Preaching Diversity, Practicing Discrimination

A day before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the racial discrimination suit filed against Sodexho by black employees, the global food giant agreed to shell out $80 million. The pay out will go to a dozen lead plaintiffs and thousands of other black employees. The employees claimed that they were harassed, stacked into low-end management jobs, and frozen out of top management spots.

The Sodexho settlement was no surprise. The company did what a horde of corporations have been forced to do in recent years. They have settled with black employees that have nailed them for discrimination. The pattern is always the same. A group of black, Latino, or women employees blitz top managers and corporate heads with stacks of grievances and complaints alleging that they have repeatedly been passed over for promotions, stuck in dead end lower-level management positions, often in mostly minority filled departments, been the targets of physical threats and harassment. Corporate officials ignore, or downplay the complaints or retaliate against the employees for filing them. The employees sue the company and to avoid an embarrassing trial, a guilty verdict, the payout of a huge award, not to mention the black eye it will get from the bad publicity, the company settles.

Sodexho was the latest to take that way out. But in the past few years, some of America's biggest and best-known corporations, corporations that have been widely praised as having a good track record on minority hiring and promotions have also settled discrimination lawsuits. Texaco, Coca Cola, Boeing, Lockheed, and Toyota have been dumped on the legal hot seat and have made costly settlements, or signed consent decrees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Forty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forbade workplace discrimination and Executive Order 11246, signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that prodded firms to promote management diversity, many companies still practice their own subtle brand of workplace apartheid.

Despite the well-publicized shove to the top of black executives at AOL-Time Warner and American Express, black CEOs are still a rarity at most of the Fortune 1,000 corporations. The overwhelming majority of senior managers at these companies are white males, and as evident from the rash of management discrimination lawsuits, women and minority managers are paid less than their white counterparts.

For a brief moment, a corporate discrimination case settlement such as Sodexho puts corporate discrimination on the public radarscope, but then its back to business as usual, and that business more often than not is discrimination. It takes place quietly, and far out of public view. Corporations employ a variety of tactics to mask discrimination. They issue glowing press releases, brochures, assorted handouts and annual stockholder reports loaded with pictures of smiling women and minority employees that tout their commitment to diversity. With much public fanfare, they establish minority and women hiring and training programs. They name a few high profile blacks and women to their corporate boards.

The refusal of many companies to make diversity the watchword in middle and upper management is bad enough, but even worse is the relentless hostile environment that many companies create and maintain toward minorities. Since 1990, the number of discrimination complaints has soared, and the number of complaints of racial harassment toward employees that complain of discrimination has also climbed. Black employees have been poked with sticks, taunted with racial slurs, have had pictures of burning crosses, and white sheets, placed near their lockers, and have discovered the initials KKK carved on tables and benches in the workplace.

In an 18-month period in 2001, the EEOC handled 25 hanging noose cases. Since then other black employees have reported hanging nooses at other worksites. In the past couple of years, Toyota Motors and Northwest Airlines settled hanging noose cases, and black employees at Lockheed Martin Corp. in Marietta, Ga. complained of finding them near their desks. Many CEOs are not hypocrites when they say that they work hard to hire and promote more blacks, minorities and women. But the mostly white, male managers responsible for implementing company policy and directives aren't committed to diversity. They write the reports, make the performance evaluations, organize training, are responsible for mentoring, and make crucial job assignments. They demand strict conformity to middle-class norms in the company. This includes dress, language, mannerisms, style and demeanor. They feel threatened by and adopt a them-vs.-us bunker mentality toward anyone who doesn't share those interests. This attitude bolsters the belief of many non-whites that they are held to a different standard of accountability than whites and must constantly prove they can be team players too.

The ink was barely dry on the Sodexho settlement when black employees at BellSouth Corporation announced that they would push ahead with their discrimination lawsuit. That could dwarf the Sodexho suit. Until those corporations that discriminate do more than preach diversity, expect more suits to come.

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