Introspection After Allegations Of Discrimination In 2001, the food services giant Sodexo was hit with a class action discrimination lawsuit by a group of African-American employees. The suit set off a period of self-examination and the development of strategies to make the company more inclusive.
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Introspection After Allegations Of Discrimination

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Introspection After Allegations Of Discrimination

Introspection After Allegations Of Discrimination

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This week in our business news, we're asking a basic question: How does a big corporation make itself look more like America?


To try to answer that question, let's talk about a company that was forced to face that very question. In 2001, African-American employees sued the giant company Sodexo, and soon afterward, the company hired a new head of diversity. We're going to listen to her story this morning.

AMOS: But why did she go to work in diversity at a company that was being sued for discrimination?

INSKEEP: Well, she explains that she wanted to make a difference. Let's listen to Rohini Anand.

Ms. ROHINI ANAND (Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer, Sodexo): It was a very painful thing. It was a very painful thing for the company. 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.

INSKEEP: That's Rohini Anand, who was hired as vice president of diversity for Sodexo. It provides everything from food service to laundry for countless hotels and companies, and military bases and even prisons.

AMOS: So what exactly were sued for?

INSKEEP: African-American employees said they were routinely denied promotions in choice jobs and managers allegedly made racist remarks. This includes a man who allegedly said blacks were genetically inferior. This is the company that Rohini Anand wanted to clean up.

You must have a moment, as youre thinking about going to work in a job like this, am I going to be able to change things or am I going to be in some way co-opted or used?

Ms. ANAND: That's a great question, and I think the organization knew that there was a lot of work to do to make the culture more inclusive. For me, that's what it's about.

INSKEEP: Rohini Anand grew up in India, which is a small reminder here that diversity isn't just about black and white. Here's one thing she highlights about her work at Sodexo. Different groups of minority employees -African-Americans, Hispanic, Asian, gay and lesbian - are encouraged to get together. And in these networking groups, they share experiences and identify their own weak points.

Ms. ANAND: So for instance, the Asian network group, you know, one of the things that they found was that sometimes Asians are rated lower in terms of communication skills, so they actually partnered with Toastmasters to help to develop their membership.

INSKEEP: Communicating, you mean with fellow employees? Whats an example of what youre talking about?

Ms. ANAND: Well, an example might be for instance, and I want to be mindful that we're not stereotyping here, you know. I am an Asian-American. I dont think that everybody falls into these patterns, but they're 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.

INSKEEP: In fact, she thinks about a job candidate that she herself recently interviewed for possible promotion.

Ms. ANAND: It's a candidate who's internal, who I know is extremely good. Every time I asked her about her contributions, she was extremely reluctant to share with me what she had contributed. You know, this was an...

INSKEEP: What was her background?

Ms. ANAND: This was an Asian woman. You know, I found that I had to use different techniques than I would normally have in order to get the same information out of her. You know, that's one of the things that we do with our interviewers; we have a training on culturally competent recruiting - to understand the different values that people bring to the table. And that's true for recruiting, that's true for promotion. I mean there's some individuals in a promotion situation where they keep raising their hands and saying I'm ready for a promotion; I want a promotion. So is that the candidate that you eventually should promote?

INSKEEP: Have there been occasions where you have had someone come to you and say, you know, I'm being discriminated against because I'm African-American and you have to look into it and think about it and basically conclude actually no, youre not being promoted because youre not ready to be promoted or youre not competent?

Ms. ANAND: Youre asking me a perception and reality question, because I think sometimes individuals have a sense of their own capability, but unless you give that individual feedback, there is no way of their knowing what they're not ready for.

INSKEEP: A minority employee or any employee should not be mystified about why they're not being promoted.

Ms. ANAND: Absolutely. They 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, you know, it creates a disconnect.

INSKEEP: So Deb, those are all things that Sodexo says it does to encourage diversity.

AMOS: Yeah, but how does a company make sure that minorities have a chance to be promoted?

INSKEEP: Well, Rohini Anand told me that the company puts money on the line here. Sodexo's managers know that as much as 25 percent of their bonus payments depend on their record in recruiting a diverse workforce.

If I'm a manager here, what are the things that I have to do to get that 25 percent of the bonus?

Ms. ANAND: Good question. You ready for a two-hour dissertation on this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANAND: You know, it's a complex score card.

INSKEEP: Complex because it's not just a quota system, hiring so many people. It involves how managers mentor people as well as how they promote.

Ms. ANAND: So we really do need to push our managers because it's very easy to hire, you know, more of the same.

INSKEEP: You ever go to your boss and say this particular manager, I've talked to this guy, he's hopeless? You just really need to get rid of this person.

Ms. ANAND: Yes.

INSKEEP: And has the person gone away?

Ms. ANAND: Yes.

INSKEEP: Has that happened a lot?

Ms. ANAND: No. But they're found in violation of our policies - yes, they will be terminated.

AMOS: Steve, that sounds impressive, but how do you measure if she's succeeding?

INSKEEP: Well, it's complicated, but let's look at just one group of people here, African-Americans, since they were the ones who initially sued for not being promoted. The company says about a quarter of the company is African-American. Only about 12 percent of the managers are African-American, which has not changed very much from five years ago, when the lawsuit was settled.

Anand still says Sodexo is doing better when you compare the company to official census figures showing the number of qualified minorities available in the workforce, and she says they have at least kept their diversity while downsizing in a tough economy.

AMOS: That's one perspective. Later this week in our series, well hear about companies using in-house social networks to help women and minorities bond with each other.

INSKEEP: And we're also going to report, this week, on the lack of diversity in the advertising business.

And that's the business news on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

AMOS: And I'm Deborah Amos.

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