Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sex Discrimination at Wal-Mart

The Supreme Court has voted, men against women, to refuse to allow a discrimination lawsuit by as many as 10 million women who have worked for Wal-Mart to proceed as a class action. If these women want to sue they have to get their own lawyers and sue the stores one by one.

The majority accepted the argument made by the company, that it can't be held accountable for decisions made by its store managers. In some matters Wal-Mart is highly decentralized, and store managers have almost unlimited authority to hire and fire as they see fit. The argument of the plaintiffs was essentially that this policy was an abdication of responsibility by the company, and that they should have had measures in place to track hiring and promotions and discipline managers who favored men.

I find myself torn about this case. On the one hand it is almost silly for Wal-Mart to claim that this matter was out of its hands, since they monitor store managers in many ways and intervene to rearrange the shelves if some manager's toy or clothing sales fall below targets. I also think the only language companies like Wal-Mart understand is big money, so only a billion-dollar verdict would cause them to change their policies.

On the other hand, I work as a local manager in a big company, with lots of input into hiring and promotion, and I hate the thought of corporate lawyers tracking my decisions and harassing me about who I choose to work with. The bureaucratization of America is a real problem, spurred as as much as anything by the fear of lawsuits. Because of one legal quagmire, my company has just added so much new paperwork to the business of hiring subcontractors that some small firms are refusing to work for us rather than sign all the forms. This sort of thing is getting worse all the time, and it requires even small companies to have full-time contract administrators who do nothing but assemble the paperwork required by everybody's lawyers. The whole business of class-action lawsuits is also shady, allowing the lawyers to reap millions while each of the plaintiffs gets only a few hundred dollars for her trouble.

So while I think that Wal-Mart has acted badly, I am not sure that the remedy of a class action lawsuit might not have been worse than the disease. The only long-term solution is for people to shed their sexist and racist assumptions, and before you call me a utopian just stop and ponder how far we have already moved in that direction over the past 50 years.

No comments: