Fired Johnson & Johnson Exec Claims 'Culture Of Discrimination'

The health care giant Johnson & Johnson is a regular fixture on best place to work lists, as well as Diversity Inc.'s Top Companies for Diversity. But one former executive has filed an explosive lawsuit, claiming she was denied a promotion because she is African-American, and then fired for speaking out against "a corporate culture of discrimination."

Francine Parham was a vice president of human resources at Johnson & Johnson (its board of directors pictured above), the company behind everything from Band-Aids to Tylenol, Nicorette gum to Neutrogena. According to her lawsuit, Parham -- hired in 2004 and promoted twice --was always bothered by the lack of minorities in the upper ranks of the company. The suit, filed June 21, said:

"During plaintiff's employment with defendant, as part of her HR duties she had numerous conversations with a number of minority employees, who told plaintiff they were seeking other employment because defendant's corporate culture of discrimination had 'dead-ended' their careers."

Many, the suit states, left the company as a result, creating what her colleagues called the "leaky bucket syndrome."

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Parham then details in the lawsuit how she had a taste of this herself, when her supervisor told her in January 2011 that he envisioned a promotion for her in the next 12 months. That promotion never materialized, she claims; instead, her position was eliminated, she was told she wasn't qualified for a higher position, despite stellar performance reviews. She further alleges that white men and women who were less qualified were promoted to positions at her level, while she was shafted into a lower role, before being fired altogether.

She believes this is because she is black, and pointed out the lack of diversity at the top. "Defendant's upper management refused to take seriously its obligation to effectively remediate this corporate culture of race discrimination," the suit states.The lawsuit seeks reinstatement of Parham's job, backpay, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

In an emailed statement, Johnson & Johnson responded: "We have a deeply established commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and deny the allegations in this case."

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Sure enough, the Brunswick, N.J.-based company has a host of internal minority groups and minority recruitment outreach efforts. It is a strategic partner of the Minority Business RoundTable and sponsors scholarships for minority students. In a report earlier this year, Calvert Investments rated Johnson & Johnson's diversity an 85 out of 100. At the same time, all five of the highest-paid executives at Johnson& Johnson are white, four of them white men. Ten of its 12 directors are also white, and no women of color sit on the board.

This also isn't the first time the maker of everything in your medicine cabinet has been such accused. In 2001, two employees, one black and one Hispanic, filed a class action lawsuit accusing Johnson & Johnson of paying lower salaries and denying promotions to people of color, in a systemic pattern of discrimination that came from the very top. Much wrestling followed over whether the thousands of minority employees at the company were similarly enough situated to constitute a class, and it was only in 2011 – a decade after the suit was filed – that the case was finally dismissed.

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