On May 27, Savoy Professional magazine declared Sodexho Inc., the Gaithersburg-based food and facilities management company, one of the "Top 50 Places" for attracting and retaining African American professionals.
In the past year, Sodexho has garnered similar accolades for its commitment to diversity. The Black Collegian, for instance, named Sodexho one of the top 100 employers for the Class of 2002. Latina Style, a Washington-based women's magazine, listed Sodexho among the best companies for Latinas to work.
The praise comes as the company is fighting a major racial discrimination lawsuit. The case, filed in March 2001 on behalf of 2,600 current and former African American employees, alleges that Sodexho has discriminated against African American managers in promotions.
Two years ago, a federal judge certified the case as a class-action lawsuit. Sodexho appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, allowing it to proceed. The trial is scheduled to begin in November, although the two sides are in mediation, said Leslie Aun, a company spokeswoman.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Kerry Scanlon, declined to comment, noting the mediation.
A recent court filing by the plaintiffs referred to a 2001 company survey of promotions that concluded that only 2.4 percent of upper-level promotions had gone to African Americans. The lawsuit also alleged that some employees were subjected to racially offensive language. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages and an overhaul of company diversity practices.
In court documents, Sodexho has countered that the charges of racial discrimination are "slim" and "isolated."
"When you have a company that is the size of 100,000 people, do you have people who act inappropriate? Yes. . . . We have the same issues as a town of 100,000. But is that reflective of the culture or the kind of company you're trying to build? No. We've been very aggressive about taking a stand on these issues," Aun said.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the company has made gifts of $150,000 each to the United Negro College Fund and to the Hispanic College Fund. In April, Sodexho joined with Black Entertainment Television and the BET Foundation to sponsor a free community forum and fitness day as part of an initiative to fight obesity in the African American community.
The donations from the company and the workplace awards to the company surged after the lawsuit was filed. But Aun said the timing is related not to the case, but to the creation of the Sodexho Foundation and Sodexho Inc.
The Sodexho Foundation was founded in 1999. Aun said it took a while to ramp up and that the foundation has just started to give away sizable donations. She said Sodexho Inc. pays the foundation's administrative costs so that all the money given to the foundation "goes to things directly related to fighting hunger and, in the case of the United Negro College Fund, to breaking the cycle of poverty around hunger."
Aun said the reason Sodexho previously wasn't on lists of top places for minorities is that it only took its current form in 2001.
Before 1998, Sodexho operated in the United States as a division of Sodexho Alliance, a French catering company. That year, Sodexho Alliance merged its North American operations with Marriott Management Services, then a subsidiary of the Bethesda-based hotel chain. The resulting company was called Sodexho Marriott. Sodexho Alliance, which retained a 48 percent stake in Sodexho Marriott, acquired the remaining shares in 2001 in a $1.08 billion stock buyout. After the deal, Sodexho Marriott changed its name to Sodexho Inc. It provides food, laundry, housekeeping and landscaping services to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and corporations.
"Companies have to be in operation for a while before they can be considered for these awards," Aun said. "The period of our start-up has coincided with the class-action lawsuit." The recent accolades are "more reflective of building our culture and creating our own cultural identity, and . . . with over 100,000 employees over North America, [it] doesn't change overnight. . . . We think the awards and recognition we've received have been very much reflective of what we're doing."
To make the Black Collegian's rankings, Sodexho had to turn in a projection of the total number of college graduates the company planned to hire in the next year. The point of the survey, editor James Perry said, was to give seniors an idea of where to apply for a job. "We didn't ask [the companies], 'How many black collegians are you going to hire?' We assume because the survey is coming from the Black Collegian magazine, [the companies that respond] are interested in hiring African Americans," Perry said. He said the discrimination lawsuit was not taken into account.
Sodexho was among the scores of Fortune 500 companies that responded to a survey sent out by the editors of Latina Style, which did consider discrimination cases when compiling its list. But President and chief executive Robert Bard said it didn't count the class-action suit against Sodexho because "it was filed by the African American community." Bard said that had the suit involved Hispanic employees, Sodexho would have been "immediately disqualified."
"When we focus on discrimination, we have to look at issues that focus on Hispanics," he said. "Sodexho has made significant efforts to bring Latinas on board." Bard said that when he checked with Hispanic civil rights groups, he found none of them "had taken a position [on the Sodexho employee lawsuit] one way or another."
Scaling Savoy Professional's first -- and only -- "Top 50 Places" also involved responding to a questionnaire, according to the feature's introduction. Ryan D'Agostino, former editor of the magazine, which is aimed at black professionals, said he didn't know whether the racial discrimination suit was taken into consideration because he did not oversee the list's production. He could furnish no other contact information; Savoy Professional's former publisher, Vanguarde Media, filed for bankruptcy last fall.
Building a public resume of pro-diversity initiatives and blurbs is a common strategy among companies facing high-profile discrimination suits, said Luke Visconti, a co-founder of Diversity Inc., which rates companies on their diversity efforts. Diversity Inc. recently named Sodexho among its top 50 companies for diversity for this year.
Visconti said Diversity Inc.'s survey is among the most thorough of diversity measures, with 122 questions. Companies must also submit a racial breakdown of employees.
He said litigation can lead to reforms. He noted Coca-Cola Co., which in 2001 settled a racial discrimination suit for $192.5 million. "Because of the settlement decree, Coca-Cola was forced to put in management practices that have put the company in the top 10 for diversity," he said. He praised Sodexho's recent decision to tie bonuses for managers to a diversity scorecard.