In an unusual, pre-emptive attempt to deflect bad publicity, Giant Food Inc. announced yesterday that it expects to be sued by several black employees alleging racial discrimination and that it has uncovered evidence of isolated but "repugnant" racist behavior at two of its facilities.
Landover-based Giant, Maryland's biggest supermarket chain, said it has taken broad steps to prevent a recurrence.
"Based upon its investigation to date, Giant has disciplined several individuals," Giant President Pete Manos said at a Washington news conference. "While Giant believes that no law was violated, it nonetheless is distressed and embarrassed that there [were] isolated incidents of one or more individuals engaged in conduct that is repugnant and totally unacceptable to Giant."
The conference included the extraordinary scene of Giant executives detailing allegations against themselves, in a lawsuit that hadn't been filed yet -- and then declining to comment on the allegations.
But a suit by five current employees and two former ones is "imminent," Giant said, and will allege that these incidents took place at Giant's Jessup recycling warehouse or Landover distribution warehouse:
* A noose-shaped rope was "directed at African-American persons" on two occasions.
* Two locker rooms in Jessup were divided along racial lines.
* Pictures of primates with names of black workers written on them were posted on bulletin boards.
* Racial jokes were told.
* Blacks were denied equal access to privileges such as personal phone calls and transportation from the employee parking lot.
Giant officials went so far as to furnish reporters with the name and phone number of the would-be plaintiffs' lawyer: Jo Ann Myles of Greenbelt. Myles did not return several phone calls to her office.
David Rutstein, Giant's general counsel, denied that the Jessup locker rooms were segregated. But he declined to answer questions or comment on the other allegations.
It was clear, however, that Giant had found something wrong.
One worker was fired and two others were reprimanded, one of them also demoted and reassigned. Among those disciplined were supervisors who "permitted certain acts to occur" that violated Giant policy, Rutstein said.
If it is filed, the Giant case would fit into a growing category of allegations of "racially hostile environments" in workplaces, said Jamin Raskin, professor and associate dean at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington.
Typically, racial and sexual discrimination suits have focused on pay and promotion issues.
The spate of suits demonstrates that racism in the workplace is far from dead, Raskin said. "A week doesn't go by where an important race or sexual discrimination suit isn't filed," he said. "We're paying a price for the culture's unwillingness to confront the reality of racism."
In response to questions, Giant said it has one black director and no black officers. About a fourth of the 87 managers in the Landover and Jessup warehouse facilities are black, said spokesman Barry Scher. He declined to disclose how many Giant store managers are African-American, saying, "It's only a distribution issue."
Besides disciplining employees, Giant said, its response to the warehouse incidents included holding diversity seminars with warehouse employees, meeting with supervisors to re-emphasize the need to quickly investigate alleged racial incidents, and other measures.