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Race Complaints Abroad--Wild West Environment

How hotspots far from headquarters can be legal nightmares for employers.

May 29, 2004
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Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, HR & Business Administration
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It wasn’t the 16-hour days, seven days a week that embittered Barney Hayden about working for Halliburton’s subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root in Iraq. And it wasn’t the vandalism, looting and ongoing threat of violence there. He says that what left him scarred from his five-month stint from April to August 2003 was discrimination.

    Hayden, a 55-year-old oil and gas technical adviser from Houston who earned $72,000 a year, claims that what really got his goat was that he was demoted and then laid off after being discriminated against because he’s African American. In addition, he says, his status as a veteran was not taken into consideration, while other employees with less experience and seniority, and no service record, were treated preferentially.

    After being sent home from Iraq, Hayden filed a complaint with the Department of Labor in February and with the EEOC in April, alleging that he was discriminated against because of his race and that KBR violated rules specifying that hiring preferences be given to veterans. His lawyer, Joshua Friedman of New York City, says that hot spots far from headquarters can be legal and human resources nightmares for companies and employees. "In the United States, there are a lot of different laws that regulate discrimination. The only one I’m aware of that applies overseas is Title VII, plus a few other anti-discrimination statutes. State and local laws don’t apply there, and agencies have virtually no ability to investigate overseas."

    Project sites supporting U.S. military operations abroad are "wild west environments," Friedman says. Workforces are overwhelmingly white, and male bosses are easily blinded to their discriminatory practices in the managing of indigenous people, third-country nationals and people of color.

    In an e-mailed response, Patrice Mingo, a spokesperson for Halliburton, stated, "Our project locations are not ‘wild west’ operations. All corporate policies and procedures are in place, and all employees are required to adhere to the EEO/AA policies and procedures set forth.... KBR’s hiring practices reflect our commitment to provide equal opportunity to all qualified individuals. KBR’s Dispute Resolution Program is available to employees to address employment issues."

    When the Iraqi reconstruction began, Hayden recounts, white male managers soon discovered that the conditions weren’t as arduous or as dangerous as they had expected. And, he says, they quickly realized they were in control of a lucrative patronage trough of jobs paying outrageously high wages. "They started bringing their friends in," says Hayden, who believes he was sent home in order to create a job for a management pal. "It was a bunch of white males that look out for each other."

    According to Mingo, "from the beginning, it was clear that [the project] would have a fluctuating workload and job requirements as we worked to meet the ever-changing demands of our customer. Beyond that, we do not discuss the employment situation of current or past employees."

    There was absolutely no racial diversity in the management ranks, and the managers "didn’t have any people skills," Hayden says. "They would go to people under me to ask how I was doing instead of asking me how I was doing. They did not want to engage me."

    While Hayden believes that being black worked to his detriment in being judged by his superiors, he thinks that his race was an asset in working with the Iraqis, who were paid less and labored in low-level jobs. The Iraqis "felt more comfortable around me," he says. "I really identified with the Iraqis in terms of their struggle for civil rights."

    In response to a request for statistics concerning the racial composition of its management ranks in Iraq, Halliburton said that the company "embraces diversity and believes it is vital for our continued success.... We endeavor to create a workforce that is a reflection of the diverse population of the communities in which we operate."

Workforce Management, June 2004, p. 38 --Subscribe Now!

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