A former AT&T employee is suing the telecom giant, claiming the company’s diversity hiring practices discriminated against him for being a middle-aged white male.
Joseph DiBenedetto, a Georgia resident who worked for two decades as an assistant vice president in the company’s tax research department, filed a lawsuit for age, gender and race discrimination against AT&T after being fired in the fall of 2020. The complaint alleged that his job was eliminated so the company could fill senior management positions with people of color.
AT&T disputed the claim in January. The company told a Georgia judge that the reason DiBenedetto and other white employees were fired was because the company’s finance division, which houses the tax department, was struggling financially. AT&T has asked that DiBenedetto’s case be dropped, but Judge Mark Cohen of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled this week that the case can go forward.
DiBenedetto’s lawyers said in the lawsuit that their client, “a 58-year-old white man,” spent most of his career at AT&T as a high-profile employee until the company decided it wanted more people of color on board.
“Suddenly, DiBenedetto found himself lacking the supposed longevity, skin color and gender preferred by AT&T,” the lawsuit states.
AT&T said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch that the company plans to fight DiBenedetto’s allegations.
“Reducing our workforce is a difficult decision that we do not take lightly, and each instance is thoroughly reviewed to ensure there is no discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of age, race or gender,” said a spokesperson for the company. company.
Organizations should avoid quotas
Many US companies sought to increase workplace diversity following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. About 7% of AT&T’s senior leaders and 14% of its managers are black, respectively, according to the 2020 Diversity Report. from the company.
Stewart Schwab, a Cornell University professor specializing in labor and employment law, said most companies’ diversity hiring policies comply with federal affirmative action laws.
“If you follow a valid affirmative action plan that’s focused on goals rather than quotas, and you’re dealing with hiring and not firing and you have some sense of the time element, if that’s done, then it’s cool,” he said.
Still, AT&T’s lawsuit is a reminder that companies should be careful when adopting diversity policies, Schwab said. The policy must ensure that no employee is discriminated against on the basis of their race, sex, age and other characteristics, he said.
DiBenedetto, who started at AT&T’s tax department in 2000, took on a new supervisor, Gary Johnson, in 2017, according to the lawsuit. After Johnson told DiBenedetto in July 2020 that he planned to retire, DiBenedetto expressed interest in applying for his boss’s job, the complaint states.
“Johnson told DiBenedetto that he was qualified for the role and should pursue it, but that he didn’t believe DiBenedetto would get the job because he was an old white man without enough ‘track’ in his career,” according to the process.
In that same conversation, Johnson also reportedly told DiBenedetto that his age could prevent him from adapting to the supervisor role.
“In these roles, you know, you have to be able to adapt and move,” Johnson said, according to the lawsuit, “And I’m not saying you can’t, but a 58-year-old white guy, I don’t know if that will happen.”
Under US labor law, organizations cannot fire someone to increase their diversity in the workplace, Schwab said. “It seems that some careless things were said to him,” he added. “And that person got fired, so that’s a big problem.”