The Bias Breakdown

Cheryl Chappel, right, administrative senior at the Mira Mesa, Calif., Best Buy, and former Best Buy employee Jasmen Holloway, of Vallejo, Calif., talk about alleged employment discrimination during a news conference in San Francisco.
Cheryl Chappel, right, administrative senior at the Mira Mesa, Calif., Best Buy, and former Best Buy employee Jasmen Holloway, of Vallejo, Calif., talk about alleged employment discrimination during a news conference in San Francisco. (By Eric Risberg -- Associated Press)
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 9, 2005

Fifteen percent of all workers say they have been discriminated against in their workplace during the past year, according to a new Gallup Organization poll.

The survey was conducted to discover workers' perceptions of discrimination in their workplaces during a year that marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC's chairwoman, Cari M. Dominguez, said the information will help the agency compare employee perceptions of discrimination with complaints actually filed with the agency.

For example, 31 percent of Asians surveyed reported incidents of discrimination, the largest percentage of any racial or ethnic group, with African Americans the second-largest group at 26 percent. But Asians generally file fewer discrimination complaints than other groups, according to the EEOC.

"We need to go back and track . . . what are the differences" between people's perception of discrimination and the actual filings, Dominguez said. "Then we can do a better job of outreach."

The survey was reported on the day Best Buy Co., the nation's largest electronics retailer, was sued by six current and former employees who claim they were passed over for promotions and raises based on their sex, race and ethnicity, and when the EEOC filed a class-action lawsuit in Chicago against AutoNation Inc., alleging that the auto retailer subjected employees at its Elmhurst, Ill., Kia dealership to racial, national origin and religious harassment.

The EEOC suit was based on a complaint of discrimination filed by Halit Macit, a former sales associate with AutoNation, who said he was routinely harassed by a manager based on his Muslim religion and Turkish national origin.

The EEOC's investigation also concluded that other nonwhite employees were harassed at the dealership and threatened that if they complained about the harassment, they would be fired. AutoNation sold the dealership to the Napleton Fleet Group, which was not named in the lawsuit, according to the EEOC.

"The company has cooperated with the EEOC's investigation of the allegations, but has not yet seen the EEOC's complaint. Therefore, we cannot address any of the specific allegations," Marc Cannon, AutoNation's vice president of corporate communications, said in an e-mail. "AutoNation is proud of its diverse workforce. The company is an equal opportunity employer and is fully committed to maintaining a work environment that is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment."

"Our investigation found that AutoNation's management allowed rampant bigotry in the workplace, with Macit being called various anti-Arab epithets and being told that Muslims 'should die,' " John P. Rowe, the EEOC's Chicago district director, said in a written statement. "African Americans, Hispanics and Indians were openly referred to by all of the all too well-known and ugly racial slurs. This is unacceptable at any workplace, and employers need to take forceful and effective action to stop it."

The number of complaints of religious discrimination involving Muslims has doubled since Sept. 11, 2001. "They don't seem to be going away and I suppose with everything that continues to go on in the Middle East and with the war in Iraq, that kind of thinking remains in the forefront of some people's consciousness," said John C. Hendrickson, an EEOC regional attorney in Chicago.

According to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Best Buy, female employees were told they could not be on the sales floor because "girls can't sell" and African American men were disproportionately given jobs in the warehouse, rather than higher-paying jobs in sales. The complaint seeks class-action status so that thousands of workers at the major retailer can be a part of the suit.

"Best Buy reserves the most desirable job assignments and positions -- and the sales experience necessary to achieve them and advance in the Company -- for white male employees. Best Buy's predominantly white male sales employees are better paid and receive greater opportunities for advancement than Best Buy's female and minority employees who overwhelmingly are segregated in the lowest paying positions with the least chance of advancement," according to the suit, filed in San Francisco.

Nationwide, more than 80 percent of Best Buy store managers are white men, while fewer than 10 percent are women, and fewer than 10 percent are African American or Latino, according to plaintiffs' attorneys.

"We have seen the [plaintiffs' attorneys'] press release and vigorously deny the discrimination claims described in that release. The behaviors that are alleged in the press release are absolutely inconsistent with our policies, values and cultures," said a Best Buy spokeswoman. "We do not tolerate discriminatory practices."

The suit adds to a wave of high-profile, class-action lawsuits and settlements during the past two years involving large employers.

In July 2004, investment bank Morgan Stanley agreed to pay $54 million to settle claims that it underpaid and did not promote women. A few days later, aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. agreed to pay up to $72.5 million to settle similar allegations. That same month, a group of black employees sued Eastman Kodak Co. accusing the company of systemic race discrimination, and an Alabama judge held a hearing on an ongoing race discrimination case against BellSouth Corp. In June last year, a federal judge ruled that a sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, could proceed as a class action involving as many as 1.6 million women. The company is hoping to have its class-action status thrown out on appeal.

The Gallup poll found that the most frequent type of discrimination cited by respondents reporting bias (26 percent) was sex bias, followed by race (23 percent) and age (17 percent). Women were more than twice as likely as men to say they had encountered bias. Some types of discrimination reported in the poll are not clearly covered by federal law, including favoritism, sexual orientation and language. The percentage of workers reporting types of bias covered by federal statutes was 9 percent. Gallup conducted telephone interviews with 1,252 adults during two days in May. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The most frequent reports of discrimination were in promotion decisions (33 percent of those claiming bias) and pay (29 percent). But workers interviewed during the poll also reported bias manifested in harassment, work conditions and assignments.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company