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Employer warning: Cultural disconnects can be costly, even deadly

September 2nd, 2014  |  Pamela Wolf

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

In the wake of events that spiraled out of control in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer, it seems the whole country has become intensely focused on race. Specifically, what happens when a workplace — in this case the police department — employs a workforce that is almost exactly opposite the racial composition of the community? The cultural disconnect can be very costly, even deadly, as it arguably was in Ferguson. And it’s a problem that still persists all too often across the United States. In fact, sad to say, there are groups who regularly run diversity contests to encourage employers to face the problem and take action to make their own workplaces more inclusive.

Take a look at the employment landscape for African-Americans; the picture isn’t much to write home about. According to the latest data (July 2014) compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for African-Americans age 16 or older is 11.4 percent, compared to 5.3 percent for whites and 7.8 percent for Hispanics or Latinos. The EEOC’s latest data on the federal workforce show that the participation rate in federal jobs as compared to the civilian workforce for black men was 7.71 percent in 2011 versus 38.98 for white men. For black women, the 2011 participation rate was 10.26 percent as compared to 26.22 percent for their white counterparts.

A recent lawsuit underscores some of the problems that black workers still face. Whether the allegations are true or not, they show a workplace premium on white workers who will reflect white culture. Conversely, that means black workers are undervalued and black culture is deemed not worthy of representation.

Prize-winning black journalist. The plaintiff is an African-American journalist who began her tenure with Time, Inc., as a news editor for Essence Magazine, where she apparently performed very well and rose up the ranks, earning some 28 awards that included one of Time’s most prestigious ones. Tatsha Robertson also ran the magazine, and her coverage of the White House and Barack Obama’s 2008 election win was so stellar that it was reported by the New York Times, MSNBC, and CNN, according to the complaint. Prior to that, People Magazine was always the Times publication recognized for its top White House Coverage.

Cultural clash. But things went south after she accepted a senior position with People Magazine, another Time publication, where she was the only black senior editor on the Human Interest team in the history of the publication. The complaint alleges that a former Time executive warned her that African-Americans had experienced problems with the culture at People Magazine. Robertson details a number of alleged discriminatory incidents, beginning with a comment by her boss, Betsy Gleick, at her first performance review: “You need to talk like everyone else here. You’re not at Essence anymore.”

Robertson took the comment to mean she was not white enough. Since she holds a degree in English, a Masters in Journalism, and is an Adjunct Professor at New York University, she had difficulty understanding how her communication skills were legitimately at issue. And despite having worked under five Pulitzer Prize-winning editors, she said her communication skills previously were never called into question.

Worse than that, according to Robertson, her boss cancelled or missed meetings to the extent of interfering with her ability to do her job, including her ability to pitch stories. Gleick also allegedly left Robertson off important emails about stories she was working on and excluded her from lunch invitations — issues that the boss’ white direct reports never had to confront. Gleick also purportedly let other editors cover stories within Robertson’s topical area, undermining her role at the magazine, while at the same time chiding her if she pitched a story even remotely related to a topical area covered by a white senior editor.

Black community excluded. The scope of the magazine’s interest area also openly included only “White middle class suburbia,” the complaint says. Robertson cited the example of a murdered black model whose husband was a person of interest to the police. It was a story widely reported, including by CNN, but Gleick allegedly refused to let Robertson pursue the story, referring to the victim as a “slut” and refusing to run the story because she was black. “You know the rule — White suburban women in distress,” Gleick purportedly said. A less compelling story about a white victim was worth covering, however. A similar story about a woman killed by her husband got a lot of traction, including from a top executive, until it was discovered when her picture became available that she was black, according to the complaint.

Another story that Robertson had pitched on the impact on children of gun violence at school in light of recent school shootings reportedly captured Gleick’s interest until it was discovered that the majority of available examples of gun violence involved minorities in urban settings as opposed to “White middle class suburbia.”

Robertson also cited her count on the number of times black people have been featured on the cover of People Magazine — since 2010, only 14 of 265 covers. She also alleged that when black people have made the cover, many have accused the magazine of airbrushing to make their skin look lighter and “more white.” Her complaint also suggested, if true, an astounding lack of African-American diversity throughout the ranks of People Magazine.

High performer pushed out. Ultimately, even though Roberston allegedly won awards while at People Magazine, had more cover stories and second cover stories than anyone else on her team, and had never been disciplined, she was terminated in a purported restructuring in May 2014. She was the magazine’s highest-ranking African-American at the time.

Not as deadly as the story of discrimination and inequality that recently played out in Ferguson, but pretty egregious nonetheless, if true. Here, when Robertson decided to take things into her own hands, she did so with a lawsuit — turning to Section 1981 and the New York City Human Rights Law for relief. If she wins, the cultural disconnect could be rather costly for the magazine.

Exception more than the rule. When Gallup asked New Yorkers whether their city or area is a good place for racial and ethnic minorities (People Magazine’s office is in New York City), 83 percent said it was — right in sync with the national average, according to the Gallup 2013 50-state survey. Fortunately, Robertson’s alleged experience at People Magazine, assuming her allegations are true, is more the exception than the rule, it seems.