Corporate America’s Black Eye

The latest rash of corporate misconduct has triggered new battles over the corrosive effects of bias in the American workplace

Just take your pick. In the last several months, lofty multimillion-dollar corporations such as Texaco, Flagstar, Avis Rent-A-Car Systems Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc., Mitsubishi and Morgan Stanley have all become synonymous with the racism often expressed among the corporate elite in America. Whether it’s racial slurs coming via e-mail in a business office, being passed over for a deserved promotion or having high-ranking executives refer to you as a “black jelly bean” in a backdoor meeting, it’s clear the glass ceiling IS alive and well in corporate America. Only in the case of African Americans in the business arena today, the glass ceiling is increasingly more like a concrete wall.

Never has corporate America’s reliance on monetary settlements as a form of crisis management been more in vogue than in recent years. And as blacks have sought legal recourse in growing numbers–with complaints about hiring practices, promotions or wages against the corporations they work for–millions have been spent in the last several months alone by corporations, either to refute racism or, when all else fails, allegations to make huge settlements.

Not since the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s have there been so many race, sex and age discrimination lawsuits, says Gilbert F. Casellas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The organization is often the first step toward filing a racial discrimination suit and can decide the merit of particular cases, in some instances seeking out settlements as opposed to jury cases. However, Casellas says i cases are now more often directed toward Fortune 500 companies to enforce or establish many of the victories from the civil rights era. According i: to a recent survey, the number of companies with employees in litigation against them rose to 63% in 1995, a 10% increase over 1993. The most common charge was race discrimination. Last year alone, private sector employees filed more than 77,000 complaints of discrimination with the EEOC–a decrease from the 91,000 cases logged in 1994 but still an increase over the 62,000 cases reported in 1990. Following are some of the more recent highprofile cases:

Avis: Avis, the nation’s second-largest rental car company, and New Hanover Rent-A-Car were named in a class-action suit filed in November in the U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Delaware, by three black women who say they were denied rentals. Avis severed ties with the franchise owner, John Dalton, amid charges Avis executives had been aware of racial bias complaints against Dalton’s franchise for several years. An internal investigation by Avis found an additional 26 complaints of racial discrimination logged against Dalton’s franchise over eight years. According to lawsuit depositions, former employees say they were trained on how to avoid renting cars to blacks.

Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America: Mitsubishi recently settled a class-action sexual harassment case with the EEOC for $150 million. Twentynine women filed separate lawsuits making similar claims of verbal and physical harassment. A separate settlement was made with the EEOC on behalf of African Americans who charged they were

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