Halliburton Subsidiary Is Accused of Bias


Published: November 29, 2003

One of the men, a 21-year veteran of the Marines, contended in an arbitration filing that he was paid less than his colleagues, endured racist epithets, was passed over for promotion in favor of less-qualified people who were white and ultimately lost his job at Kellogg Brown & Root, the engineering and construction subsidiary of Halliburton, which is a major global supplier of oil field services.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about a company's employment practices based on the accusations of a handful of employees, specialists in employment law say, and nearly every large company has faced its share of discrimination claims. But such accusations made by veterans are potentially very sensitive for Kellogg Brown & Root, which has strong ties to the military.

"There is this ex-military angle, it's true," said Michael Harper, who teaches employment law at Boston University, but he added that it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions about the company based on the claims.

"It's not that I believe that these people don't feel that they were discriminated against," but there is no objective method to weigh the claims, Mr. Harper said. "It's just impossible to make an assessment."

Wendy Hall, a spokeswoman for Halliburton, declined to comment on the claims, citing company policy against the discussion of pending legal matters.

In an e-mail message sent in response to a request for information on the number of white and minority employees at the company, Ms. Hall wrote: "Halliburton embraces diversity and believes it is vital for our continued success. It helps provide a work environment where everyone is valued and differences are viewed as assets, not liabilities."

A former Army staff sergeant said he lost his job when the company fired 84 percent of the blacks in his unit, according to the filing. Two other claimants, a former Army major and a former sergeant, said that, in separate incidents, they were told their jobs were no longer necessary - only to find later that white employees were promptly given their old positions.

A fifth man, a former Air Force sergeant, said that he was repeatedly denied employment at Kellogg Brown & Root when he applied in person for jobs at the company but received an offer when he sent his resume via fax; the offer was rescinded before he could start.

"I was devastated," said Wayne Whiting, the former Army staff sergeant. He and the other four men have begun arbitration proceedings against Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root. "I was a former military guy, now a retired military guy, and I was well known in logistics, and I was just surprised that a company of this magnitude could go on to treat their employees with no kind of respect whatsoever."

The terms of the employment contracts signed by the four former Kellogg Brown & Root employees prohibit them from suing in federal court. This is not unusual, employment lawyers say.

A date has not yet been set for the arbitration, which will be in New York, said Joshua Friedman, the lawyer for the veterans.

The stories of the four veterans who worked at the company have common elements. Each man says that he was singled out for unfair treatment by superiors. Two say that they complained to the human resources department at the company, and three filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

All four lost their jobs and contend that clearly less-qualified white employees took their old positions - even after the company told them, in some cases, that the positions were to be eliminated.

Mr. Whiting, for example, started in November 1998 at Kellogg Brown & Root in Taszar, Hungary, helping to run a supply system for the Army, according to the arbitration filing. He was told in an e-mail message in October 2000 that his position was being eliminated, the filing said. Then he learned that one of his subordinates, who is white, was taking over his old job.

According to the arbitration claim, the e-mail message with the news of Mr. Whiting's job loss came after one of his supervisors told him, "You're not the right man and color for this job."

Kellogg Brown & Root hired Mr. Jackson, a former Marine, as a property specialist, a job that entails storing and keeping track of military property, in May 1998, the filing said. Mr. Jackson claimed that he was paid less than others in similar jobs and was not informed of other job openings he could apply for.

A new supervisor told Mr. Jackson in July 2001 that his position was being eliminated, but that he could transfer to another job that paid about $350 less a month, the filing said. Mr. Jackson took the job, but he sent an e-mail message to Halliburton's chief executive to find out what had happened, and later approached Kara Hall, a black human resources executive at the company.

According to the filing, Mr. Hall later told Mr. Jackson in an e-mail message: "You are not the only one over here who has or is being screwed. Go for what you feel is right for you."

Mr. Hall, reached overseas by telephone, declined to comment on the claims.

Mr. Jackson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the spring of 2002. His lost his job in January 2003.

"All of my clients in this case were victims of discrimination," Mr. Friedman, the lawyer, said. "It shocks the conscience."

Lawyers who have represented other blacks who have filed claims against Halliburton or its subsidiaries said that because of the way the hiring is done for projects by the company and its competitors, discrimination would be difficult to prove.

On construction projects, for example, managers hire workers for specific projects and often choose people they already know and like, lawyers said. Those people are often of the same race as the managers, they said.

Charles T. Jeremiah, a Houston lawyer who is representing two black Halliburton employees in unrelated arbitration cases against the company, said that his clients were singled out for undesirable jobs at sites and endured racist jokes and slurs. Those arbitration cases are set to begin in January.

Whether arbitration favors one side or the other is a subject of some dispute. Some lawyers for plaintiffs say that because arbitrators want repeat business, they are reluctant to alienate big companies; defense lawyers counter that both sides must agree on an arbitrator.

But discrimination claims can be difficult to prove, said Mr. Harper, the law professor.

The law, he said, "doesn't require employees to be treated fairly, it doesn't proscribe old-boy networks, it doesn't proscribe treating people better because they're friends.''

"It only proscribes discrimination on the basis of race or sex," Mr. Harper said, and the case will turn on the evidence of the claimants. "They've got to prove discriminatory motivation, which means not animus but taking race into account."