On May 4, Susann Bashir, a 41-year-old Kansas City, MO, woman who converted from Christianity to Islam in 2005, was awarded $5 million in punitive damages by a jury who found that AT&T unit Southwestern Bell had created a "hostile work environment" after her conversion.
Bashir joined the company in 1999. By all accounts, those first half-dozen years were without incident. In fact, court documents indicate her work had been commended in the company newsletter mere months before converting. After adopting Islam, however, that changed drastically, according to her attorney Amy Coopman, who explained to various news outlets that Bashir was called names, repeatedly told to remove her hijab (a religious head scarf), and suffered years of harassment until she was fired in 2010.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter told Reuters, "AT&T is a nationally recognized leader in workforce diversity and inclusion. We disagree with the verdict and plan to appeal."
Coopman conceded, "The company has an excellent written policy. [Had] they followed [it], none of this would have happened."
Unbeknownst to her, Coopman offered organizations some very sound communications advice - actions speak louder than words.
In terms of employee relations, it's a nightmare when company policy isn't followed by everyone. It hardly makes anyone working for that organization feel secure. As for a company's reputation, any action that results in a verdict where $5 million is awarded to a wronged former employee is a stain. And as our country grows more diverse, a mere accusation of such discrimination is unacceptable.
A less-apparent element this case brings to light is the challenge multinational entities have in ensuring all employees - from the front door of an office or store in Small Town, USA, to the C-suite at corporate headquarters - represent the company's values.
Say you go to your local shop and the cashier is rude. First time, it's an aberration. If it happens a few times, though, you'll not only think ill of the individual, but of the company that employs them.
Corporations want to do good by their employees and shareholders, but all staffers must buy into it or that sentiment rings hollow. Every person who works for a company is a brand ambassador whose actions reflect upon the entire organization. It shouldn't take a lawyer to drill that message home. The in-house communications team is in the best position to do that job.
Gideon Fidelzeid is the managing editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.