May 6, 2002: The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions. Just ask BellSouth

My alma mater has been hit with a racial discrimination lawsuit, joining such esteemed victims as The Coca-Cola Company, Lockheed Martin, Home Depot, Georgia Power and Waffle House.

Five blacks who either work for BellSouth now or did in the past, claim the company used “unvalidated tests in a discriminatory manner to deny African-American employees opportunity for advancement.” They are seeking class-action status, and guess who their attorneys are? None other than the inestimable Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, the legal beagles that soaked Coca-Cola for $192.5 million a couple of years ago and who don’t work for minimum wage.

If BellSouth is guilty of anything, it is gross naïveté. The powers that be have operated under the mistaken assumption that doing the right thing is the right thing to do. BellSouth has the record to back up its claims of fairness. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave BellSouth the NAACP Corporate Image Award in 2000. BellSouth’s general counsel, Charles Morgan, received the American Corporate Counsel’s 2000 Corporate Legal Diversity Award. Fortune magazine rates the company one of the 50 Best Companies for Asians, Blacks and Hispanics. Citizens Funds, an organization that specializes in socially and environmentally correct mutual funds, recognized BellSouth with its Corporate Citizenship Award for Diversity. And, of course, the corporation already has the obligatory diversity officer.

These facts wouldn’t lead one to believe that the company requires “qualified African-Americans” to pass an exam that many “Caucasians” don’t have to take.

I must confess my ignorance here, though. In my three decades at BellSouth, I never knew we cut Caucasians any slack. As a matter of fact, I never knew we had Caucasians working for us. As the plaintiffs no doubt are aware, Caucasians are by definition people who live in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (not the Georgia that has Roopville and Homer, but the one that has Tbilisi and Zugdidi.) In retrospect, I am kind of proud that BellSouth would show a little kindness to Zugdidians. That seems like a humane thing to do.

I retired from BellSouth a decade ago. About all I know about the company today is that people there wish I would quit writing this column because I frequently beat up on the clueless Public Service Commission. The commission then takes their frustrations out on my old company. Most of the people I worked with are now retired. I’m not even sure what BellSouth does anymore. I go to meetings and listen to the current managers talk about wireless communications and DSL and Latin America and I wonder what ever happened to plain old telephone service. But as much as BellSouth has changed, one thing hasn’t: The company was and is color-blind.

I once hired a woman to handle media relations in our Washington office. It was a high-profile job. She was black. To my knowledge, nobody knew, asked or cared about that fact when I brought her on board. What the company was concerned about was that she do the job she was hired for and to do it well. Bad press can quickly get you in the BellSouth doghouse, from which there is no return no matter what your color, gender, sexual preference or astrological sign.

I can predict how the lawsuit will end. BellSouth will cave in and pay out millions of dollars to the plaintiffs and their attorneys not because they are guilty, but because they don’t need the bad publicity. Johnnie Cochran will hold a press conference and crow about having brought an evil corporation to its knees. He’ll pocket more than a few bucks for his trouble and then prepare himself to pounce on the next corporate patsy. And don’t forget Jesse Jackson, who will find ample opportunities to march around BellSouth’s headquarters chanting nonsense rhymes and trying to get a piece of the action.

The real losers, however, will be minority employees in general because to fair-minded people, this lawsuit looks like a power play by unqualified sluggards who can’t hack it in the competitive workplace. Their actions demean the efforts of the many minority employees who have succeeded through hard work and conscientious effort. Sadly, BellSouth’s labors to provide a diversified workplace will have been for naught in the court of public opinion.

My old company isn’t perfect, but they don’t deserve this cheap shot, either.