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Bass Pro’s EEOC settlement offers corporate lessons

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Bass Pro Outdoor World LLC agreed to pay $10.5 million and update its policies to settle a discrimination lawsuit first filed in 2011 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With allegations as far back as 2005, the suit accused managers at retail stores in Louisiana, Indiana and Texas of limiting opportunities for African-Americans and Hispanics, and of retaliating against those who spoke up.

A similar settlement was accepted in 2015 by Cabela’s Inc. (NYSE: CAB), which now is in Bass Pro’s sights for acquisition.

In its EEOC settlement, Bass Pro also agreed to strengthen its diversity efforts, participate in annual EEOC training for all employees, and appoint a director of diversity and inclusion within four months.

Jack Wlezien, director of communications for Bass Pro Group, said it was too soon for comment, outside of the company’s written statement. It denies any wrongdoing by the company.

“The mission of Bass Pro is to help more people enjoy and conserve the beauty and wonder of the outdoors,” the statement reads. “Respecting diversity is at the core of the company’s values. The success of the company, and the cause of conservation, depends on attracting more people to engage in all the outdoors have to offer.”

The allegations detailed in the EEOC suit include hiring decisions based on skin color as well as the assumed ethnicity of applicants based on their names. Some store managers also were accused of using racial slurs to describe applicants and workers, and making disparaging comments about the work ethic of minorities.

Widespread problem
These types of cases are not uncommon. This year, the EEOC has filed more than 100 lawsuits against employers and concluded suits in 58 settlements.

Disability discrimination suits accounted for the majority of cases, at 46 this year, including those brought against United Parcel Service Inc., AT&T California, The Hershey Co., Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications and Big Lots Stores Inc.

The 26 sexual discrimination and harassment cases are the second-most common, and among them is an Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar franchisee facing sexual harassment charges. Race discrimination allegations include a Mister Car Wash/Mister Hot Shine suit.

Lawsuit announcements by the EEOC continue at a fast pace, with six already this month.

The Bass Pro settlement is unusually large, since most in 2017 were under $100,000. Texas Roadhouse had the only larger settlement this year, when it agreed to pay $12 million to settle an age discrimination claim.

Considering these widespread claims, experts say companies must be diligent to deter discrimination.

Wes Pratt serves as the chief diversity officer at Missouri State University, working to establish core values in diversity and inclusion throughout the university community. He said the types of problems alleged in the EEOC suits often start out as the bias opinions of a single employee, but left unchecked, escalate into larger issues.

“It’s what you do to mitigate your bias,” Pratt said, noting all people have biases, consciously or not – it’s how they deal with them that matters. “What sort of information do you receive that mitigates any biases or stereotypes you may have about a particular group?”

Best practices
As assistant vice president for MSU’s division of diversity and inclusion, Pratt works with businesses and public entities, such as the city of Springfield and the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau in providing diversity professional development and cultural consciousness.

Pratt also works as a certified diversity professional, helping companies plan best practices to avoid future problems.

“The research has shown that including diverse voices and experience makes your groups more knowledgeable, sensitive, efficient, creative and successful,” he said.

Pratt also works as a private consultant, providing professional development in diversity for organizations, including the Springfield Police Department. He encourages companies to be creative in placing recruitment efforts and internship opportunities, for example, by reaching out to historically black colleges.

But most of all, Pratt said, companies like Bass Pro that experience a discrimination lawsuit or settlement should see it as an opportunity to grow their business.

“If you are perceived as aggressive when it comes to valuing everybody who may want to come in your store [and] who works in your employment, then that’s going to be a tremendous benefit to your bottom line, economically,” he said.

FedEx Corp., which was the target of an EEOC disability discrimination suit in 2014 and a $115,000 sexual discrimination settlement in 2012, has taken steps to improve its practices, including the appointment of Thanh Anderson as lead diversity and inclusion director.

“FedEx knows that in order to succeed in today’s global market, we need a diverse workforce that represents the communities in which we live and work,” Anderson said by email. “By attending college career fairs and national recruiting conferences, leveraging our social media presence, and strengthening our relationships with professional organizations that foster diversity and inclusion, we are able to connect people and possibilities to deliver a better future for our team members.”

A more diverse workforce can better deal with an increasingly diverse customer base, Anderson said.

“When a company appreciates the differences among its team members,” he said, “it understands how important those unique experiences and perspectives are in driving employee engagement, innovation and business growth.”

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