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Two EEOC Initiatives Highlighted in Action Against Walgreens

March 15, 2007
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Latest News
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Almost one year ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an initiative to target systemic discrimination by pursuing pattern and practice cases and class actions.

In February, the agency indicated that racial discrimination is likely to be a primary focus of that effort by introducing a campaign called “Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment.”

On March 7, the two elements were highlighted when the EEOC filed an employment discrimination class lawsuit against Walgreen Co., accusing the drug retailer of racial discrimination.

The EEOC alleges that Walgreens uses race as a factor to place managers and pharmacists in low-performing stores and in locations in African-American communities. The company denies the charges.

Although the racism initiative, which emphasizes public education and outreach, is not directly tied to the Walgreens action, the EEOC is making an example of the company.

“Certainly it reflects our commitment to looking at race and color discrimination on a nationwide basis,” said Elizabeth Bille, EEOC special assistant and counsel, after addressing a Society for Human Resource Management conference in Washington on March 12.

The EEOC has been intensifying its campaign against racial discrimination for a while, says Lynn Lieber, an employment lawyer and CEO of Workplace Answers, a consulting firm.

In April 2006, the EEOC issued guidelines for employers that warned against subtle forms of bias, such as a boss not inviting minority workers to an office lunch or a happy hour. This kind of exclusion undermines networking opportunities. It also urges companies to expand their recruiting efforts to include nontraditional sources of talent and not to rely solely on word-of-mouth referrals.

“They were very, very broad,” Lieber says of the EEOC guidelines. “The EEOC is very serious about race and color.”

It also is intent on promoting class-action cases. Lieber says courts have become more inclined to certify class actions, a trend that could cost employers. A national chain, for instance, would want a case to focus on bias at individual stores rather than having it include every African-American employee nationwide.

The damage awards in a class action can total billions of dollars. “It could really force a company to go under,” Lieber says.

Companies can increase the odds of avoiding such a fate by developing explicit performance criteria, posting jobs openly, conducting structured interviews, training supervisors and establishing formal pay bands, says Marc Bendick Jr. of Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants.

“This is HR 101,” Bendick says. “It’s amazing how many employers don’t do the basics. Most of the problems turn out to be greatly susceptible to race-neutral solutions.”

Racial discrimination accounted for 27,238 charges, or 36 percent of the EEOC’s private-sector caseload, in fiscal 2006.

A goal of avoiding litigation isn’t enough to underpin a diversity initiative. But diversity will permeate more workforces if employers are convinced that it will deliver business results, like increased sales and improved products, says Diane Seltzer, a Washington attorney at the Seltzer Law Firm.

“That’s the bottom-line question if you’re a businessperson: How does this make my business better?” Seltzer says. “That’s the language they speak. That’s the language they hear.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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