Fired HR rep challenges “equity” initiative
A lawsuit claims the company refused religious accommodation and retaliated
When Courtney Rogers challenged a race-based diversity initiative by corporate higher-ups, the San Diego human resources employee’s thoughts rang with what one supervisor had previously said to employees: “This is the direction the world is going; jump on the train or get run over.” Corporate executives at the food services company Compass Group refused her request for a religious accommodation allowing her not to work on the program, Rogers says. Then, they showed her the door.
In a July 24 complaint filed in California federal court, Rogers contends a supervisor at Compass told her she would not be treated unfavorably for sharing her concerns about an “Operation Equity” program initiated around March 2022. “Rest assured there will be no retaliation,” Michael Gruber, senior vice president of talent acquisition, told her. Rogers, 28, had been employed less than a year at the company of 400,000 employees, but has worked in human resources for nearly a decade. “Even though you might be worried about that, Courtney, I am 100 percent confident that based on what you’ve accomplished to date that that will absolutely not be a problem,” Gruber added, according to the lawsuit.
The Compass initiative provided selected employees with special training and mentorship. However, the program was only offered to women and people of color. White males were excluded.
In a mid-October 2022 phone conversation, Rogers told Gruber her concern that the program would violate Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, Compass’ anti-discrimination policies, and her own ethical beliefs—after being assured there would be no blowback. Rogers was particularly concerned about statements made by other corporate executives such as, “We are not here to appease the old white man,” and, “There will be a homogenous group of people against this program,” which Rogers concluded were directed at white men.
As a Christian, Rogers said, her Biblical beliefs guided her approach and the Lord gave her courage to not take the easy easy out. “The Bible tells you to love your neighbor as yourself,” she said. “It says if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. So I wasn’t going to go forward and show favoritism based on people’s appearance.”
She asked that her employer accommodate her beliefs by not requiring her to work on the program, invoking a process anticipated by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Gruber seemed to agree, giving Rogers his assurance that she would not have to participate.
Rogers said she ended that call unburdened, and while she and Gruber had agreed to disagree, she did not think there would be a problem for her going forward. “I was feeling pretty confident that I could move forward and not give up my moral or ethical beliefs,” she said. She continued to work on the program while she awaited her expected accommodation.
Yet in an Oct. 28 phone call with Rogers she described as tense, Gruber refused to agree to a religious accommodation, even though Rogers had already secured a swap of duties with a willing co-worker. He told her to take the weekend and decide what to do. “I will not quit my job. I like my job, I want to keep working, but I cannot work on this program,” she said. “I would rather lose my job than lose my morals.”
That was on a Friday. On the following Wednesday, Rogers received another phone call from Gruber. This time the message was clear if not unexpected: She was terminated, effective the next day, Nov. 3. When asked, Gruber told her the reason was for “failure to perform job duties”—even though Rogers had never received a negative performance review. A letter came the next day putting her discharge in writing.
While discouraged, Rogers felt she had done the right thing. “I have the most supportive husband in the world,” she said. “And he definitely encouraged me to stick to what’s right. And we’ve been figuring it out past that.”
In the complaint, Rogers’ attorneys make two claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a 1964 federal law which bars discrimination based on a host of factors, including sex and religion. They claim company executives failed to accommodate their client’s religious belief that people should not be discriminated against because of their race or sex. They also allege Compass improperly retaliated against Rogers for reporting what she believed were violations of federal law and company policy.
The company has not yet responded to the lawsuit. Rogers’ attorney, Robert Weisenburger, serving as special counsel to the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, says Compass faces a significant challenge given a late June ruling by the Supreme Court. In Groff v. DeJoy, the court upped the burden on employers seeking to deny employees’ religious requests for religious accommodation. Striking down the U.S. Postal Service’s refusal to accommodate an employee seeking a day off on the Sabbath, the court said employers must demonstrate an accommodation would cause their business “substantial expense” in order to deny it.
According to Weisenburger, Compass cannot meet this standard, much less justify Rogers’ firing for simply seeking an accommodation. Unlike Groff’s situation, co-workers were willing to step in and handle whatever time Rogers would have devoted to the program. And even more so than in Groff, the accommodation would have caused the employer no expense.
Unlike some challenges, Roger’s complaint does not directly attack the constitutionality of the workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion program, yet her retaliation claim requires the court to consider the legality of the program. “She has to have an objectively reasonable belief that it is illegal, [even though] it doesn’t actually have to be,” said Weisenburger. “I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that it would be illegal because, you know, you are selecting somebody for a promotion program, and excluding certain people based on their race or sex.” He added that since this was only a limited pilot program, shutting it down now would prevent it from affecting the entire company.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Rogers said, adding that she believes God is working through her in a way that will help others who aren’t able to take the same risks. “I believe the Lord has given me the strength and the competence to be able to stand up against this.”