A former AT&T employee is suing the telecommunications giant for being discriminated against by the company’s diversity practices for being a middle-aged white man.
Joseph DiBenedetto, a Georgia resident who spent two decades as an assistant vice president in the company’s tax research division, filed a lawsuit against AT&T for age, gender, and racial discrimination after he was fired in the fall of 2020. His complaint alleged that his job was eliminated so that the company could fill senior management positions with people of color.
AT&T contested the allegation in January. The company told a Georgia judge that the reason DiBenedetto and other white employees were fired was because the company’s finance department, which houses the IRS, was struggling financially. AT&T called for DiBenedetto’s case to be dismissed, but Judge Mark Cohen of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled this week that the case can go ahead.
DiBenedetto’s attorneys said in the lawsuit that their client, “a 58-year-old white,” spent most of his career at AT&T as a high-performing employee, until the company decided it wanted more people of color on its management.
“Suddenly, DiBenedetto found himself missing the supposed longevity, skin color and gender that AT&T preferred,” 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 don’t take lightly, and every agency is thoroughly reviewed to ensure there is no discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of age, race or gender,” a spokesperson said. from the company.
Organizations should avoid quotas
Many US companies sought to increase diversity in the workplace after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. According to the company’s 2020 diversity report, approximately 7% of AT&T’s senior leaders and 14% of executives are black.
Stewart Schwab, a Cornell University professor who specializes in labor law and employment law, said most companies’ diversity policies are consistent with federal affirmative action laws.
“If you’re following a valid action plan that’s focused on targets and not quotas, and you’re dealing with hiring and not firing and it has a sense of time element, if that happens, then it’s legal,” he said.
Still, the AT&T case is a reminder that companies should exercise caution when adopting diversity policies, Schwab said. The policy should ensure that no employee is discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, age and other traits, he said.
DiBenedetto, who joined AT&T’s tax department in 2000, was assigned a new supervisor, Gary Johnson, in 2017, according to the lawsuit. After Johnson told DiBenedetto in July 2020 that he intended to retire, DiBenedetto expressed interest in applying for his boss’s job, the complaint says.
Johnson told DiBenedetto that he was qualified for the role and should be pursuing it, but that he did not believe DiBenedetto would get the position because he was an old, white man with not enough ‘job’ left in his career. lawsuit.
In the same conversation, Johnson is also said to have told DiBenedetto that his age could hinder him from adjusting to the supervisor position.
“In these roles, you know, you have to be able to adapt and move,” Johnson said, according to the suit. “And I’m not saying you can’t, but a 58-year-old white male, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
U.S. employment law prohibits organizations from firing someone to increase diversity in the workplace, Schwab said. “It sounds like some careless things have been said to him,” he added. “And this person was fired, so that’s a big deal.”