Introspection After Allegations Of Discrimination

The Series

NPR explores the benefits and challenges of hiring, promoting and retaining workers in an increasingly diverse America.

In 2006, the food services and facility management giant Sodexo Inc. settled an $80 million class action discrimination lawsuit, brought by African-American employees who claimed they were not being promoted at the same rate as their white colleagues. Four years after the settlement, Sodexo executives say they have made great strides toward becoming a more diverse workplace.

Sodexo's Global Chief Diversity Officer Rohini Anand was hired shortly after the African-American employees brought their suit against the company.

"It was a very painful thing for the company," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the lawsuit. "I think it made us introspective. You never want to feel that there's even one person in the company who feels they don't have an opportunity to succeed."

As part of that period of introspection, the company began to look at the experiences of a host of different employee groups. African-American, Hispanic, Asian, gay and lesbian employees were encouraged to get together to share experiences and ideas.

One lesson that emerged from these efforts was that the company needed to be more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of their employees.

"There are some cultures where it is not appropriate to sell yourself, it's not appropriate to brag and it might be more appropriate to talk about the team," Anand says.

She says the company now uses "culturally competent" methods when vetting who should be hired and promoted.

Anand also says there is now more of an expectation for managers to give clear and regular feedback, so there is no room to misinterpret why an employee did not get a promotion or raise. "[Employees] should not be mystified. They should be given feedback. They should be told what they need to do, because when that's not given, I think it creates a disconnect," she says.

Today, about a quarter of the company's managers are minorities, but only about 12 percent are black, which is not much of a change from five years ago, when the lawsuit was settled.

Anand says the company is making steady efforts to improve and is even making managers' bonuses in part dependent on their hiring and promoting of minority employees.

And, she says, Sodexo has maintained its diversity, despite downsizing during the bad economy.

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