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US: Best Buy Sued for Bias

by Jason JohnsonSan Francisco Chronicle
December 10th, 2005

Six current and former employees of Best Buy filed a race- and sex-discrimination lawsuit Thursday against the consumer electronics chain in federal court in San Francisco, accusing it of denying better-paying sales and managerial jobs to African Americans, Latinos and women in favor of white men.

Lawyers and plaintiffs accused the chain of having a "culture of racial and gender stereotypes."

A company spokeswoman denied the charges, saying the retailer maintains a diverse workforce because it has a diverse customer base.

"Best Buy is committed to a workplace free of discrimination," Susan Busch, director of public relations, said in a telephone interview. "We do not tolerate discriminatory practices."

Best Buy, based in Minneapolis, operates 731 stores nationwide and has 114,000 employees in the United States and Canada.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, seeks class-action status and accuses Best Buy of putting black and Latino employees in lower-paying stockroom, cashier and minor sales positions.

It claims Best Buy has a disproportionately white sales and management force compared with other large retailers, with white men making up more than 80 percent of the chain's managers. Fewer than 10 percent are women, African American or Latino, the suit says.

"We've been investigating this case for over a year," said Bill Lann Lee, one of the plaintiffs' lead attorneys and an assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice during the Clinton administration. "There is a corporate culture of stereotyping."

Among the plaintiffs is Jasmen Holloway of Vallejo, who worked at the Marin City Best Buy from January 2001 until August. Holloway, who is African American, said she had been fired after she complained that a white male co-worker had been promoted over her. The official reason cited for her dismissal was improper use of her employee discount, she said.

"I happened to find out two weeks after I was told I could apply for a position that the job had been given to a white male with one-third less experience," said Holloway, 22. "Which hurt me a lot."

The other plaintiffs are three African American men, two of them employees at the Marin City store and one a former worker there; a Latino woman who works at the Best Buy in Chico; and an African American woman who works in the chain's outlet in Mira Mesa (San Diego County). All say they were paid less, denied promotions and received unequal training opportunities compared with white male employees.

The lawsuit also claims Best Buy has a "segmentation" policy that discriminates against customers by requiring managers and salespeople in a store to focus on one of four customer-profile types. All the types are white, and only one is female, it claims.

According to the suit, they are: "Barry," a man with a six-figure income who buys what he wants regardless of cost; "Ray," a man who likes electronic gadgets but may not always be able to afford them; "Buzz," a young man interested in electronic gaming who makes small purchases; and "Jill," who is "Barry's" wife and is a stay-at-home soccer mom.

Busch said she could not comment on individual employees' cases, but disputed the lawsuit's characterization of the company's customer classifications. She said none of these is identified by race.

"Best Buy is a retailer and employer of choice, so we must be committed to a workforce that reflects our customers," Busch said.

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