Dismantling Discrimination on Madison Avenue

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How do you prove discrimination? For example, I used to work in a division of Merrill Lynch with 156 people, of which only six were African-Americans.  The other five wanted to bring suit against Merrill for a number of discriminatory things; lack of management opportunity, special training programs, etc.  None of these five individuals ever met their monthly numbers however.  I met and exceeded mine on a regular basis, and was offered the opportunities they say they were denied because of race.

Let me say a few things about that, and it gets back to your previous question.  Discrimination in corporate America today is much more subtle than in years past. A big part of discrimination today deals with favoritism toward people that are like the managers.  Social scientists call that ‘group favoritism.’

What you have on Madison Avenue is something more akin to animus toward African-Americans – more than I have seen in some time.  On Madison Avenue we have both group favoritism and an aversion to African-Americans.  But within the group dynamic, you can make or break someone a number of ways.  As a broker at Merrill Lynch for instance, your manager can decide what territories you have [indeed Merrill Lynch lost a discrimination suit regarding unfair sales territories in early 2002], which can have an impact on the numbers you are evaluated on.  You can also decide which accounts are given to whom, or what support staff they are given.  So the fact that people on paper are under-performing, maybe due to being given fewer opportunities, or resources. That’s why we advocate companies have a lot of checks and balances to be sure this subversive type of discrimination is not occurring based on race or group favoritism.

How wide spread do you think it is in corporate America today?

Mehri: I think it is a problem in corporate America, but is much more prevalent on Madison Avenue than in any other industry.  The reason I think it’s a problem in general is because of the subtle way discrimination occurs and many companies do not have the checks and balances in place to keep it from happening.    There is a direct overlap between wealth and the glass ceiling.  I can walk into a company and speak to say, 30 people, and ask where do the stock options start?  And I’m told pay grade 16.  Then I ask, where is the glass ceiling at, and the answer is pay grade 16.  So in the lower to mid-grade levels many companies are doing well.  There is decent representation.  In the higher levels, there is a bigger problem.

You mentioned that there tends to be a more creative bent on Madison Avenue, which seems analogous to the liberal sensibilities. Why do you think there is such a large degree of discrimination there versus the more straight-laced areas of corporate America.  It would seem on the surface that the more liberal mindset is set against such an attitude.

They feel like they are above the law.  I think they are getting legal council that tells them that. They don’t feel they are not accountable to the law. It’s as if Title 7 passed in 1964, came and went, like it never happened.

So where are you in your investigation?  Have you filed suit officially?

We are investigating. We’re receiving calls from employees.  We’re building a case person-by-person, brick by brick.  We have charges pending with the EEOC, which is a necessary pre-requisite to going to court.  But our hope is that there will be some enlightened leadership to take this in a positive way, and create some lasting change.

What would the desired outcome look like?  You can’t just assign a percentage number to it, can you?

Well, in keeping with the brokerage theme, a good model would be what we did at Morgan Stanley.  We had a transformative effect on the company, but it has a great deal of creditability because it has outside monitoring of the company with reports and measuring.  It’s a good model.

What has been the reaction from companies that you are investigating?

Mixed.  We have people that recognize there is a problem, and there are people who are in a state of denial.

How can a person detect when he or she is being discriminated against.  At what point does he or she reach out to you?

That’s why it’s good to talk to us confidentially.  We can help you sort that out.  Not everyone has a viable claim.  Not everyone should file a claim.  I think it’s important that there is context.  If one person of color is held back, that is one thing.  If it happens again and again across the board and becomes a pattern, then you have a different situation.

So the person has to take a step back, and get the lay of the land to see if anyone else in their same position is getting the same reactions?

Correct.

What specific changes are you looking to have occur?

I want a new day on Madison Avenue, when there is an aggressive push to obtain and work with African-American talent.  It has to be independent with benchmarks and best practices so to speak.  Right now, I cannot in good conscious say to a young African-American [soon to be graduate] that Madison Avenue is a good place to mark your career or a place where your talent will be valued.  I cannot say that. No creative directors that are African-American?  Why would you send someone into that industry? Something has to change.

What’s a good example of a responsible company or industry in this respect?

I think Coca-Cola is a great model.  They are perhaps the best place for diversity in the country.  And it’s not just based on numbers, but based on the systems they have in place.  For instance, they have diverse candidate slates for open positions.  So there are competitive processes in place. They check the numbers on a real time basis, so there are checks and balances.  But that took a historic battle, litigation, and an outside task force chaired by Secretary of Labor to kind of lift them up to be best in class in this area.

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