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Sodexho Set for Overhaul After Lawsuit

June 8, 2005
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When a judge this summer formally approves the $80 million settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit against Sodexho, the food services company and its 3,400 black employees will begin work to forge new standards for the processing of applications, employee advancement and company communication. That kind of reform is tough under the best circumstances. In this instance, however, the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based company has to dismantle practices that plaintiffs say barred meaningful advancement for its black employees for years.

How they reach those goals largely depends on the 52-page consent decree that the parties sign. It serves as a legal mission statement and runs through 2009, establishing an independent, five-person committee that will monitor the progress of the accord and spelling out the measures Sodexho will implement. On that count, the company believes it has a head start: It began taking corrective action before the settlement. Those measures also appear in the consent decree.

Three years ago, for example, it began offering affirmative action training for managers at various levels, and a year ago the company made similar training retroactive for human resources managers who were employed as of September 2002. Because of the litigation, CEO Richard Macedonia declined to be interviewed, but he said in a statement that the settlement allows Sodexho to “focus on continuing to build a benchmark company for diversity and inclusion.”

“We remain strongly committed to our policy of equal employment opportunity that allows every Sodexho employee to reach their potential in achieving personal success within our company,” Macedonia said in the statement.

For Cynthia Carter McReynolds, a 21-year veteran of the company and a lead plaintiff in the case, it has been a long time coming.

“I have seen slow, gradual change,” she says, acknowledging the initiatives management took before the settlement. But that change never resulted in a promotion for her.

McReynolds says she took on more responsibilities during her first five years at Sodexho, resulting in new titles: food service manager, then general manager. She was moved to the same position with different accounts in the Washington area. Despite earning a master’s degree and making clear to superiors and a mentor her desire to advance, McReynolds’ 50 applications for promotion were denied. Sometimes she never heard back at all.

Now, under terms of the agreement, the company must notify internal candidates within 15 days that their applications have been received. In the event that an applicant is not selected, he or she can opt to get feedback. And each year, top executives of the company will undergo “Champion of Diversity” training for three hours. That will help them “better understand how to work with different employees,” says Alan King, chair of labor and employment practice group for Gardner, Carton and Douglas, a law firm in Chicago. King says that companies should review policies annually to ensure that they comply with various equal employment opportunity laws.

Another change certain to attract executives’ attention is a component that ties elements of annual bonuses to progress made on diversity. That was an element in a racial discrimination case involving Coca-Cola that spurred a sweeping review and retooling of the company’s practices.

McReynolds, who is Sodexho’s general manager for health and nutrition at Howard University Hospital in Washington, says she stayed with the company so there would be opportunities for next generation. “Our children want to be directors or vice presidents,” she says. “That’s why I fought.”

Jonathan Pont

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