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Altercations Over Issues of Gender and Race Can Hurt Any Workplace

One firm learns firsthand how different ways of interpreting the same situation can raise questions of internal bias.

November 05, 2000|JEFFREY C. CONNOR | Harvard Business School Publishing

Jack Parsons put the phone down and rubbed his temples. This wasn't his first crisis as managing partner of the Northeast office of Fuller Fenton, a national accounting firm, but it was big.

That was his 11th phone call about what had happened the day before between Hope Barrows and Dillon Johnson, two valuable members of the team.

The story was really quite simple--the basic facts weren't in dispute. Barrows, a partner at Fuller Fenton, had gone to the office Sunday afternoon to get a jump on the workweek. When she arrived at the parking garage, she swiped her access card and the exterior door opened.

As Barrows drove up to the inner gate, Johnson pulled in under the exterior door as it was closing. Barrows stopped at the gate and got out of her car and walked over to Johnson. She asked who he was and whether he belonged in the building. Johnson told her he was an associate at Fuller Fenton. Barrows asked to see his identification, which he showed her.

Barrows thanked Johnson, went back to her car and entered the garage. Barrows is white. Johnson is black. Somehow the incident had started a storm that was threatening to tear the company in two.

And it was only Monday afternoon.

Johnson had called Parsons from San Francisco at 5 a.m. Pacific time. He had flown there the night before to meet with a client. Johnson was angry and appalled. He said the incident was an indication that the firm was racially biased. Judging from the calls Parsons had received, most of the firm's African American partners and associates agreed.

Parsons asked Johnson to tell him exactly what had happened. Johnson said he was working out at his health club when he got a call on his cell phone from a fellow associate, Shaun Daniels. The two had planned to meet at the office later that afternoon to review the file for Johnson's San Francisco client, and now Daniels wanted to push up the meeting time.

Johnson rushed from the gym and drove to the office. He pulled into the driveway of Fuller Fenton's garage behind a red Volvo, which seemed to be parked at the door.

"I remember thinking, 'What's taking this person so long to swipe their card?' " he told Parsons. "Then I thought, 'Where's my card?' and I started looking for it.

"Then the door opened, the Volvo went through, and I didn't even think; I just followed," Johnson continued. "Then the car stopped again. I thought, 'What is this?' and I tried to see who was in the car. I could see it was a woman, and she was looking at me in her rearview mirror. So I waved. And waited.

"She gets out of her car, approaches me and asks me if I work in the building. I say yes, and she asks me for my identification. I recognized her from seeing her in the building.

"Then I realized that she thought I had slipped through the door behind her because I was some sort of criminal. I'm black; she's white. Most people at the company are white. Case closed, in her mind."

"What happened next?" Parsons prompted.

"I told her my name," Johnson said. "I found my wallet and showed her my identification. But Jack, I have to tell you, at that moment, all I could think was that this wasn't the first time I'd been made to feel like an outsider at this company because I'm black.

"Remember I was going to be on the team for that consumer goods company in Texas? I was put on and taken off within 48 hours because the partner heading the team was worried a black face would put the client off. Jack, I know it's true. And maybe the guy had a point--that client is a very old-line kind of company. But still, if this company is serious about diversity, is that any way to behave?"

Parsons knew the last story was correct. He'd argued with the partner about the way Johnson was treated.

*

Parsons told Johnson he was a valued employee and that he'd do some digging, that they would all work to resolve the situation. As soon as he hung up the phone, he called Barrows and left a message asking her to come see him.

"I tried to call you earlier," Barrows said when she entered Parsons' office. "I've heard the rumors and, frankly, I'm shocked. I didn't ask for Dillon Johnson's identification because he was black. I was freaked out that a man was following me into the garage--a man who didn't seem to have an access card of his own. He could have been white, or purple, for all I cared. I thought there was a good chance I was going to be robbed. Or raped."

Barrows took a deep breath and told Parsons the story from the beginning. She often came into the office on Sundays, she explained. Occasionally she would see other cars in the lot, and sometimes she would see people coming or going.

But she didn't recognize Johnson's car, and she didn't recognize Johnson.

"What was he thinking, Jack?" she asked, indignant. "I'm not the one who was insensitive here. Didn't he know that any woman would feel vulnerable? Why didn't he just wait the extra 15 seconds and use his own card?

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