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"White guy" case against AT&T can move forward, judge says

MoneyWatch: Companies invest in diversity
MoneyWatch: How companies are investing in diversity 04:38

A former AT&T employee is suing the telecommunications giant, alleging the company's diversity hiring practices discriminated against him because he is a middle-aged White man.

Joseph DiBenedetto, a Georgia resident who worked for two decades as an assistant vice president inside the company's tax research department, filed an age, gender and race discrimination lawsuit against AT&T after being laid off in the fall of 2020. His complaint claimed that his job was eliminated so the company could fill upper management roles with people of color. 

AT&T contested the allegation in January. The company told a Georgia judge that the reason DiBenedetto and other White employees were let go was because the company's finance division, which houses the tax department, was struggling financially. AT&T called for DiBenedetto's case to be dismissed, but Judge Mark Cohen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled this week that the case can move forward.

DiBenedetto's lawyers said in the lawsuit that their client, "a 58-year-old White guy," spent most of his career at AT&T as a high-performing employee until the company decided it wanted more people of color in management. 

"Suddenly, DiBenedetto found himself lacking the assumed longevity, skin color and gender AT&T preferred," the lawsuit states. 

AT&T said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch that the company plans to fight DiBenedetto's allegations. 

"Reducing our workforce is a difficult decision that we don't take lightly, and each instance is reviewed thoroughly to ensure there is no discrimination of any kind, including based on age, race or gender," a company spokesperson said. 

Organizations must avoid quotas

Many U.S. companies sought to increase their workplace diversity following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. About 7% of AT&T's senior leaders and 14% of its managers are Black, respectively, according to the company's 2020 diversity report

Stewart Schwab, a Cornell University professor who specializes in employment and labor law, said most companies' diversity hiring policies comply with federal affirmative-action laws.

"If you follow a valid affirmative action plan that's focused on goals and not quotas, and you're dealing with hiring and not firing and it has some sense of a time element, if that's done, then it's lawful," he said. 

Still, the AT&T suit is a reminder that companies must take care when enacting diversity policies, Schwab said. The policy must ensure that no employee is discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, age and other traits, he said. 

DiBenedetto, who started at AT&T's tax department in 2000, was assigned a new supervisor, Gary Johnson, in 2017, according to the lawsuit. After Johnson told DiBenedetto in July of 2020 that he planned to retire, DiBenedetto expressed interest in applying for his boss' job, the complaint states. 

"Johnson told DiBenedetto he was qualified for the role and should pursue it but that he did not believe DiBenedetto would obtain the position because he was an old, White male with not enough 'runway' left in his career," according to the lawsuit. 

Author Deanna Singh on how to create an inclusive workplace 04:39

In that same conversation, Johnson also allegedly told DiBenedetto that his age could hinder him in adapting to the supervisor position. 

"In these roles, you know, you've got to be able to adapt and move," Johnson said, according to the suit "And I'm not saying you can't, but a 58-year-old White guy, I don't know if that's going to happen."

Under U.S. employment law, organizations are not allowed to fire someone in order to enhance their workplace diversity, Schwab said. "It does sound like some uncareful things were said to him," he added. "And this person was fired, so that's a big deal."

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