Is Wal-Mart's gender discrimination win really a win?

The Supreme Court passed down a major victory for Wal-Mart this week, but as anyone who has come out on top knows, it's how you handle the win that can build up or tear down a reputation.

Monday's Supreme Court decision in the Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes case, which charged the retail giant with displaying bias against its female employees in terms of pay, promotions, and job assignments, gave Wal-Mart a major legal victory.

But as anyone who has come out on top knows, it's how you handle the win that can build up or tear down a reputation.

“First of all, it's clearly a legal win, but sometimes a legal win can pose a PR challenge,” said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of crisis-management firm Dezenhall Resources in Washington, DC, and author of Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management.

“And the real challenge is their employees and their future employees,” Dezenhall added. “If there is the perception of discrimination, it affects who wants to work for the company. So despite the legal win, the challenge remains: Can they demonstrate that they don't discriminate in their employment practices against women?”

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter defended the company's treatment of female workers.

“We are very proud of the fact that we are one of the largest employers of women in the country,” Rossiter said. He added that the company's pay, benefits, and advancement opportunities are part of what draws women to work at Wal-Mart in the first place.

He declined to say what, if any, PR efforts are planned in light of the ruling.

Mike Lake, chair of Burson-Marsteller's US public affairs practice, noted that Wal-Mart is at a crossroads: “[The class-action suit] has run its course: Its [Wal-Mart's] challenge is, ‘Where do we go from here?'”

The class-action suit, involving more than a million women, began over a decade ago. In their suit, female Wal-Mart employees charged their employer with discriminating against women in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although Monday's ruling maintained that the plaintiffs' claims of gender discrimination against Wal-Mart were too diverse to be heard as a class, it did not evaluate the merits of the accusation.

The plaintiffs are free to file other suits claiming bias against Wal-Mart, but not as a class in the specific configuration rejected by the Supreme Court. Possible redress is also available through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It remains to be seen how many claims of gender bias will emerge and just how those cases may play out. But, experts say, they also pose a potential threat to Wal-Mart's standing.

“If women are finding that Wal-Mart's policies on paper are not being upheld in practice, we, the UFCW, will continue to help them find a way to get the fair treatment they deserve,” said Jill Cashen, director of communications department for the United Food & Commercial Workers, a union that represents grocery and retail industry workers and has supported the women suing Wal-Mart in this case. Because Wal-Mart is a nonunion workplace, its employees are not members of the UFCW.

Burson-Marsteller's Lake sees Wal-Mart in a strong position now, principally because it offers low prices and jobs. To boost its image further and fortify the brand's PR, Lake recommended the company continue telling its stories, which, he noted, is a skill it has mastered.

Naturally, the plaintiffs are skeptical. “While Wal-Mart may be a hero among the largest companies in America, it has sealed its reputation as a villain among working people,” said Pamela Avery, who handles PR for the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Avery spoke to PRWeek on behalf of all the law firms representing the plaintiffs. She is a principal at Turner Strategy, a Washington, DC-based public policy PR firm.

“Now [Wal-Mart] can add [to its list of opponents] consumers, retirees, small investors, and the many others who have looked to class actions as the most efficient and accessible way to protect their interests when companies violate the law,” she added. “Furthermore, by dragging out this issue through appeal after appeal, and now through continued litigation and untold numbers of EEOC claims, their brand remains at risk.”

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