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Settlement Shows How Hard Life Is for Minorities at Tech Firms, Critics Say

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, July 22, 2001; Page L01

Human resources manager Lisa Buchanan says the chief executive at her company once told her, according to court papers, that there were "too many blacks in the office" and asked what she was going to do about it.

Buchanan said she refused to accommodate the boss and was fired in the fall of 1995. She complained to authorities, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission eventually took up her case. Last week, Acropolis Systems Inc. finally settled the dispute by paying $55,000 to Buchanan and two other African American workers. Acropolis also agreed to train its employees and accept policy recommendations from the commission.

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In agreeing to the settlement, Acropolis did not admit to any wrongdoing, and a company spokesman disputes Buchanan's version of events. The Milpitas, Calif., data management company settled to avoid the "exceedingly expensive" costs of litigation, according to Vice President Darwin Malloy.

"I vigorously deny there's ever been any racial discrimination," said Malloy, himself an African American and a three-year veteran of the company. Malloy said the case had increasingly eaten up time better spent on developing Acropolis's business. John Pham, the Vietnam-born executive allegedly involved in the Buchanan incident, remains at the helm of the company and is its majority shareholder.

Buchanan declined comment on the award through her lawyer, Sanya Hill, a trial attorney in the EEOC's San Jose branch. The agency is nonetheless pitching the settlement as a warning signal to other technology firms, which have long been criticized for not hiring and promoting women and minorities.

"The EEOC has not given a pass to the high-tech industry," Hill said in an interview. "Race, sex, or any other type of discrimination will not be tolerated."

But other observers read the Acropolis case as sending a different message. John Templeton, executive editor of BlackMoney.com and author of a report on the paucity of blacks working in Silicon Valley, said day-to-day life in technology firms is growing more difficult for minorities.

The stark language allegedly used in the Acropolis case, and the six years it took to achieve resolution, "indicate how high the barrier is" for wronged employees to prevail, Templeton said.

"There are commonly held perceptions about either blacks not being competent in these cutting-edge fields or more insidiously, that they are somehow a threat to your business and you don't want anybody to see them," Templeton said. "What this means is that people don't go out looking for African Americans and if they have them, they're always in a vulnerable situation."

The EEOC, which has been the target of criticism for leaving a number of high-profile discrimination cases for private attorneys to pursue, said few minority employees of technology companies file complaints with the agency. The commission does not keep statistics on the number of cases it brings against high-tech firms, according to a spokesman.

EEOC Vice Chairman Paul Igasaki, who has met with fair employment advocates in California and other technology hubs to discuss race and gender bias, says the agency must use its limited resources frugally, sometimes allowing private attorneys to pick up the slack when the agency cannot. Igasaki says the commission continues to investigate bias claims brought to its attention by tech workers.

"There certainly is a lot of discrimination out there," Igasaki said. "It does take place far more than I would have expected."

The Air Out There

The high-tech job market has not improved much since the start of the year -- or so it seems to some recently displaced workers.

It doesn't bode well that Marcus Ronaldi, a San Francisco-based organizer of pink-slip parties, is planning three local events for September. Ronaldi drew more than 400 job seekers, hiring managers and consultants to his first Washington area party July 10 at eCiti in Tysons Corner.

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