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Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Sodexho Headed for Trial

Southern Seminary’s new vendor for campus maintenance boasts on its Web site that “diversity is at the heart of everything we do.” But according to a class-action lawsuit headed for trial this week, that commitment applies only to some jobs.

The suit, filed in 2001 on behalf of 2,600 minority employees of Maryland-based Sodexho, claims that that African Americans were routinely passed over for promotions into middle-management and higher positions.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Louisville, Ky., recently turned over its campus maintenance work to Sodexho, the nation’s leading provider of food and facilities management, with $6 billion in annual revenue.
 
In light of the Southern Baptist Convention’s vocal opposition to homosexuality, EthicsDaily.com published stories on the company’s diversity policies, which go beyond race and gender to also include sexual orientation.
 
Sodexho grants domestic-partner benefits; bars discrimination on basis of sexual orientation; recognizes an employee-network group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees; and includes Gay and Lesbian Pride month on its corporate calendar.
 
“At Sodexho, diversity is at the heart of everything we do,” says Richard Macedonia, president and CEO of Sodexho, North America.
 
But 10 former and current managers filing suit against the company March 9, 2001, told a different story. Their suit alleged racial discrimination in promotions, claiming that black managers were systematically passed over for higher-level jobs in favor of whites with less seniority or fewer qualifications.
 
The plaintiffs said blacks represented 13 percent of Sodexho’s workforce but only about 3 percent of top managers. They also said African-American managers were stuck in black colleges, inner-city hospitals and other “black accounts,” where most clients and workers are also African American.
 
A federal judge in Washington in 2002 certified it as a nationwide, class-action lawsuit, finding the plaintiffs made a “significant showing” that the company’s promotion policies fostered an environment where officials purposely discriminated against African-American employees by denying them promotions to upper-management positions.
 
In October 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Sodexho’s appeal to have the order declaring the suit a class action reversed. A trial is scheduled to begin this week, but Sodexho has said it would consider a settlement.
 
Media have reported that $1 billion is at stake in what is the largest racial-discrimination lawsuit ever brought over managerial promotions against a private employer.
 
Sodexho disputes the claims in the lawsuit, saying the company has won awards for workplace diversity. It blames the allegations on labor groups that want to portray the corporation as anti-union.
 
“We don’t believe that the charges that have come forth in this lawsuit truly reflect the culture of the company,” spokesman Leslie Aun said in the Washington Examiner. “There is not systematic discrimination as is alleged in the lawsuit.”
 
Sodexho USA supports a number minority groups in the in the United States, including the Black Culinary Alliance, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and United Negro College Fund. The company Web site carries a diversity report describing inclusion as one of the firm’s top priorities.
 
But civil-rights groups claim those are just window dressings and that Sodexho is one of a number of companies that maintain a “separate but equal” culture in corporate America.
 
Allegations include statements by one manager that African Americans are “genetically inferior to whites” and “didn’t deserve to have promotions.” Another high-level executive testified in a deposition that a white individual using the “n-word” referring to black co-workers was not necessarily offensive and could be meant as a “term of endearment.”
 
After EthicsDaily.com reported on Sodexho’s pro-homosexual diversity message, the Kentucky Baptist Convention newspaper editorialized that if Southern Seminary leaders were going to criticize other groups for advancing a pro-gay agenda, they should be consistent in their own business decisions.
 
The KBC president, who also teaches at the seminary, defended the Sodexho contract in a rebuttal published in the April 19 Western Recorder.
 
Hershael York, a preaching professor and associate dean at the seminary, called pro-homosexual policies an “unfortunate reality of 2005 corporate America” and challenged readers to discover more than five Fortune 500 companies without policies similar to Sodexho’s.
 
LifeWay Christian Resources, meanwhile, the SBC’s publisher, advertises building services through FBG Service Corporation, a LifeWay partner that offers many of the same services promoted on Sodexho’s Web site.
 
LifeWay spokesman Rob Phillips told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail that FBG does not “recognize alternative lifestyles” or provide benefits for same-sex partners. Phillips said LifeWay chose the company “because of its proven track record of proving quality services at competitive prices.”
 
The Southern Baptist Convention has in the past boycotted The Disney Company, in part because the company recognized same-sex partnerships by granting domestic-partner benefits.
 
Last week Baptist Press reported that the American Family Association was calling off a boycott of Procter & Gamble–based on its advertising on shows like “Will & Grace” and support for liberalizing homosexual rights in the city of Cincinnati–citing signs the company was backing off its pro-gay agenda.
 
Richard Land, head of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a driving force behind the Disney boycott, voiced personal support for the Procter & Gamble boycott as well.
 
“Procter & Gamble’s blatant support of homosexual-friendly corporate policies and community statutes places them on the list of companies that must concern American families,” Land said last November, quoted in Baptist Press.
 
“When Procter & Gamble or any company uses the proceeds from sales of their products to fund their pro-homosexual agenda, we need to take notice. It is important that individuals convey their concern to Procter & Gamble and other groups that promote these family unfriendly ideologies.”

“As for me and my house,” Land said, “we are reexamining what is in our medicine cabinet and our laundry room to make certain we exercise good moral stewardship so as to not favor Procter & Gamble products with our purchases.”
 
Southern Seminary isn’t the only SBC-related school doing business with Sodexho. According to a Web search, Wayland Baptist University in Texas has a 10-year, $10 million facilities-management contract with the company. Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas is a client for Sodexho’s food services.
 
Sodexho also runs cafeterias at Baptist schools including Georgetown College in Kentucky and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
Previous related stories:
Baptist Newspaper Criticizes Seminary Maintenance Decision
Company Hired by Southern Seminary Supports Diversity
Mohler Defends Contract with Gay-Friendly Firm60 Percent of Dismissed Seminary Maintenance Workers Rehired