human condition so this surprises me not at all.

    Ask a TX A&M graduate who he prefers to hire and of course the answer is Aggie!! Its like a cult….

  6. Sure, bbell, but do you therefore assume that tribalism is a positive aspect of human nature (or at least neutral)?

  7. Mike,

    I am not sure. I witnessed tribalism on my mission in Africa in a raw manner that you simply do not Exp in the US. I favor tribalism when it favors me and am opposed to it when the aggie refuses to do business with me the illinois grad :)

  8. But what if, by some weird aligning of the stars and planets, the mormon’s were just simply better at what they did and the others deserved what they got? I mean, it is possible, right?

  9. I can comment on this case since until recently I was an employee of the University’s parent company. For the sake of full disclosure, I left the company to accept a job with more challenges and salary.

    The fifty two employees concerned here were low producers. They were the kind of employees that a manager would want to encourage to leave, but not bad enough to fire outright. They just happened to find a rationale that they could take to the EEOC by claiming religious discrimination. There are nearly ten thousand employees of Apollo Group and the University of Phoenix in Arizona. There are admittedly quite a few members of the church who work there. This is in Arizona and it’s not a bad commute from the heavily LDS East side. Apollo Group pay is maybe a little above the median for AZ and the benefits are excellent, including free tuition for employees and steep discounts for spouses. I think the benefits are a big draw for the younger LDS people that are working in admissions, student services, and financial aid. But, the LDS presence was hardly visible from my perspective. In the years that I worked there, I only personally knew, or had met, five other employees who I knew for a fact were members of the church. I only learned that my division director was a member of the church about six weeks before I moved on from the firm after working with the man for two and one half years. I might add that the family that controls Apollo Group and the people who were managers of the University at the time are not who I would consider to be friends of the church or it’s members.

    So, why did the University settle with the EEOC? Because even though the case was defensible and there were documented records showing that these employees were at the low end of the productivity curve, it’s just not worth fighting. The corporation would have spent far more than $1.9 million in defending the suit and depending on how many people with anti-LDS feelings that the government stacked onto any jury, the outcome at trial is always a roll of the dice.

  10. re: 9 Personally, I think tribalism is a fundamentally sinful impulse like avarice, lust, etc. But then again, as you know my head is full of liberal claptrap…..

  11. I am quite sure that people favor their own in all sorts of circumstances– for both good and bad reasons. That said, paying $36,000 an employee does not say to me “guilty” so much as “make it go away”. I guess the relevant info to know is how much do people get who win discrimination lawsuits? My impression is that it is a lot more than this, but we have enough lawyers around that we shouldn’t have to guess.

  12. It is also natural for people to use their social groups and tribes as “filters” for purposes outside what the group traditionally does.

    My wife and I look for babysitters from members of the church before we look outside. Why would we do that? Are we discriminating against non-LDS babysitters?

    Maybe. But discrimination is no the intent. It’s just a short-cut to identify people we know we’ll be able to communicate our value-set to quite quickly and whose backgrounds we know and understand. We know what they’ve been taught to believe is right and wrong and it

    That’s not the end of it. We still filter for additional criteria after that. But the value-set hurdle, getting a pool of babysitters identified that will tend to strongly correlate with our values, is a great help to us.

    People use their tribes as shortcuts all the time. Not to discriminate against others, but to help them get stuff done in a time-scarce world.

    Is it right? Meh. It’s useful. It’s not malicious. It’s often a useful and efficient way to get crap done.

    Is this what happened in the UoP case? Who knows . . .but, living in AZ, and employing 30 people in AZ, I do know that while from time to time you’ll find LDS favoritism going on, it’s much more rare than the conspiracy-theorists allege and usually boils down to “people like to work with people they like and they just happen to know and like the people they hang out with”.

  13. Mike,

    I would be interested to see if they are any Scriptural texts that could be used to flesh out your views. I can see that a case could be made against tribalism but I am not sure or have not explored this as a scriptural topic. I think the case largely depends on the degree to which tribalism is practiced. Withholding food shipments from a neighboring tribe is obvious sin but trying to find a job for a fellow congregant is not.

  14. Mike: Do you have a workable definition of the tribalism that you find wicked and have a clear explanation of why it is so?

    I actually think that things are a bit complicated. On one hand, in-group/out-group dynamics can turn toxic, as well as systematically excluding some from benefits that they ought to have access to in at least some circumstances.

    On the other hand, without communal identification one is left with a kind of atomized individualism that is extremely alienating and unpleasant. One possible response to this problem is to turn away from particular forms of group solidarity — e.g. family, church, tribe, etc. — in favor of some sort of universal solidarity. I tend to be extremely suspicious about such universalism because (1) as a practical matter I think that it is generally rhetorical claptrap that hides some form of smaller group solidarity; and, (2) as a practical matter if pursued honestly, I suspect that it places impossibly high demands on human nature. (I freely admit that this places me in some tension with the Sermon on the Mount, which I find extremely challenging. I am, however, unimpressed by a kind of cheap universalism.)

    Hence, I suspect that tribalism is both inevitable and in some sense necessary for human happiness. The trick is to embed it within a set of social norms and practices that keep it from becoming toxic and allow peaceful and productive interaction with out-group members. I think that well functioning markets are probably the best example of such peaceful and productive interactions. Liberal democracy is a close second. On the other hand, when either of these social institutions are turned into mechanisms for the stamping out of tribalism in favor of some kind of universal solidarity or individualism, I think that they tend to become toxic and frighteningly totalitarian.

  15. Drex is right. One of the least-recognized costs of doing anything in a complex society is the cost of transmitting and collating information. Thomas Sowell wrote at length about this in his [i]Knowledge and Decisions[/i], which I consider one of his best books. Tribes — including ethnic groups, professional associations, unions, churches, and political parties — exist at least in part to reduce the costs and risks of various social transactions by acting as trust communities. It’s human nature and it’s not going away.

    Having said that, I suspect there is a great deal to what Jim said. We had an employee at Los Alamos, many years ago, who tried to raise a stink about Mormons controlling the Laboratory. It happens that one of the associate directors was Mormon, as was the supervisor who fired him. Not exactly a critical mass of LDS, but the EEOC was required to take his complaint seriously. It was eventually found groundless, but it cost the plaintiff absolutely nothing. I suspect the same think may have happened with Unversity of Phoenix: It costs the plaintiffs nothing to make their case, since EEOC was making it for them at taxpayer expense. Under those circumstances, UP would lose even if it won.

    We really need “loser pays” to be part of our legal system.

  16. i’m not sure which is worse, LDS favoring each other, or LDS owning the U of P? I tend to think that the U of P is a bad thing…

  17. #18 – Apollo Group, Inc. , the parent company of the Univeristy of Phoenix, is a publically traded company. All voting shares are controlled by John and Peter Sperling, who are not LDS.

  18. We had an employee at Los Alamos, many years ago, who tried to raise a stink about Mormons controlling the Laboratory. It happens that one of the associate directors was Mormon, as was the supervisor who fired him. Not exactly a critical mass of LDS, but the EEOC was required to take his complaint seriously. It was eventually found groundless, but it cost the plaintiff absolutely nothing.

    Of course he did spend the next few years putting up graffiti on this all over the state roads. It was kind of funny.

    That said one must admit there was a pretty amazingly disproportionate number of Mormons in leadership positions at LANL. Including when I was there two of the top three officials being Mormon plus a ridiculously high number of group leaders. I don’t think there was any bias to it. But I can see how folks on the outside looking in might think otherwise. And for such a small set of towns (Los Alamos and White Rock) there sure were a lot of members (two large wards).

  19. re: 15

    As you may have noticed, I lean toward liberalism/universalism in my thinking about religion. One can read the whole arc of scripture from that perspective, starting with Genesis 11 and continuing right through the Sermon on the Mount (esp Matt 5:44) and the epistles (Galatians 3:28, etc). Many have argued that the Book of Mormon puts even greater emphasis on anti-tribalism (Are you there, Ronan?).

    re: 16
    In answer to your question, Nate: No. “Workable” and “clear” are not words I typically associate with my thinking on anything. I do tend to agree with your second paragraph.

  20. Perhaps what we can do to protect ourselves from this is to make a ward calling of scapegoat. One person can get hired on at a particular workplace and then be fired. This instance could then be used to claim that we Mormons really don’t favor each other, aye?

  21. I agree with Mike; it may be “natural” to favor your own tribe, but we should strive to rise above that, so that we see everyone as “one of us”. We are all children of God, brothers and sisters.

  22. I think tribalism is a bad thing, even though it’s definitely human nature. To me it’s a failing of the natural human. The way to combat it is to increase the size of one’s tribe, just keep on increasing until one’s tribe is the universe and every being inside it. I think that’s a key gospel principle. Am I the only one who understands it that way?

  23. My wife and I look for babysitters from members of the church before we look outside. Why would we do that? Are we discriminating against non-LDS babysitters?

    I heard a joke once about the LDS babysitter being able to better their mouth shut about your secret porn collection, because they’ve watched it already…

  24. bbell — A&M grads will still deal with a UT grad if the alternative is dealing with the OU grad…

  25. I know this is irrelevant and probably \”tribal\” of me but in the middle of hate storm raining down across the country against us. You choose to write about this?

  26. Full disclosure – I haven’t worked for U of P, but I did work for a competitor, Western Governors University.

    The fact that U of P is majority owned by non-LDS isn’t enough to dismiss this charge. Enrollment counselors are low enough on the totem pole that they probably don’t meet the owners or higher-level management. I could buy that an LDS manager favored LDS employees underneath him, but not having worked there or having seen the evidence, I will not take it any further.

    Where I grew up, the president of the community college and the director of the local hospital were both LDS (the former became a GA later on). My dad worked at the college, and a large number of ward members worked at the hospital. Was this favoritism? I’m not prepared to say it was. Informal networks are a fact of life in getting a job. It’s wrong to make it a necessary requirement. But I won’t criticize anyone for using it as a foot in the door.

    But I am against favoritism.

  27. Jake (29):

    Um, you seem to be arguing FOR favoritism. If I understand you correctly, I shouldn’t write about anything that might make members of the Church look bad at some particular point in time, right?

    I’m hardly “piling on” here. This was a story in the news, and I reacted to it because it was timely and on an issue that interests me.

    This attitude is kind of like those that don’t want to admit wrongdoing to their loved ones because they might get hurt. In these situations the problem is the wrongdoing, NOT the admission of doing it. If you don’t want to hurt your loved ones, don’t do the wrong thing. Not telling them will only makes it worse.

    The same thing applies here. If we as Mormons don’t want to be embarrassed by this kind of news, I suggest that we figure out how to keep it from happening.

    Failing to admit that it happens doesn’t solve anything.

  28. in the middle of hate storm raining down across the country against us, you choose to write about this?

    Yawn. There has always a hate storm against Mormons. It ebbs and flows. One can’t get too excited about a particular uptick…

  29. I don’t know why Mormons need to be embarrassed about this kind of news or that there is any way to keep things like this from happening. Free agency-doncha love it?

  30. All these references to “tribalism” and human nature are flying way above the specific features of Mormon tribalism or chauvinism. There are many different kinds of “tribes”, and the claim that “tribes favor their own” is almost tautological. People are behave tribally whenever they do.

    In the case of Mormonism, the evidence I’ve seen is that tribalism is actually pretty strong. Particular, rather than universal alliegance may come more naturally to human beings, but that doesn’t mean that everyone favors some tribe just as strongly as Mormons favor theirs. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame, has some research which shows that that Mormons like other Mormons more than blacks like blacks, Hispanics like Hispanics, Jews like Jews, Catholics like Catholics, and Evangleicals like Evangelicals. Way more.

    But this also seems to indicate that our tribalism is positive (or “affirmative”), not primarily negative, and in my own experience as well that seems true. It’s not that we are especially suspicious of or antagonistic towards non-Mormons. It’s that we really like Mormons. That’s much more difficult to write off as a bad thing, for the simple fact that trust is ceteris paribus a good thing.

  31. As a young man (age 18),my Stake President refused to re-hire me for a summer job (despite making me commit to two summers when I was initially hired) because I didn’t pay tithing and he felt that if I wasn’t appreciative enough of the job he hired me to do, he would hire someone who would pay tithing. So finding evidence of favoritism amongst members of the church isn’t outside of my realm of belief.

    Part of it is simply networking, as has previously been mentioned. Some of it is a belief that Mormons are better workers, more honest, etc (think Howard Hughes), and some of it is one member wanting to give preferential treatment to one of their own. Just more of the “natural man” we are supposed to overcome.

  32. I endorse Jeremiah J. and Nate Oman’s comments.

    Frank M., 36k/person does sound like a ‘go away’ settlement.

  33. If members of certain tribes really are more or less likely to exhibit certain traits than members of other tribes, one who is trying to get particular things done would not be foolish to lean toward members of the tribe most likely to have the desired traits.

    Why else would liberals be a little averse to hiring evangelicals?

  34. In my environment I am extremely unlikely to run into many Mormons in professional life (we are a really small minority).

    But I admit that when I meet a Mormon, I immediately feel a certain kinship. Kind of like when I meet a “paisano” while traveling abroad (at least outside mainstream tourist traps) or hearing my native language spoken somewhere unexpectedly. You know there is something about you that the other one instinctively recognizes – although you may have little in common.

    Lately there have also been positive mention about LDS work ethic here. May be a contributing factor, besides the networking thing, which is always present – it always helps to have something in common with the guy/gal doing the hiring.

  35. Is the university privately owned? If so, first of all, regardless of whether discrimination actually happened, I see no reason at all why a privately owned university can’t play favorites or be picky. The government should have NO say in the criteria for who a privately owned enterprise can or can’t hire.

  36. Jeff T. (41):
    Your question concerns what the law says. I suggest you look at the wikipedia article on Employment discrimination law in the United States, which indicates that no employer (including those privately owned) with more than 15 employees and engaged in interstate commerce may discriminate on the basis of religion (and several other “protected categories”).

    Doesn’t sound like you are in favor of this law, but this has been the law since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  37. I was interested in the comment about Mormons in sewnior positions at Los Alamos. I have worked in the Department of Energy national complex of sites for 11 years, mainly in eastern Idaho (where the population is 50% LDS) and in eastern Washington, where LDS are about 15% of the population. Yet the LDS presence in senior leadership positions within the Department of Energy itself is basically ZERO in both places. There are many LDS in lower level jobs, but they have not been selected for the 15 or so senior leadership positions in each local DOE office. Just on the basis of statistical improbability (which the Civil Rights laws allow as evidence of discrimination), there appears to be specific discrimination AGAINST LDS people in DOE. Maybe this is not intentionally religious in nature. Mormons are just not likely to hang out with the other senior managers on weekends, going to wine tastings and performances of The Vagina Monologues and playing golf on Sundays. The fact is that the formal hiring processes, which involve written applications and (sometimes) phone and in person interviews rarely seem to be the real basis for selection for positions that become vacant. Ultimately it is really based on a personal relationship with a particular senior person who influences the selection. Just as Mormons feel more comfortable hanging out with each other, non-Mormons tend to hang out together and build networks of personal relationships outside the office with non-Mormons.

  38. Kent,

    Yeah, it’s the law. I disagree with it though. I agree that people shouldn’t discriminate based upon religion, but I think the government is stepping outside its proper role by enforcing it. I think part of freedom is freedom of association, which means should be able to freely choose the people we associate with in daily life (in terms of who we purchase from, who we sell to, who we hire, etc.)

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