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Discrimination at FoMoCo?


Moderator In Memoriam
Elite In Memoriam
July 18, 1999
Reaction score
City, State
Annapolis, MD
Year, Model & Trim Level
'97 Limited
Whistleblower takes on Ford

Insider offers documents he says prove the company discriminates to achieve diversity

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- It's a classic confrontation between an embittered whistleblower and a corporate giant.
As a human resources manager, John H. Kovacs, 36, was the ultimate insider, a man privy to the most sensitive personnel matters at Ford Motor Co.'s financial services arm.
He kept minutes at meetings where key hirings and promotions were meted out, and where executives wrestled with how to diversify their management teams.
Now the Northville man is taking Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser and Ford Motor Credit Co. to court, alleging in a lawsuit that he is the victim of a company-wide practice of reverse discrimination in order to achieve aggressive quotas for hiring and promoting women and minorities.
Kovacs' lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court is the latest and potentially the most explosive in a flurry of recent age and reverse discrimination claims against the No. 2 automaker.
With the stakes high, both sides are bracing for a fight. Kovacs' high-profile case could embolden even more employees to sue Ford. And if he prevails, Ford could be indicted in the court of public opinion as a company that went too far in the name of diversity.
"No company likes to air their dirty laundry in public," said Jeff Caponigro, a crisis management expert and president of Caponigro Public Relations in Detroit. "There is a risk of damage to their reputation both internally and externally."
As Kovacs' accusations and internal documents came to light last week, the automaker went on the offensive -- in the courtroom and in the media.
Ford attorneys, raising questions about Kovacs' credibility, said Kovacs improperly removed personnel records from company premises. Ford doesn't normally discuss personnel decisions, but spokeswoman Anne Gattari conceded that "this case is a little bit different" because of Kovacs' actions.
With Ford turning up the heat, Kovacs and his firebrand attorney, James Fett, face an uphill battle. Reverse discrimination cases are notoriously difficult to prove. And Ford commands a deep and veteran legal team and the resources to battle a lawsuit for years.
"Ford's best hope is to make it so miserable for this guy that he goes away or he settles," said Ken Kovach, a professor of industrial relations at George Mason University.
In a hearing Friday in a separate reverse discrimination lawsuit brought by a group of current and former white male managers, Ford showed a glimpse of the legal muscle it can flex.
With a cadre of Ford lawyers and a public relations official in Judge Edward Thomas' courtroom, Ford won the right to have sensitive and confidential documents contained in legal briefs sequestered before the start of the trial.
During the hearing, Ford attorney Norman Lippitt gave notice that Ford plans to vigorously defend itself against the discrimination claims.
"I cannot wait to try this case," Lippitt said. "I'm proud to be on the right side of this issue."
Lippitt said Ford is committed to providing minorities and women equal opportunity at all levels of the workforce and won't be dissuaded by disgruntled employees or opportunistic attorneys.

No backing down
Kovacs, tall and intense with a military-style crew cut, said he won't back down no matter how rough and tumble the dispute becomes. It's his obligation, he says, to hold Ford accountable for its actions and to make sure discriminatory policies are changed.
Born in southwest Detroit on Bagley Avenue, the street where Henry Ford started Ford Motor Co. nearly a century ago, Kovacs said he developed an abiding love for the company as a young man.
Kovacs accepted a human resources position with Ford in 1992 immediately after completing his master's degree in labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University.
At Ford Credit, Kovacs was earning about $100,000 a year and handling human resources duties for three of the automaker's vice-presidents. But he said he became increasingly disillusioned by what he perceived as blatant discriminatory hiring and promoting practices.
He claims he was passed over for promotions while less qualified women and minorities advanced quickly to upper management.
On March 13, Kovacs, through his attorney, wrote a detailed letter to Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. complaining that the automaker was illegally discriminating against white men. But instead of receiving a response from Bill Ford, he was abruptly suspended with pay in early April.
"This may sound naive, but I believed in Ford Motor and the Ford family," he said in an interview with The Detroit News.
That's why he said he first wrote to Bill Ford rather than file a lawsuit immediately. Now, he says, he feels as though he has a target on his back.
"They are starting to throw mud at me and take shots at me because I have struck a nerve," Kovacs said.
"My name is mud. My career's over in H.R. But this case is not my word against Ford's. It's Ford Motor's word against (the company's) own e-mails, Ford Motor's words against its own meeting minutes and Ford Motor's words against its own internal planning documents."
Kovacs' original suit in federal court, which was withdrawn and refiled in Wayne Circuit court, contained a sheaf of internal Ford documents that include meeting minutes, e-mails, and lists of internal candidates for job promotions. Kovacs said he has collected many more internal documents that were not included in the filing but could eventually be aired in court.
It's these documents that Ford says Kovacs improperly removed from Ford.
"They certainly were justified (in suspending Kovacs) because he definitely stole documents from the company," said Lippitt, a Birmingham lawyer who has been retained by Ford Credit to handle the Kovacs case and other discrimination lawsuits.

Diversity a hot topic
Kovacs said he has done nothing improper. If he had, he said Ford would have fired him rather than suspend him with pay.
Whether it's a case of purloined documents or simply an employee protecting his rights, diversity at Ford has become a hot topic.
Ford has had a policy of promoting a diverse workforce for several years -- both as a business strategy and an effort to provide equal opportunity to all classes of people. But the company steadfastly denies that it makes hiring decisions on the basis of race, age and gender.
Kovacs says that's exactly what the automaker does. According to him, women and minorities are routinely promoted or hired over more qualified white men.
He points to Ford Credit documents, filed with the federal suit, referring to job openings that state "diversity candidate preferred" or "female candidate preferred."
Kovacs says the documents also show that Ford Credit employees chosen as candidates for "stretch" promotions -- where the candidate needs some mentoring and assistance to handle a new post -- were exclusively women and minorities. The lawsuit includes copies of several lists of stretch candidates that list employees' race or gender.
The breaking point, Kovacs said, came in November when a high-ranking human resources official at Ford Credit announced at a meeting that no white men could be hired or promoted at management levels for the rest of the year.
"There was a gasp that went up," Kovacs said. "The white males in the room just looked at each other."
According to minutes from the Nov. 13 meeting included in the suit, Ford Credit undertook the steps to meet diversity goals.
"Actions include delaying the hiring, promotion and referral of white males unless there is a good business case to bring them in by year end," the minutes say. "Actions also include the pulling ahead of any promotion, upgrades, referral etc. of non-white" candidates.
Kovacs said he was then called upon to inform company executives of the new policy.
"It's illegal to do what they were doing and they wanted me to toe the party line," Kovacs said. "There was no way I was going to do that."
Caponigro says Kovacs' lawsuit has the potential to inflame resentments and Ford must do a good job communicating its diversity policies to its workforce.
"They need to explain what they are doing and why it's equitable and fair," Caponigro said. "They want to prevent this from igniting into a fire."
After Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. received Kovacs' letter complaining that the company was illegally discriminating against white men, Kovacs was suspended with pay.


Whats everyone think?