Does Your Company Discriminate?

Yes, some companies do mistreat employees. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself or, if necessary, take action.

on behalf of employees at an operational facility in Ohio. “One woman took accounts that were failing and made them profitable. Then they were given to other individuals.”

From the outside looking in, many companies appear to be committed to diversity initiatives and creating equal opportunities. If Xerox employees have workplace concerns, for instance, they have access to executives several levels above their direct managers. The company also has several nationally recognized caucus groups: a national black employees’ association, a gay and lesbian employees’ association, a women’s alliance, a Hispanic association, an Asian alliance, and a black women’s leadership council. The company has received a number of honors for it’s diversity efforts.

“We’ve been focusing on diversity in the workforce since the 1960s,” says Patricia Nazemetz, vice president of human resources for Xerox. “[The caucus groups] have proven to be one of our strongest networks. They help us understand how we can leverage diversity.”

Plaintiff testimonies, however, underscore the failures in the system. Companies such as Xerox, often upheld as a standard for effective workplace diversity policies, are now finding themselves in court trying to defend their reputations.

“Historically, we’ve been able to identify these types of circumstances before they go outside the organization,” says Nazemetz. “I was seriously disappointed [to learn of the lawsuit] largely because we feel that we have various alleys for dialogue.”

The problem with solving workplace discrimination, say attorneys, is not a lack of policies and procedures; it’s their lack of implementation.

In 2000, Coca-Cola announced that it would pay $192 million after workers alleged that the company discriminated against minority employees in pay, promotions, and evaluations. But attorneys for the plaintiffs say ending workplace discrimination requires more than a big payout.

This year laid the foundation, says Cyrus Mehri, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Coca-Cola case. “But year two will be critical for changing Coke.” The court appointed a task force to ensure that the company improves its human resources policies, investigates complaints, and writes periodic reports evaluating how well it implements a workforce with greater access to opportunity.

And it appears as if Coke is responding. Mehri notes that when his African American clients first filed their lawsuit, there was one employee of color reporting directly to M. Douglas Ivester, then Coca-Cola chief executive. That employee was later demoted. Now under Coke’s new CEO, Douglas N. Daft, there are several.

According to Coretha Rushing, Coca-Cola’s senior vice president of human resources, among the company’s efforts is an $800 million minority supplier diversity program targeting minority- and women-owned vendors.

Consequently, the question many black professionals face is whether they have actually been discriminated against, says author Ancella Livers. “In the good old days, racism and discrimination were black and white. Today, it may not be as clear. So you wonder, ‘Was that a racial situation?’ or ‘Did the client not want to talk to me because I’m black — or maybe we just didn’t get along?’ ‘Was I on point in my presentation?’”

But ambivalence can cut both ways in corporate America. “Sometimes

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