Late last year, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was hit with a racial and discrimination lawsuit filed by Medro Johnson, an African-American employee of Sears Home Improvement Products in Natomas, California. A Sacramento Superior Court jury just awarded him $5.2 million in damages, including $2.2 million to compensate for lost earnings, pain and suffering. The remaining $3 million was for punitive damages, an award granted when the jury found that Sears’ policymakers and managers acted “with malice, oppression or fraud” for failing to investigate or to act on Johnson’s complaints about the slur and other racist acts.
It started in August 2008 at a company barbecue when a co-worker blurted a racial slur and threatened Johnson. Two months later, Johnson complained to supervisors about the threat and the comment. Nothing came of the complaint. Soon after Johnson complained, he was fired. Following to judgment, Sears vowed to appeal. “Companies rely on the fact that most individual plaintiffs rarely have the time, stamina, and financial resources needed for exceptional trial lawyers and continued appeals. Employers may have a greater sense of empowerment over employees,” Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the CUNY.
Now months following the verdict, Sears, just in time for Black History Month, has announced a new initiative to help African American businesses. The 118-year-old company will “Share the Word” of empowerment through entrepreneurship in 2012. The Share the Word platform, says Sears, was created to promote and honor the legacy of African-Americans and will focus on empowering African-Americans by presenting opportunities for entrepreneurs through the Own-a-Sears Store program.
Through the Own-a-Sears Store program Sears will offer training and ongoing support for retail franchise concepts including Sears Appliance Showrooms, Sears Appliance & Hardware Stores and Sears Auto Centers. Each franchisee is given a business model to follow, strategic insight and creative support for marketing and competitive pricing.
Share the Word aims to bring the Own- a Sears Store message of entrepreneurial empowerment to life through social platforms including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Does this new program signify a change at Sears? Perhaps, but the lawsuit was not a first for the company; also in 2011, Sears, Roebuck & Co. agreed to pay a former employee $100,000 to settle charges the company discriminated against her because she is a Black woman over the age of 40. In her discrimination lawsuit, filed in 2007, Mary Johnson (no relations to Medro Johnson) claimed she was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less experienced, white males, despite working for the company for nearly 30 years. “Unfortunately, lawsuits are often necessary for companies to change their illegal behavior. The arrogance of “getting away” with bad behavior escalates over time until a company believes itself to be invincible,” says Browne-Marshall, author of Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present. “Lawsuits bring much needed negative exposure. Depending on the depth of arrogance, companies have had to have additional lawsuits or even protest marches in front of their headquarters in order to end illegal behavior.”
But such inclusive programs as Share the Word can help change a corporation’s tarnished image. And, Sears does have a diversity program for its employees and suppliers.
The nation’s fourth largest broadline retailer, Sears has more than 4,000 full-line and specialty retail stores in the United States and Canada. In 2004, Kmart purchased Sears.