Ex-SHRM Worker Alleges Organization Let Bias Fester Behind ‘Principled Public Facade’

A self-described “brown-skinned Egyptian Arab woman” who worked for the Society for Human Resources Management filed a lawsuit against the organization June 30 alleging discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Mohamed v. Society for Human Resource Management, No. 1:22-cv-01625 (D. Colo. June 30, 2022)).

According to the suit, the plaintiff’s supervisor “systematically favored” her White charges over her non-White charges. After the plaintiff — who had worked at SHRM since 2016 — complained to her supervisor’s superior, she said, her supervisor retaliated by excluding her from meetings and professional opportunities, unfairly criticizing her work and “setting her up to be fired within weeks.”

According to the complaint, after being frustrated with the responses of several managers, the plaintiff communicated directly with SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor, pursuant to SHRM’s open-door policy. “Taylor responded by admitting that SHRM as a whole was struggling with ‘people manager’ and diversity issues,” the complaint alleged. Taylor reportedly connected the plaintiff with SHRM’s chief human resources officer, but the issue was still not resolved, the plaintiff said, and she was ultimately fired a little over one month later for allegedly missing deadlines.

The complaint seemed to emphasize the irony of the lawsuit given that SHRM describes itself as “the voice of all things work.”

“SHRM holds itself out as a leading expert in human resources best practices and touts its educational programming, human resources accreditation programs, and lobbying muscle as a powerful force for good in fostering ethical leadership, fairness, and justice in the workplace. In fact, SHRM and its leadership have frequently — and publicly — declared the organization’s dedication to eliminating workplace race/color discrimination and dismantling racism at work,” the complaint read. “But behind its principled public facade, SHRM has knowingly allowed race/color discrimination and unlawful retaliation to fester within its own workplace.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of another suit that SHRM settled just days ago, in which it agreed to pay $221,500 and make accessibility improvements to its professional development offerings in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That suit concerned users of the organization’s products and resources, rather than employees. SHRM disputed the claims, but said it agreed to settle “to avoid the risk, uncertainty, inconvenience, and expense of further litigation.”

The Mohamed complaint draws a complicated picture of events, in which the plaintiff said she approached a variety of managers and reiterated the same set of complaints. She alleged she received regular assurances that they would be dealt with, followed by an abrupt change in tone or a lack of resolution and continued discrimination.

Employment law attorneys generally recommend that employers train managers to recognize actionable allegations and elevate them to HR. But a 2019 study by pelotonRPM found that managers and leaders are often ill-equipped to deal with harassment, discrimination and other workplace issues. When employees complain of such issues, managers need to alert HR, and HR should be empowered to conduct a good-faith investigation, attorneys told an audience at SHRM’s 2018 annual conference.

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