Atlanta company ‘tried to shame me’ for reporting VP’s use of racial slur on Zoom, Chicago worker says

In a federal EEOC complaint, a South Side woman alleges her employer, Zep, condones discrimination and is retaliating against her for speaking up.

SHARE Atlanta company ‘tried to shame me’ for reporting VP’s use of racial slur on Zoom, Chicago worker says
Adrienne_Harmon_Beckwith.JPEG

Adrienne Harmon-Beckwith

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A South Side resident has accused her Atlanta-based employer of discrimination, charging that a company vice president repeatedly used a racial slur during a videoed training session.

Adrienne Harmon-Beckwith said she was the only Black person among about a dozen employees of Zep on the Zoom call last November. She said that during the call, a vice president leading the session repeatedly referred to Blacks using a racial slur.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Harmon-Beckwith said Zep’s human resources managers treated her dismissively when she reported the incident. A company executive eventually offered her severance to leave because she “can’t get over it,” according to the complaint.

“They didn’t take it seriously. They tried to shame me for speaking up,” said Harmon-Beckwith, who has worked for the company about three years. She said she believes she is the only Black person among about 40 sales agents the company employs, with most of them based in Illinois. Several other Black sales agents were laid off last year, she said.

Zep manufactures and distributes cleaning products, mostly for commercial and industrial uses. A company executive did not return a message seeking comment.

Harmon-Beckwith and her attorney, Tamara Holder, discussed the incident in an interview Wednesday and provided copies of the complaint with names redacted. They said company executives initially defended the vice president, saying the 20-year veteran didn’t think he was uttering a slur and that no one else complained about the incident. According to the complaint, the company eventually told Harmon-Beckwith that the vice president received a “serious disciplinary notice.”

Holder said Zep’s response amounted to condoning racist language, despite the company’s public embrace of inclusive business and employment practices.

The vice president prefaced his use of the slur with a phrase to the effect of, “This may offend some people, but …,” Harmon-Beckwith said. “He must have said it at least another four, five times. I was floored. It was a professional setting. Who does that?” she said.

Even before the incident, she said the company discriminated against her by assigning her so-called “dead accounts” that never order or do so infrequently, limiting her commission income. Harmon-Beckwith said that when she made some accounts profitable, they were taken from her and replaced with more dead accounts.

Harmon-Beckwith said she never asked for specific punishment for the vice president, but wanted the company to use the incident as a “teaching moment” to show it doesn’t tolerate racist remarks. Zep closed locations in Glendale Heights and Lombard and its Chicago-area staff has been working remotely due to the pandemic, she said.

Filing an EEOC complaint is a required first step before a plaintiff can allege discrimination in court. The EEOC typically asks for at least 180 days to complete an investigation.

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