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Technology is not colorless.

Microsoft gets slapped with $5 billion discrimination suit

Microsoft Corp. is the latest major employer to join the list of racial discrimination defendants, which include Shoney's Inc. (resolved in 1993) and the Coca-Cola Co. (resolved in 1999). African American workers who charge that officials with the software giant denied them promotions, pay raises, and treatment equal to their white colleagues' have filed a suit for $5 billion.

Attorney Willie E. Gary, who is noted for obtaining multimillion-dollar verdicts against major corporations, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in January on behalf of seven current and former Microsoft employees who allegedly were victims of a "plantation mentality" pervasive in the software company.

"It is so dehumanizing to realize that you are being treated differently based on your skin color," said Rahn Jackson, the lead plaintiff in the case. "I truly regret having to leave Microsoft and being treated like a second-class citizen."

Jackson, a former sales executive with the software leader, handled a $60 million Army account in the company's Washington, D.C.-based federal division, but says he was passed over numerous times for promotions while the jobs went to people with far less sales experience.

"This is about more than just these plaintiffs," said Gary, who hopes that all 500 of Microsoft's African American employees will join the suit. "This is about changing this `plantation-type mentality' that we see as it exists at the Microsoft company."

In the last year, at least three other Microsoft workers have filed discrimination lawsuits against the firm. Out of 21,429 Microsoft employees, only 553 are African American, and out of 5,155 managers only 83 are African American, according to Gary.

Jozette Joyner, who also worked in Microsoft's Washington, D.C., office, said at a press conference in January that a white manager created so much stress among black workers that the company brought in a psychologist.

"I was told by a manager, pointing fingers in my face, `You will never get out of this cubicle. You are never going anywhere,'" said Joyner.

Microsoft vice president of human resources Deborah Willingham said in a statement that the company has "a zero tolerance policy toward discrimination." Microsoft spokesperson Ginny Terzano, former press secretary for both Vice President Al Gore and the late chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Ron Brown, is also making the case for Microsoft.

"Microsoft doesn't tolerate discrimination in any of its employment practices," Terzano said. "I felt right at home at Microsoft. They are doing a lot of good work in the African American and Hispanic communities."

While the company is now donating more than $86 million to the United Negro College Fund and increasing the number of minority employees from 16.8% of the total staff in 1997 to 22.1% today, Tricia "C.K." Hoffler, one of the lead lawyers on Gary's team, said these facts don't necessarily paint Microsoft in a better light.

"We are talking about hard working African Americans at all levels in Microsoft, from administrative staff to managers," Hoffler said. "We are talking about people who got up every day, went to work, worked hard, made money for Microsoft, and were looked over time and time again for promotions."

"I was the first African American sales representative hired in the Microsoft federal division in 1992. The next African American sales representative hired was in April of 1999," said Jackson.

There will be a flurry of hearings for the rest of the year, but a trial will not start until late 2001 at the earliest.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Science and Technology, had this to say about the Microsoft case:

"I believe the lawsuit is the final frustration of a collective body of individuals who happen to be African American and who happen to believe the economic engine of the 21st century will be IT [information technology] and that means we must be included."

The most important thing the lawsuit represents is that it may help bring about an integration of the information technology industry and minorities such as Hispanics and blacks."
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Title Annotation:race discrimination suit filed against Microsoft
Author:Harris, Hamil R.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:CORRECTION.
Next Article:NUE TV on the block.

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