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Does AutoZone Discriminate?

Image and Lawsuit Are at Odds.

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Of all the corporations in Memphis, AutoZone would seem to be one of the least likely to be hit with a major discrimination lawsuit. But that’s what happened last week when the Equal Opportunity Commission took the auto-parts retailer to federal court -- something that happens in less than one percent of the thousands of charges filed each year with the EEOC in Memphis. The allegations in the widely publicized 10-page complaint could still be settled before they go to trial, but the damage to AutoZone’s reputation has already been done. The complaint says AutoZone’s Memphis headquarters has a white-guy job network with a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against blacks and females. That hits AutoZone where it lives. Minorities are the backbone of the $4 billion company’s customer base, and from the CEO to the rank-and-file, AutoZone’s rah-rah corporate culture of red shirts and acronyms like DIY for “do-it-yourselfer” is based on being customer-friendly. The annual report is printed in Spanish as well as English, and minorities are prominently featured (portrayed by actors) in the company’s television commercials. Company founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde III is a staunch patron of the National Civil Rights Museum, and CEO John Adams Jr. was cochairman of the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Gala this year. In a move the company says is unrelated to the EEOC action, Adams, 52, announced last week he plans to resign later this year or early next year to spend more time with his family. Image is at odds with reality, however, when it comes to some black and female AutoZoners, according to the EEOC complaint. The lawsuit alleges that AutoZone has engaged in unlawful employment practices since 1993, with most of the specific complaints coming from 1993-1995: * At least 59 official/manager positions were filled from 1993-1995 but none by blacks. * Qualified blacks and women were passed over in favor of white males for jobs as technicians, service workers, security guards, project manager, construction manager, and technical writer. * A word-of-mouth job network within AutoZone’s largely white male workforce deprived blacks and women of promotions and opportunities. “Defendant employer at all relevant times acted with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of black applicants,” the lawsuit says. AutoZone vice president of communications and training Lesley Hartney said the company follows state and federal laws regarding fairness and equal employment, but otherwise company officials have not commented since the lawsuit was filed last week. Celia Liner, senior trial attorney for the EEOC in the Memphis district, said the office was still fielding calls this week from current or former AutoZoners inquiring about joining the class-action lawsuit which asks for back pay, relocation expenses, job search expenses, and compensation for emotional pain and suffering. “A lot of them want to be heard,” she said. She did not know exactly how many employees were involved in the earlier complaints that have already been investigated. But she said the long-time lag is not unusual. Only 30-60 of the more than 10,000 charges filed in the Memphis district, which includes Little Rock and Nashville, result in lawsuits. After a charge is investigated, the EEOC issues a “determination of reasonable cause” if it has merit. Then there is a “period of conciliation” during which the EEOC tries to resolve the matter -- sort of like a plea bargain in the criminal justice system, with the added advantage of no publicity. If that fails, the charges go to the EEOC office in Washington D.C., headed by chairwoman Ida Castro, which decides whether or not to file a complaint in federal court. “It’s not unusual for larger cases to take quite a while,” Liner said. The names of the people who made the charges will be revealed during the discovery process, Liner said. “Nothing gets changed if somebody doesn’t take a step,” she said. “I think they’re very brave. They lay an awful lot on the line.” The lawsuit was filed at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and news crews were outside the company’s Front Street headquarters an hour later. Privately, some AutoZone officials suspected the EEOC of tipping the media, but Liner “categorically” denied that. (You can write John Branston at branston@memphismagazine.com)

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